Donate to the Grapevine

Express your thanks by leaving the pirate a tip!

January 6, 2011

Minstrel Banjo Style

Ok, so this is sort of the companion album to Rural Parlor Guitar. It's an album of music from the 19th century, which has laid the foundation for everything that we hear today. Like that one, it is an indescribable mix of African and European elements, mingling together like molasses and cornbread. The difference, perhaps, is that these musicians are resurrecting a dead form, doing their best to reconstruct it, while the Parlor Guitar album had musicians from the living tradition. That may contribute to some of the clean, dry feeling that accompanies all academic projects. Nevertheless, it's a very interesting, beautiful, and strange excursion into our shared musical past. You can really hear the African ngoni ancestors of the banjo coming through in the odd rhythms, deep notes, and furiously unexpected syncopations and cascades of pentatonic scales.

The early origins of the instrument, now known as the banjo, are obscure. That its precursors came from Africa to America, probably by the West Indies, is by now well established. Yet, the multitude of African peoples, languages, and music make it very difficult to associate the banjo with any specific African protoype. From various historical references, however, it can be deduced that the banjar, or bangie, or banjer, or banza, or banjo was played in early 17th century America by Africans in slavery who constructed their instruments from gourds, wood, and tanned skins, using hemp or gut for strings. This prototype was eventually to lead to the evolution of the modern banjo in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Until 1800 the banjo remained essentially a black instrument, although at times there was considerable interaction between whites and blacks in enjoying music and dance—whites usually participating as observers. What brought the instrument to the attention of the nation, however, was a grotesque representation of black culture by white performers in minstrel shows.

The very essence of minstrelsy was black-face caricatures which became increasingly popular toward the end of the 18th century, leading to fully fledged black-face skits and songs on stage throughout white America by the middle of the 19th century. It was during this time that the banjo in all probability was first introduced to Ireland, when the Virginia Minstrels toured in England, Ireland and France in 1843, 1844 and 1845. The leader of the Virginia Minstrels was Joel Walker Sweeney who was born in Buckingham County, Virginia, in 1810. Sweeney, whose antecedents came from Co. Mayo, has become one of the most controversial characters in the history of the banjo, having been credited widely with introducing the fifth string, or chanterelle, to the instrument. In fact, there are early watercolour paintings well before Sweeney's time that show the fifth string on plantation banjos. [Note 2.] So Sweeney most certainly did not invent the 5-string banjo. What he did, however, with his minstrel show was extend the popularity of the banjo to an enormous audience all over the United States and Europe.

from The Banjo: A Short History by Mick Moloney

By Bill Reese


Banjos belong to a family of instruments that are very old. Drums with strings stretched over them can be traced throughout the Far East, the Middle East and Africa almost from the beginning. They can be played like the banjo, bowed or plucked like a harp depending on their development. These instruments were spread, in "modern" times, to Europe through the Arab conquest of Spain, and the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. The banjo, as we can begin to recognize it, was made by African slaves based on instruments that were indigenous to their parts of Africa. These early "banjos" were spread to the colonies of those countries engaged in the slave trade. Scholars have found that many of these instruments have names that are related to the modern word "banjo", such as "banjar", "banjil", "banza", "bangoe", "bangie", "banshaw". Some historians mention the diaries of Richard Jobson as the first record of the instrument.. While exploring the Gambra River in Africa in 1620 he recorded an instrument "...made of a great gourd and a neck, thereunto was fastened strings." The first mention of the name for these instruments in the Western Hemisphere is from Martinique in a document dated 1678. It mentions slave gatherings where an instrument called the "banza" is used. Further mentions are fairly frequent and documented. One such is quoted in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians from a poem by an Englishman in the British West Indies in 1763: "Permit thy slaves to lead the choral dance/To the wild banshaw's melancholy sound/". The best known is probably that of Thomas Jefferson in 1781: "The instrument proper to them (i.e. the slaves) is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."


White men began using blackface as a comic gimmick before the American Revolution. The banjo became a prop for these entertainers, either individually or in groups. By the early part of the 19th century, minstrelsy became a very popular form of entertainment. Joel Walker Sweeney and his Sweeney Minstrels were already popular by the 1830s. By 1843 the Virginia Minstrels began to do an entire show of this blackface entertainment and this is usually the date used to mark the beginning of the minstrel era. The Virginia Minstrels had 2 Banjo players, Dan Emmett and Billy Whitlock, a pupil of Sweeney. In addition Minstrel shows usually had a fiddler, a bones player and a drum/tambourine. We know from early Banjo instruction books by performers like Thomas Briggs, 1855, Philip Rice, 1858 and Frank Converse, 1865, that the minstrel style of playing was the "downstroke", what we call frailing today. This style was learned from the slave performers themselves.

