Wednesday, November 19, 2008
OK, friends, it’s time for a new series her at Robert Frost’s Banjo, & in this one, we’re getting down to this blog’s nitty gritty: the banjo itself. Actually, let me back up a step…. One of the ironies of the blog’s title is that I’m actually not much of a banjo player; I can acquit myself quite respectably on the guitar & all forms of uke, but with the 5-string (the banjo you think of when you hear the word “banjo”— the Platonic one) I’m pretty much a duffer. It’s true I’ve played some relatively serious stuff on the plectrum banjo, but in the Chicago tuning I use, this basically is a humungous, high-action baritone uke—a bit of a work-out perhaps, but not too difficult to navigate with a strong guitar & uke background.
With the more garden-variety banjo, it’s a different story. Eberle & I went halves 10 years ago on a beautiful old Windsor open-back banjo (20’s vintage). For those who don’t know, Windsor was a British banjo maker in the first half of the 20th century—their shop was destroyed during World War II—& we both immediately began learning the only banjo style that’s really interested either of us: the clawhammer technique. But other things intervened: Eberle, who’d gotten pretty decent on the banjo in a short time (see pic below), gave it up for other things, & I only returned to it sporadically. Over the past year or so, I’ve been back at it again whenever I have the chance, & always enjoy it.
So in the interest of full disclosure, that’s my relationship to the 5-string banjo & clawhammer technique—I’m far from an expert, tho it is an instrument that really appeals to me.
Now if you’re not a banjo gal or guy, the term “clawhammer” may strike you as odd. It may strike you as even more odd that this same playing style & its associated techniques are referred to by a number of names—the most common one (along with clawhammer) is “frailing,” but this type of playing is also called “knocking,” “drop-thumb,” “thumb cocking,” “rapping,” “whamming,” & “framming” (& several other things beside). I’ll write more about the nuts & bolts of this technique in later installments; for now, just picture the player’s hand held more or less like a loose fist with the thumb sticking out, & the player striking the strings with the fingernail of one finger (either the index or middle) in alternation with the thumb. If you want to see what this should look like, check out the videos at Cathy Moore’s blog, Banjo Meets World; she’s an excellent player with rock-solid technique.
Most folks agree that the basics of clawhammer banjo date back to the earliest days of banjo playing in this country, when the “banjar” or “banza” was an instrument brought over from Africa & played by the slaves. There is a West African instrument known as the akonting, which has three strings, one of which is a drone, & which is played in a style similar to clawhammer (tho with more poly-rhythms). These days, it’s thought that the akonting, or something very much like it, was the proto banjo. Also, an early 19th century Haitian banjo (or “banza”) was recently re-discovered at the Musée de la Musique in Paris (see pic to the left). Interestingly, this instrument looks fairly similar to banjos depicted in late 18th & early 19th century prints (see pic below), which are themselves being faithfully copied by some instrument makers. You can see examples of them at the wonderful Elderly Instruments site, here (first four items on the page).
Until about the mid 19th century, the banjo was pretty much exclusively played by slaves, & wasn’t considered a “proper” instrument. Around the 1820s & 30s, however, some white musicians started to learn these techniques, & not too long thereafter the minstrel show craze was born. One figure who has to be mentioned in connection with the transmogrification of the banjo from an African to a white American instrument is Joel Sweeney (see pic below). Sweeney actually began learning the banjo back in the 1820’s, so he was at the forefront of this movement. He’s also credited with converting what was a 4-string instrument into a 5-string one; however, most banjo historians these days believe he added the lowest (in the sense of “most bass” string—these days usually tuned either D or C), & that the drone string (which is usually referred to as the fifth string) was integral to the instrument all along.Sweeney was a part of the 19th century minstrel show craze that was crucial to the banjo becoming a popular instrument in U.S. culture overall; both Sweeney & Dan Emmett were connected with the Virginia Minstrels, the first of such troupes. However, the minstrel shows were about as fraught as they could possibly be, including musicians in blackface, songs of the “joyful innocent life on the old plantation,” & a general caricature of slave life (&, as they continued after the Civil War, also caricatured the life of poor blacks during reconstruction—often looking back to the “good old” ante-bellum days). A number of well-known old songs date from the minstrel show era—Stephen Foster tunes such as “Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susanna,” & “Ring the Banjo” all were staples in that repertoire, as were Dan Emmett’s “Dixie” & “The Blue-Tail Fly,” & James A. Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” & “O Them Golden Slippers.” Bland was one of the few black composers who broke into the minstrel show circuit, but he mostly performed in Great Britain, because white men in blackface tended to dominate minstrel shows in the U.S. Other African American minstrel troupes included Brooker and Clayton's Georgia Minstrels & Sam Hague's Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels. The pic below shows Bland on the cover of some sheet music.
The minstrel shows always featured at least one banjo—this was de rigueur. The fiddle was also pretty much required (thus forming the golden combination of banjo & fiddle still found in “old-time” music & bluegrass today). The minstrel shows also frequently showcased someone playing the bones & other percussion such as the tambourine. It may surprise current fans of old-time music to learn that the guitar wasn’t very important either in these shows or in the folk music from which they sprung. The guitar’s heyday in this kind of music (& a very transformational heyday it was, too, as we’ll look into down the line) really didn’t begin until the turn of the 20th century. The old guitar-toting cowboy is pretty much a Hollywood legend; however, if that same cowboy were around any time after the Civil War, he may well have been frailing a banjo.
NEXT WEEK: MORE BANJO HISTORY!
Pic at the top of the post by Eberle Umbach