Replying to some comments on a video of mine, I got to thinking. When does "minstrel style" become "classic style"?

Is there a clear border between the two? The obvious answer, in my unknowing mind, would be:

stroke style=minstrel banjo, guitar style=classic banjo

Would that make Briggs song accompaniment from 1855 classic or minstrel banjo? Or both?

I'm ranting a bit here and the thought is so new to myself that I haven't even formed clear questions in my mind.

What's your thoughts on the subject?

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To further muddy the waters, what about banjoists playing classic banjo in minstrel shows?  E. M. Hall composed some great classic banjo solos but was "famous" for being in minstrel shows.  He later (after the minstrel fad died) gave a "history of the banjo" presentation.  He played both stroke and guitar style.

Frank Converse was very famous-- as a banjoist in minstrel shows.  There is evidence that he wrote, collected, edited or otherwise produced the "Briggs" book (and likely Rice).


There are many examples of this.  Harry C. Brown was a "classic banjoist" that preformed in black face. He recorded some of the best "minstrel music" put on record-- finger style on a Vega WL banjo.  He also attended and played at one of the first ABF rallies.

"Classic Banjo" is subject to interpretation. "Minstrel Banjo" is played with burnt cork on the face.  I would argue that no one on the "minstrel banjo" site plays "minstrel banjo" as none cork up (and shame on them if they do).

The American Banjo Fraternity uses a specific definition.  As a special interest group we need a focus.  

The ABF guidelines can be found here...

http://banjofraternity.org/advantages-of-joining.html

This is only for the focus of our group and the Rallies.

One could successfully argue that Zither Banjos are "classic banjo" and I would agree.

Frank Lawes was, in my opinion a "classic banjoist" yet he played finger style on a wire string plectrum banjo.

With Stroke Style v. Guitar Style. Farland sold thimbles and his arrangement for the "22nd Reg, March."  He also used a leather plectrum attached to his first finger so that he could play finger style and switch to plectrum style for tremolo.  I would say that Farland played "classic banjo."

Emile Grimshaw used a wire first, absolutely a "classic banjoist."

If you play and sing the songs in "Briggs'" and you are not wearing burnt cork or playing in a minstrel show, then it is "classic banjo."  Put on cork, a wig, slap shoes, and a Jim Crow or Zip Coon outfit and sing them--  then it is "minstrel banjo."

I think playing classic banjo music in a minstrel context is just that: playing the style or technique associated with one set of circumstances in a different circumstance. Not really an anomaly.  Early bluegrass bands typically included a band member who did comedy.  The original Blue Grass Boys sang love songs, cowboy songs, blues and gospel music, waltzes and hoedowns. No conflict. A variety show was the original idea. Same thing for presenting different banjo techniques in one show. Variety for the audience.  

Many years ago when Bill Evans was primarily a bluegrass banjo player (as a performer)  and first became aware of classic banjo music he was having a conversation with Eli Kaufman and referred to the music Eli played as "parlor banjo".  Eli replied that the players of this music preferred the term "classic banjo" and that the venue in which a music may be played is a superficial feature, not a defining one. "After all", he said, "we don't refer to the music *you* play as "parking lot music", do we?"    

I am unlikely to come up with a bon mot anywhere close to Eli's brilliance on that occasion so I won't try. I'll just say  that just as the location in which a banjo tune is played does not determine the musical category, I don't think that the appearance of a player determines the musical category.  If we hear a recording of any genre on a recording or on the radio we cannot see anything but we can determine the musical category by the musical features. So maybe corking up isn't what determines Classic vs Minstrel.   Or maybe it is.  


Joel Hooks said:

To further muddy the waters, what about banjoists playing classic banjo in minstrel shows?  E. M. Hall composed some great classic banjo solos but was "famous" for being in minstrel shows.  He later (after the minstrel fad died) gave a "history of the banjo" presentation.  He played both stroke and guitar style.