Briggs in Banjo Instructor of 1855 describes playing as follows: "In playing the thumb and first finger only of the right hand are used; the 5th string is touched by the thumb only; this string is always played open, the other strings are touched by the thumb and first finger...The strings are touched by the ball of the thumb and the nail of the 1st finger. The first finger should strike the strings with the back of the nail and then slide to....."

Frank Converse in his Banjo Without a Master describes the style of playing as follows: "Partly close the hand, allowing the first finger to project a little in advance of the others. Hold the fingers firm in this position. Slightly curve the thumb. Strike the strings with the first finger (nail) and pull with the thumb."


Joel Walker Sweeney of The Sweeney Minstrels, born 1810, was often credited with the invention of the short fifth string. Scholars know that this is not the case. A painting entitled The Old Plantation painted between 1777 and 1800 shows a black gourd banjo player with a banjo having the fifth string peg half-way up the neck. If Sweeney did add a fifth string to the banjo it was probably the lowest string, or fourth string by today's reckoning. This would parallel the development of the banjo elsewhere for example in England, where the tendency was to add more of the long strings with seven and ten strings being common. Sweeney was responsible for the spread of the banjo and probably contracted with a drum maker in Baltimore, William Boucher, to start producing banjos for public sales. These banjos are basically drums with necks attached. A number have survived and a couple of them are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Other makers like Jacobs of New York or Morrell who moved his shop to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, helped to supply the growing demand for the instrument in the mid 1840s as the minstrel shows traveled Westward to entertain the gold diggers.


From the 1840s through the 1890s the Minstrel show was not the only place to see banjo players. There are records of urban Banjo contests and tournaments held at hotels, race tracks and bars, especially in New York to the enthusiastic cheering and clapping of sometimes inebriated crowds. Most of the contestants were white in the early contests but there are records of black players taking part in the post-civil war era. During this time (c. 1857) metal strings were invented. It seems they were cheaper than the normal professionally made gut strings and more long lasting then the home-made fiber or gut variety. Urban bar room players, minstrel show performers, slave performers, southern country players, all these performers were to come together during the Civil War (1860-1864). Regiments and Companies formed Minstrel groups and bands to entertain themselves during lulls in battle as did sailors aboard gunboats. The most famous of the Civil War banjoist was perhaps Samuel Sweeney, the younger brother of Joel Sweeney, who was an orderly of Jeb Stuart. Stuart apparently liked banjo music and when he wanted to relax he had Sweeney play for him. Sweeney also entertained Stuart's entire regiment.

After the War soldiers carried the knowledge and appreciation of the instrument home to almost every corner of America. During most of this time the banjo was looked-down upon by the more well-to-do classes of the population. Articles in the papers of the day like that in the Boston Daily Evening Voice of 1866, classified the Banjo of the 1840s and 1850s as an instrument in "the depth of popular degradation", an instrument fit only for "the jig-dancing lower classes of the community..." By 1866, however, the instrument had become a "universal favorite" with over 10,000 instruments in use in Boston alone. The cause of this sudden popularity was the introduction of the banjo as a parlor instrument. This is the somewhat misnamed "classical" period of the banjo. The banjo was played in the "classical" style which meant that it was picked with the fingers in imitation of the popular guitar players of the day. Many outstanding performers and teachers had banjos named after them that incorporated their own changes in the instrument in an attempt to make the banjo more refined and above all louder.

The Dobson Brothers and their sons were among the most active in the early stages. Henry C. Dobson is credited with adding the first frets about 1878. He is also credited with producing the first resonator and the first attempt at the use of a tone ring. Though the designs were his, many of the instruments were actually made by the Buckbee Company located on Webster Ave, in New York City until 1897, and later on 13th St. The company was later sold to Rettberg & Lange who went on to produce the Orpheum Banjo. Lange after leaving Rettburg would produce one of the finest sounding Banjos of the day, The Paramount. George C. Dobson, the son of H. C. Dobson continued to be active in the development of the banjo and continued performing almost until his death in 1931.

A.A. Farland (1859-1954) was another famous performer and was most outspoken about the development of the banjo. His banjos were also produced by Buckbee, and later by Rettberg and Lang. About 1915 he produced Farland's Patent Banjo Head made of "annealed steel, beautifully enameled" in an attempt to give more volume to his playing. He abhorred wire strings saying that "... the z-z-z- given by the final vibrations of wire strings is so offensive that I could not bear to use them." He claimed that "all but the deaf" in an audience of 12,000 could hear his banjo when he used his new "annealed" steel head !

