Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Clawhammer! #2

When we left you last, we were at the minstrel show, that exuberant & disturbing phenomenon that played a Johnny Appleseed role with the banjo. The connection of the minstrel show specifically to the clawhammer or frailing style of banjo playing is that banjo historians trace the style back to the “minstrel stroke” (which had itself been learned by white musicians from black slaves). For those of you who need a reminder, the clawhammer playing style employs a loose fist, the fingernail of either the index or middle finger, & the thumb in a very economical motion; it produces a very characteristic sound.

Like all fads, the minstrel shows faded out toward the end of the 19th century. Interestingly, though, this didn’t also bring a corresponding decline in the banjo’s popularity. In fact, if anything, the banjo grew more popular in white America thru this period, & this popularity (with some important developments along the way) continued even into the 1920s. One thing that did change, however, is that the “minstrel stroke” faded from being the dominant playing style. Some historians conjecture that the minstrel stroke grew less popular because it was seen as being “too black,” & there’s probably no reason to vigorously dispute this. The U.S.’s complicated & troubling history of race relations (including cultural appropriation) can be studied quite well in our musical history, & the banjo (along with jazz & blues) is one of the more pungent topics.

In fact, the overall drive during this period was to ma
ke the banjo & its repertoire more “legit”—rather than playing the pseudo plantation ditties of the rowdy minstrel shows, the banjo now was taken into the parlor in refined homes & used for playing more sedate popular music & even hymns—often in a fingerstyle manner akin to the method used for classical guitar. In fact, there were arrangements of classical music for banjo from that time, long before Pete Seeger arranged “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” for his longneck banjo. Interestingly, the open-back, White Laydie design of banjo now prized among clawhammer & other old-time style players, actually came into prominence during this time. It was also at this time that banjos became a fretted instrument—the plantation banjos, both of the real slave plantations & the virtual blackface minstrel show variety were pretty much fretless instruments. Fretless banjos are still available, & are preferred by some diehard old-time players, but the changes in repertoire at the end of the 19th century required playing up the neck, & that’s a pretty tall order for a lot of folks without frets to guide them.This was also the era of the banjo orchestras, when large ensembles of banjoists would play instruments ranging in size from the piccolo banjo to the bass banjo, & take them on a romp thru popular & classical tunes. Tho the banjo orchestra died out as a cultural phenomenon with the birth of the jazz age, there are still some interesting banjo orchestras around. One worth checking out (in recorded form only—when you see the orchestra pic you’ll understand) is Brian Hefferan’s Heftone Banjo Orchestra; in this case, the banjo uke stands in for the piccolo banjo on leads.
Of course, the jazz age brought its own changes to banjodom. For the first 15-20 years of jazz per se, the banjo was a crucial instrument, especially in a rhythm section. Of course, this led to the development of new instruments like the 4-string tenor & plectrum banjos. The 5-string, with its drone string is suitable for modal songs (where chord changes aren’t a crucial element) or for your basic three or four chord song that never modulates far from the root, but it was not so handy in playing the complex changes in jazz tunes. The tenor & plectrum design dispensed with the drone string, & also were almost always played with a pick, boosting the instrument’s volume as it had to cut thru a horn section.
In the meantime, some changes had also been happening in the hill country where the banjo & fiddle still held sway, & the old time tunes were for the most part modal & crooked. But the advent of the mail order catalog suddenly made guitars both available & affordable for a lot of folks. As Wayne Erbsen points out in his Southern Mountain Banjo, “A guitar could be purchased through the Sears & Roebuck catalog for a whopping $2.45 delivered to your door.” According to this site, Sears catalog began offering guitars in 1894. Erbsen goes on to give a pithy description of how this affected the old-time music:

With its rapid acceptance by mountain musicians, the guitar made an enormous impact on…the sound of mountain music.… When guitars were added, the music was changed to fit into the three major chords that most guitarists used
for accompaniment. The beautiful modal tunes which were based on gapped or pentatonic scales did not fit well with the guitar, so many of these haunting melodies were put aside in favor of the more cheerful sound of the guitar. The steady squared-off rhythm of the guitar also affected the music. Many of the old ballads and tunes contained extra beats and were “crooked” as the roads that wound around the mountains. When these uneven turns and crooks met up with the guitar, they were straightened out just like the roads eventually were.
Wayne Erbsen: Southern Mountain Banjo (© 1995 Mel Bay)
If you want an illustration of this, listen to some old-time banjoist perform the song “Little Maggie” in sawmill (G modal) tuning, which is about as genuine “high & lonesome” as it gets. Then listen to your friendly neighborhood bluegrass band perform “Little Maggie” in G major….

But what about clawhammer & frailing? Have they just vanished from sight? Hang in there, folks—next week the folkies are coming, & old-time music, or at least its current incarnation, comes roaring back with a vengeance!

All the pics in this week's post except the photo of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are public domain pics from Joe Bethancourt's wonderful online banjo gallery. You can see the entire 42-page gallery starting here.


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