Frank Converse was very famous-- as a banjoist in minstrel shows.  There is evidence that he wrote, collected, edited or otherwise produced the "Briggs" book (and likely Rice).


There are many examples of this.  Harry C. Brown was a "classic banjoist" that preformed in black face. He recorded some of the best "minstrel music" put on record-- finger style on a Vega WL banjo.  He also attended and played at one of the first ABF rallies.

"Classic Banjo" is subject to interpretation. "Minstrel Banjo" is played with burnt cork on the face.  I would argue that no one on the "minstrel banjo" site plays "minstrel banjo" as none cork up (and shame on them if they do).

The American Banjo Fraternity uses a specific definition.  As a special interest group we need a focus.  

The ABF guidelines can be found here...

http://banjofraternity.org/advantages-of-joining.html

This is only for the focus of our group and the Rallies.

One could successfully argue that Zither Banjos are "classic banjo" and I would agree.

Frank Lawes was, in my opinion a "classic banjoist" yet he played finger style on a wire string plectrum banjo.

With Stroke Style v. Guitar Style. Farland sold thimbles and his arrangement for the "22nd Reg, March."  He also used a leather plectrum attached to his first finger so that he could play finger style and switch to plectrum style for tremolo.  I would say that Farland played "classic banjo."

Emile Grimshaw used a wire first, absolutely a "classic banjoist."

If you play and sing the songs in "Briggs'" and you are not wearing burnt cork or playing in a minstrel show, then it is "classic banjo."  Put on cork, a wig, slap shoes, and a Jim Crow or Zip Coon outfit and sing them--  then it is "minstrel banjo."

Interesting Points.

I'm using the term "minstrel banjo" to try to describe the playing style and the music played, lacking a better term, and since it seems to be widespread and recognized (I may well be wrong on that one...). Personally I would prefer another term for that style of playing and music played, since I'm not looking to reproduce any mistrel shows! I just happen to like the sound of that type of banjo and the music associated with it. I sometimes use "early banjo", which, I have a feeling, people outside of the banjo circles can better understand. Or even "historic banjo", which, thinking about it, also classic banjo to a degree is, and therefore maybe inadequate.

Joel wrote: "To further muddy the waters, what about banjoists playing classic banjo in minstrel shows?"

So what then characterize "classic banjo"?

I'm throwing an assumptium out here and suggest, that if we heard two recordings, one of "minstrel banjo" and one of "classic banjo", we would be able to recognize them as such. So what is it that we recognize? I would dare to say, that if we heard an early piece, associated with "minstrel banjo" played guitar style, we would still recognize it as "minstrel style".

Joel: "If you play and sing the songs in "Briggs'" and you are not wearing burnt cork or playing in a minstrel show, then it is "classic banjo." Put on cork, a wig, slap shoes, and a Jim Crow or Zip Coon outfit and sing them-- then it is "minstrel banjo.""

Which to me is a statement that another term for "minstrel banjo" would be welcome. I for one would welcome it. Because to my ears there is a difference in sound between "minstrel banjo" and "classic banjo".

I wouldn't go so far as to tar all of Minstrelsy with such a broad, corked-up, brush as Joel does. It is true that it is one definition of the term...but like so many attempts to categorize things, it has shadings (some of which are indeed shady).

Negro Minstrelsy spans a huge period and comes in many forms. Heck, from around 1920s to the 1960s, you would have found tenor banjos predominant amongst the corked faces. The early 5-string has only very recently been 're-discovered' and that some call it a Minstrel Banjo isn't a big deal to me. It just depends on who your audience is and what spin you want on your agenda.

I'm happy to be called a Minstrel Banjo player. I don't burn corks, but I have pulled my share. I try to teach a little and if by calling myself that, someone is interested enough to ask, I'll be happier for the opportunity. The music doesn't care what it is played on or by what academic term it is called.

And what about the 1870-1885 period of combo stroke/finger/guitar styles as Rob McKillop pursues in his studies?  Is that neither Minstrel nor Classic banjo, but some odd transitional style that needs it's own name and to be kept separate from the other 2 styles?