Perhaps the most prolific of the banjo makers and enthusiasts of this period was S.S. Stewart of Philadelphia who made a whole range of instruments to fit every pocket book. He began in 1878 and produced banjos of all sizes and models, some made especially for ladies and for children. In 1898 SS Stewart was awarded the Sears contract and teamed up with the Mandolin maker Baur. Stewart died the same year but his sons teamed up with Baur to continue the Sears contract which ended in 1901. His sons continued making banjos until 1904. It is estimated that the Stewarts produced somewhere in excess of 25,000 banjos from 1878 to 1904. In addition Stewart published his own magazine for the banjo player were he regularly expounded his "philosophy" on banjo playing. It was Stewart who spread the story that Joel Sweeney "invented" the banjo by adding the fifth string.( Mike Holmes, banjo historian and editor of Mugwumps Online Magazine > <>
If you're interested, read another article on Banjo History

VA - Minstrel Banjo Style

Year: 1994
Label: Rounder

Product Description
This is the first recorded anthology to present the sound of the banjo as heard in ante-bellum times. This compilation may very well provide listeners with initial exposure to this tradition-steeped music.

by Steve Leggett
This intriguing album, which features contemporary banjo players Joe Ayers, Clarke Buehling, Bobby Winans, Bob Flesher, Bob Carlin, and Tony Trischka employing drop-thumb frailing techniques on gourd and hoop banjos in replication of the ante bellum minstrel style, somehow seems to fall short of what it might have been. Some of these performances are surprisingly lifeless and perhaps a bit too studied to really catch fire. Then there's the content problem of the minstrel canon itself, which was built on whites in blackface trying to mimic black life and attitudes, and in that context, songs like "Oh, I'se So Wicked," as performed here by Bob Flesher, are layered with subliminal cultural baggage and cruel ironies that are difficult to set aside even all these years later. Still, the minstrel era marks a period in the south when African approaches to rhythm and arrangement collided and eventually merged with European ones, and in what might be the largest irony, black musicians appropriated many of the minstrel tunes, which were in themselves parodies of black culture, into their own milieu, giving these songs another layer of the onion. All of this is more weight than this set is really intended to bear. The tunes are pleasant enough sounding on the surface, the banjo tones are round and gentle, and if one can set aside the ugly racial problems in America that really drove the minstrel phenomenon, then this set is a partial step toward cultural realignment.

Elderly Review:
We all know the good old 5-string banjo was popular way back in the previous century -- but who knows what the old playing styles were like, or the tunes? Here, miraculously, is a chance to find out. It's an anthology of 19th century banjo music, performed by many people who have been re-creating the old styles from printed tunebooks and methods of the era. A must for any banjophile, and if you're new to the banjo, why not start at the beginning?

1. Whoop Jamboree - Ayers - 2:54
2. Essence of Old Virginny - Ayers - 2:00
3. Sylphides Mazurka - Ayers - 1:40
4. Peeping Through de Cellar Door - Ayers - 3:25
5. Medley: Bully for All/St. Patrick's Day - Ayers - 2:35
6. Whoop Jamboree Reprise - Ayers - 1:45
7. Medley: Hobson's Jig/Briggs'Corn Shucking Jig - Buehling - 2:20
8. White Cat, Black Cat - Buehling - 1:34
9. Medley: Green Corn/Oh, What's de Matter, Suse Ann? - Buehling - 2:00
10. Anthony Street Reel - Buehling - 1:08
11. Clare de Kitchen - Buehling - 2:25
12. Medley: Whelpley's Jig/Buckley's Jig - Winans - 4:32
13. Medley: Johnny Boker/Matt Peel's Walk Around - Winans - 3:25
14. Medley: Phil Issac's Jig/Raccoon Jig - Winans - 3:00
15. Medley: Briggs' Jig/Brigg's Reel - Winans - 2:30
16. Medley: Harper's Jig/Kentucky Juba - Flesher - 2:30
17. Jim Along Josie - Flesher - 2:15
18. Medley: Rumsey's Jig/Modoc Reel - Flesher - 2:35
19. Oh, I'se So Wicked - Flesher - 2:40
20. Medley: Alabama Joe/Alabama Walk Around - Flesher - 1:45
21. Medley: Phil Rice's Excelsior Jig/John Diamond Walk Around - Carlin - 2:44
22. Richmond Am a Hard Road to Travel - Carlin - 3:47
23. Medley: Devil's Dream/DarkeyMoney Musk/Mrs. McLeod's Reel - Carlin - 3:02
24. Slave Narrative/Juba - Trischka - 1:49
25. Medley: Operatic Jig/Roast Beef - Trischka - 1:34
26. Yankee Doodle - Trischka - 1:40
27. New York March - Trischka - 0:47
28. Medley: Git up in de Mornin'/Sebastopol Breakdown - Trischka - 1:26

from the mysterious south
mp3 ~192kbps vbr | w/ cover

1 comment:

Record Fiend said...

Sweet. I should have bought this when it first came out on CD in the mid-1990s. Such music is about as truly American as art can possibly get. These performances and the accompanying reading material make me think about one of my favorite books, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class by Eric Lott. If you haven't already read it, I think that you'd find it to be of great interest.

A belated Happy New Year to you, and thanks for another fine selection.