The MBC Minstrel Banjo Track
Experienced banjoists of any skill level are invited to take part in our new full-time “Minstrel Banjo” track, taught by Greg C Adams, and ably assisted by Seth Swingle. The purpose of this track is to provide both newcomers and experienced hands with opportunities to learn more about banjo tunes and techniques from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We’ll be using a variety of teaching methods - learning by ear, reading tab and using sheet music – while working together in both large and small groups. Participants should bring their enthusiasm, one or more 5-string banjos, and any other items that will support their learning process, such as an audio recording device or pens, pencils, and paper. Depending on the number of people and the types of banjos they bring (e.g., a modern fretted banjo or an original/reproduction mid-nineteenth century banjo), the primary tuning we’ll be using is gCGBD or the lower tuned equivalent dGDF#A.
About Minstrel Banjo
“Minstrel banjo” is a term used these days to refer to the banjo style employed during the mid-19th century when the banjo was first popularized, as well as playing techniques found in a series of mid-19th century banjo “tutors” (instructions books). The repertoire in these books reflect both the commercialization of an African American instrument (the banjo), and an African American playing technique: a downstroke technique that shares the same fundamentals with clawhammer banjo. During its heyday, this style of playing was known simply as “banjo style” in the 1850s and “thimble” or “stroke style” later in the 19th century.
The banjo’s commercialization in 19th century popular culture occurred within America’s first major popular form of entertainment—blackface minstrelsy. Blackface performance generally consisted of white men painting their faces black with burnt cork, wearing exaggerated clothing, and using misrepresentations of African American identity as a masking device for entertainment and political and social commentary. Embedded within this deeply racist musical form, which trivialized and parodied the lives of enslaved and oppressed people, the banjo became a centerpiece of blackface performance because of its deep associations as an African American tradition with a West African heritage. By the 1830s and 40s, a relatively small number of white performers began playing the banjo in the context of blackface performance, which notably included people like Joel Walker Sweeney, Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, and Archibald Ferguson. Before long, the banjo had spread far beyond its early North American confines as minstrel performers travelled widely throughout North America, Great Britain and its possessions, in Western Europe, and as far away as Japan and Australia. Although the minstrel era had largely passed from the scene by the time audio recording came along, these banjo instruction books are the primary access points that help us understand some of the ways in which people played the banjo during this earlier time.
About Minstrel Banjo Technique
“Minstrel banjo” technique resembles contemporary clawhammer in its general approach and method of striking the strings. (In other words, it is primarily a downpicking style featuring alternation between a downstroking lead finger and thumb). Even with this similarity, minstrel banjo features quite a number of techniques that differ considerably from those widespread among contemporary clawhammer players. Although some of these techniques may prove challenging to learn, having them in your arsenal not only opens you to a whole new repertoire, but it’s also bound to increase the breadth and depth of your conventional clawhammer playing.