Frank Converse's viewpoint in some of his writings were from that particular style/period/viewpoint.

Many times musical styles are shoved/crammed into particular borders/boxes...who are the surveyor's that determine the definition of the box?  All musics have satellite spin off styles that are very closely related to their inspirations.

Bluegrass, in my professional opinion of about 40 years, very much suffers from this.  There has not been much decent bluegrass come to the fore in a "mainstream" presentation for DECADES, but because it has a 3 finger five string banjo, it's called bluegrass, even though the music itself is VASTLY different than recognizable bluegrass.  I've even heard Ricky Skaggs and Willy Nelson termed "bluegrass".....neither are (no respectable bluegrass band gets on stage with an 11 piece orchestra with 3 guitars (all plugged in), Ricky...please, enough already).

Of course classic banjo can be hard to "define".

My definition is 5 string 3 finger gut/nylon string banjo of a style consistent with a certain period of time, which includes Minstrel and reconstruction styles, but doesn't necessarily make THOSE styles "classic banjo".

Bela and Trischka can put nylon strings on a Fairbanks banjo and claim they are playing classic banjo, but it...is ....ah...sorry guys, NOT.  At least Bill Evans tries to honor the original style when he plays classic banjo.

Frank Lawes, Bert Bassett, etc...get to officially be classic players since they lived in that period, played that repertoire, and were accepted by....all of our heros....in print, in that time.  That situation for them sort of trumps some of the modern "rules" of defining the style.

By the way, what's wrong with using burnt cork on your face in a minstrel show????  History is truth.  It happened. If it's done in the right way with the right attitude, it's authentic.

Let's not get into saying "the holocaust never happened" or other similar BS that only leads to BAD things because "we" tried to "cleanse" history.

By the way, blacks/negros/African Americans participated in and willingly fueled Vaudeville, an obvious evolutionary branch of minstrelsy, and they "corked up" as well, and in addition, usually accentuating/whitening the area around their lips....so...now...whose the judge?  Retired Vaudeville people from the 20's or modern civil rights activists who speak for them without their permission?  Before anyone tries to hang me for policitcal correctness, I worked for years professionally with a well known legendary black group that started in the 20's and talked AT LENGTH with them about this issue.

In some unfortunate ways, Classic Banjo as a style must be tied to a certain historical period, which then can lead to the argument that bluegrass and to a lesser extent, traditional jazz, suffer from....trying to be creative or "new" in an "old" style.

Maybe it can't be done successfully with period authenticity.

Music is a reflection of society from a certain time and place.  We are NOT from then or them.

If you are not from that time and place or that generation, can you even make valid music in an "old" style of previous generations (unless possibly you grew up around/with or were directly influenced personally by these people in a profound way in person)?  Can you even make instruments like their makers did?   Their lives and environments and societies and therefore their thought processes and inspirations and logic were vastly different than ours, and than ours COULD be given our time, which is not theirs.

That's for any reader to ponder....I will keep my answer to myself.

If you participate in a Civil War re-enactment battle, you must "suit up".  What is any different about performing Minstrel Music and "corking up"?

(that was rhetorical....I don't want to discuss it starting with some answer)

I have two comments and one question, Chris.

1)  "Ricky ...please, enough already"  is contender to knock Eli K's quip about Parking Lot Music off its pedestal (put there by me in my own imagination) as the second greatest banjo-related comment I ever heard.  Well said!

(the greatest is what Uncle Dave Macon is reputed to have said the first time he heard Earl Scruggs play " He plays well but he ain't a bit funny"

2) you have answered your own question about what's wrong with blacking up in a minstrel show.  It is unsuitable for our time. In a historical film or something of that nature, yes of course historical accuracy is a much better choice than a sanitized presentation. As an entertainment for our times it is a reminder of centuries of cruelty which has an appearance of sanctioning that cruelty.  That's what's wrong with it.

