When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!
Ring the Banjo!2
I fell in love with early banjo music when I came into possession of a fretless gourd banjo in 2010. I had already been playing clawhammer for eight years, but decided to look into the proper historical technique and repertoire for my new instrument. A bones-playing friend introduced me to Dr. Robert Winans’ pioneer recording The Early Minstrel Show3, and thanks to the many YouTube clips of Carl Anderton and Tim Twiss I was off and running.
Since then I’ve been a regular attendee and performer at the Antietam Early Banjo Gathering, and have performed at various living history events closer to home in Massachusetts.
The sound of the minstrel-era five string banjo, with its hide head, fretless neck and low-tuned gut strings, strikes at something deep in our collective memory. It has a more primal sound than that of its modern descendants, and is played in a strikingly different idiom than most people now associate with the banjo.
While no recordings exist of the banjo as it was played at the height of the minstrel style in the 19th century, there are surviving instruments from the period. There are instructional books that describe how they were played and contain popular songs from the time. There also survives published sheet music of many songs from the minstrel stage, and written accounts of performances and instrumentation. Combining all of these resources, we can approximate the sound of the popular music of 150 years ago.
The complicating factor in all of this is the banjo’s legacy of slavery, appropriation, and racism; the instrument’s roots can be traced to lute-like gourd instruments played by slaves who were brought to the new world from West Africa. Originally a slave instrument, the banjo is thought to have been brought to white audiences by Joel Sweeney in the 1830s5. By the time of the American Civil War, the banjo figured prominently in minstrel shows, a wildly popular mainstream form of entertainment featuring white performers in burnt cork blackface. Minstrel shows were by turns humorous, maudlin, and nostalgic, but a common theme throughout was caricaturistic racism towards blacks.
Looking at this music in the 21st century, we often struggle with the troubling past of the music and the instrument. Every performer struggles with questions of omitting or sanitizing some of the outrageously offensive lyrics, and in situations where a passing audience lacks the context for them they will indeed err on the side of caution – but it is important for performers and audience alike to face the difficult history of this music head-on and frankly.
- Twain, Mark. “Enthusiastic Eloquence.” San Francisco Chronicle 23 Jun. 1865. Print.
- Foster, Stephen. Ring, ring de banjo!. New York: Firth, Pond and Co., 1851. Print.
- Veersbilck, David Van, Peter DiSante, Brian Mark, Roger Smith, Vincent Tufo, Percy Danforth, Matthew Heumann, and Robert B. Winans. The Early Minstrel Show. New World Records, 1998. CD.
- Gura, Philip F., and James F. Bollman. America’s instrument: the banjo in the nineteenth-century. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Print.
- “Joel Sweeney.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Jan. 2014. Web. 3 July 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Sweeney>.