3) What is it in Bert Bassett's 5 string banjo playing that seems to be outside the classic banjo norm? I know he also played plectrum banjo but the recordings I've heard sound like finger style to me. Am I mistaken?

Chris Cioffi said:

And what about the 1870-1885 period of combo stroke/finger/guitar styles as Rob McKillop pursues in his studies?  Is that neither Minstrel nor Classic banjo, but some odd transitional style that needs it's own name and to be kept separate from the other 2 styles?

Frank Converse's viewpoint in some of his writings were from that particular style/period/viewpoint.

Many times musical styles are shoved/crammed into particular borders/boxes...who are the surveyor's that determine the definition of the box?  All musics have satellite spin off styles that are very closely related to their inspirations.

Bluegrass, in my professional opinion of about 40 years, very much suffers from this.  There has not been much decent bluegrass come to the fore in a "mainstream" presentation for DECADES, but because it has a 3 finger five string banjo, it's called bluegrass, even though the music itself is VASTLY different than recognizable bluegrass.  I've even heard Ricky Skaggs and Willy Nelson termed "bluegrass".....neither are (no respectable bluegrass band gets on stage with an 11 piece orchestra with 3 guitars (all plugged in), Ricky...please, enough already).

Of course classic banjo can be hard to "define".

My definition is 5 string 3 finger gut/nylon string banjo of a style consistent with a certain period of time, which includes Minstrel and reconstruction styles, but doesn't necessarily make THOSE styles "classic banjo".

Bela and Trischka can put nylon strings on a Fairbanks banjo and claim they are playing classic banjo, but it...is ....ah...sorry guys, NOT.  At least Bill Evans tries to honor the original style when he plays classic banjo.

Frank Lawes, Bert Bassett, etc...get to officially be classic players since they lived in that period, played that repertoire, and were accepted by....all of our heros....in print, in that time.  That situation for them sort of trumps some of the modern "rules" of defining the style.

By the way, what's wrong with using burnt cork on your face in a minstrel show????  History is truth.  It happened. If it's done in the right way with the right attitude, it's authentic.

Let's not get into saying "the holocaust never happened" or other similar BS that only leads to BAD things because "we" tried to "cleanse" history.

By the way, blacks/negros/African Americans participated in and willingly fueled Vaudeville, an obvious evolutionary branch of minstrelsy, and they "corked up" as well, and in addition, usually accentuating/whitening the area around their lips....so...now...whose the judge?  Retired Vaudeville people from the 20's or modern civil rights activists who speak for them without their permission?  Before anyone tries to hang me for policitcal correctness, I worked for years professionally with a well known legendary black group that started in the 20's and talked AT LENGTH with them about this issue.

In some unfortunate ways, Classic Banjo as a style must be tied to a certain historical period, which then can lead to the argument that bluegrass and to a lesser extent, traditional jazz, suffer from....trying to be creative or "new" in an "old" style.

Maybe it can't be done successfully with period authenticity.

Music is a reflection of society from a certain time and place.  We are NOT from then or them.

If you are not from that time and place or that generation, can you even make valid music in an "old" style of previous generations (unless possibly you grew up around/with or were directly influenced personally by these people in a profound way in person)?  Can you even make instruments like their makers did?   Their lives and environments and societies and therefore their thought processes and inspirations and logic were vastly different than ours, and than ours COULD be given our time, which is not theirs.

That's for any reader to ponder....I will keep my answer to myself.

If you participate in a Civil War re-enactment battle, you must "suit up".  What is any different about performing Minstrel Music and "corking up"?

(that was rhetorical....I don't want to discuss it starting with some answer)

I personally am fond of "early banjo".  Back when we were having the "Early Banjo Gatherings" we had these Sunday morning meetings where we would discuss this very subject.  Our little contingent all decided to use "early banjo."

The problem with "early banjo", while correct, is that it separates out the association with minstrelsy, which the early banjo was pretty much exclusively associated with.  In this usage "banjo" means 5-string, wood rimmed instrument.  For this particular conversation I am focusing on the commercialized "banjo" of popular music.

I admit that I am guilty of calling them "tub banjos" which was a late 19th century derogatory term of the then youth used to describe an earlier generation's banjos. But I think it is both funny and fitting.

Perhaps stages of the banjo could be best described by generation.

There is the first generation. This would presume that the banjo in the form that we think of it today started at the time of Joe Sweeney and his contemporaries.  This is a complicated discussion and for sake of simplifying we would have to consider early proto banjos or gourd banjo instruments as pre-"banjo".  Current research has a good idea of when this happened but it is not complete and I would direct people to the book Roots and Branches.

1st gen also includes Tom Briggs, Billy Whitlock, Rice, Eph Horn, Pic Butler (who was not Black despite a few modern claims that he was-- fully explored by Tony Thomas) etc..

2nd gen would include the likes of Frank Converse, James Buckley (student of Converse) and so on.  This would also include the eldest of the Dobson Family.  This generation brings us the clad rim "New York" banjos and a transition to a larger repertoire of music.  They were also the first to write down what they were playing.

One thing in common is that all of these guys wore cork.  It was with this generation that we find them trying to move away from minstrelsy and become just banjoists. One way they did that was to hold banjo contests.  Often phony events, these would draw a crowd just to see people play banjo without the cork. (SSS, Converse, and like referred to the contests as the "pugilistic age of the banjo".)

3rd generation brings us S. S. Stewart and his age group (like George Lansing, Thomas Armstrong, etc.). They really focus on exiting the minstrel show stage (but still partake). 

SSS' generation is followed by a younger generation and ragtime.  That included George Gregory and his new system of fingering.  Also Farland who taught and used the same or similar system of fingering.  It was this generation that includes Ossman and Van Eps.  By this time music was becoming quite involved as the banjo followed suit with user friendly improvements (banjo design follows in perfect tandem with the music being played on it).

That brings us into the "final" generation and into the 1920s when the regular banjo gets pushed aside for plectrum playing and dance music.  This late generation also brings with it the Jim Crow era concept of the "mountain" time capsule banjo-- that is a different discussion. That starts with a whole new series of generations armed with wire strung banjos.

YES, shame on people who might cork up today.  There is no good reason to do this other than to hurt feelings.  In recent times I am starting to even question the motivation of many who reenact certain time periods (and I was a reenactor for many years).  The only reason I could think of that would make this okay would be in a very accurate movie portraying that era.  At this point I think it would be a VERY bad idea to cork up to entertain a bunch of American Civil War reenactors. ACW reenactors are already facing enough challenges, they don't need to be their own enemies and cause more problems for themselves.

Freed slaves and Black Americans who participated in minstrelsy and coon songs did not have much of a choice.  Many wrote about how they despised it and regretted being forced into that role.  It was not a level playing field.  While it is very difficult for me to set aside my presentist views, I still seriously doubt that they were happily complacent in putting on cork. 

I would also say shame on people who wear SS uniforms for fun.  Again, no good reason to do this.

We don't have to relive or celebrate historical nastiness to teach it or remember it. There is enough photo and printed documents that we don't need to imitate it.

We don't live in the 19th century.  All of the music composed or published in that time is now in public domain. We own it and we can play it how we want-- and I want nothing to do with smearing cork on my face and telling racist jokes.

BUT-- the conversation is good and important. It is one we should have often.

I love "early banjo" music and sounds.  I love "classic banjo" music and sounds.  I don't like the ugliness that was associated with it-- music titles and burnt cork.  We should talk about it.  It should be out in the open.  Then we can enjoy playing the music.

THIS POST  seems very interesting , unfortunatly , i cannot understand all very well . For me , Classic banjo is all banjo music looking like Joe Morley ' tunes (for UK ) and looking to the ones played by FVE ( for  US )

So it 's more simple to analyze in the UK , but in the  US States because there are more banjo styles  played in the US

All good thoughts....busy busy here, but for now, hopefully I'll be back on this later, but Jody....

Thanks on the Skagg's comment.  

To my recollection, Bert Basset only played Plectrum banjo, and from the recordings I have....I think like 8 or so of his original 78's, it sounds flatpicked to me, unlike Lawes, who I think fingerpicked plectrum.  Ossman also recorded and gigged as a plectrum player, but obviously he is one of the Svengali's of five string classic style, so not sure how that relates to defining plectrum as part of classic.

My comment was based on trying to define "classic banjo" and whether plectrum was "allowed" to be included in the definition parameters....maybe it is with qualifiers in the definition.

Part of the "BMG" movement? Yes, true classic style, no or at least maybe not?  HOWEVER, Frank and Bert WERE classic players because both Tarrants and many others of the time praised them highly and they played the same repertoire and obviously in this time period, we cannot have that sort of acknowledgement from the founding fathers for anyone now.  Can you be a classic plectrum player in modern times?  Not sure...meaning by definition.  There are several here that have brought this up and play this style.

Getting into defining styles is a messy business.

Getting into what is and is not historically accurate is messy business as we were not there.  The ones that were may have done what they did against their ethics for financial gain, so the surviving remnants/evidence may give the wrong impressions about motivations, many times of which, we will never truly know.

This includes burnt cork on the face while playing banjos.  And black people corked up a lot.  

Tim Stafford said once that "if black people could get past the cowboy hats, they would take most of their music back".

Shame they don't, and great point I think.  Many old African American performers thought the guitar was the devil's instrument and hate/d hip hop and rap.  I think that says a lot, but "what" I again will not comment on too much.

Some of this seems obvious to me, but is hard to, again, put in a pre-made box that is clean and nice and concise.

Creativity and improv are not nice and clean and precise, definable, or "box fitting".

So is a music stale just because folks improv on old style progressions and tunes, or is it "new and refreshing" because the music itself now has progressions and tunes that sound nothing like, in an overall impact sense, the original style?

Joel-The "nastiness" INSPIRED and CREATED the music in first place.

The Bert Bassett recordings I have heard feature characteristic finger style rapid arpeggios which would have a different sound if done with a plectrum (by the few players who could play that fast).  For instance if BB was using a plectrum in the opening measures here, he must have been the greatest flat picker to ever live.   I think it's more likely that on this occasion he was a finger style player in a bit of a hurry:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_ah9xEtvlE

Jody, I guess I just assumed he flatpicked given my impressions of listening to him.  Yes, the things he plays would be very challenging with a flatpick, but they sound so choppy and bright to me that I thought he was just very accomplished with a flatpick since some of it is not as smooth sounding as I would imagine if played fingerstyle.

The few Ossman plectrum recordings I have seem very obviously to be flatpicked to me....I know they are important historical records, but the few times I got a new Ossman title and with anticipation put it on the turntable and realized it was plectrum, I was actually pretty disappointed.  Those recordings anyway show Ossman to not have been as good at plectrum playing at Bert...to me at least.

I'm a bit unsurten if I should ship in and say something about the political arguments that has been posted so far. But I will, cause it would be a shame to keep quiet.

I totally agree with Joel on this one. Shame on anyone who cork up.

I am a white male. Historicly, my kind have been doing alot of opressing. I have absolutely no right to tell a person that is feeling opressed, that they have no reason to. Be it black people, women, poor people or any other kind of people that I (or others in my possition) would be in the position to opress or otherwise treat unjust. That is my view on the subject.

I do agree that it is important to talk about it, that's the only way to keep things clean. It is also important in such discussions, to try to understand the other side. In this case, the people being badly treated and ridiculed in the minstrel shows.

Chris Cioffi wrote: "This includes burnt cork on the face while playing banjos. And black people corked up a lot."

Ok, this is maybe taking it a bit far, but: a lot of black people also worked very hard for free 200 years ago. That doesn't mean they liked it.

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