Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Well, the audio, anyway... I still have to write all the copy and put together the actual CD.

It was in my first year of graduate school (c.1988) that I took a research methods course at UCSD.  We had to come up with a research project, and I decided to look at what was known about the banjo before the advent of recording.  I quickly discovered that there was quite a lot of documentary evidence, and a handful of great books, but the only music that survived was a bunch of banjo methods and tune books written by minstrel show performers.

I had run into that stuff before.  The first person to resurrect a minstrel show performance was a guy named Robert Winans, and he had made a recording of that effort in the mid 1970s, which I had heard as an undergraduate at Pomona College at that time.  The music seemed sort-of dull to me, to be honest.  I was learning traditional American clawhammer banjo and American and Irish fiddle music, and to me this minstrel show music lacked the rhythmic drive I had come to expect in good banjo and fiddle music.

Robert Winans had followed in the footsteps of another musicologist, Hans Nathan, whose 1962 book Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy is the most important book in this whole banjo field, in my opinion.  I encountered it by chance in a used bookstore in San Francisco in 1980, while moving up to Seattle.  This book lays out how much is known about banjo music before the Civil War, and though others have added to the evidence, really all you need to understand the evolution of the minstrel show banjo tradition is right there. By adapting my clawhammer skills, I was able to play the music that Nathan included, and two of the pieces on my new recording, "The Newton Jig" and "Pompey Ran Away" (which isn't a minstrel show tune) are from this book.  There is playing on my recording that is consistent with this style, but I think it's dumb to sacrifice a good riff for following some intricate melody unless you've got a really good reason, and I am informed on this by the depth of source material we have on early 20th-c. blues guitar players, as well as West African plucked lute playing--these players are incredibly skilled, but where melody is concerned, either it is easily generated by the basic technique, or they don't do it.  Rhythm and a solid danceable groove is always of paramount importance.

But what about African-American banjo music?  One thing Nathan figured out early on was that there was very little actual African-influenced music in the minstrel shows.  There are a few tunes--"Juba," certainly, "Boatman's Dance," and I think "The Newton Jig" (and maybe a handful of others) that have African-American roots--but more striking to me is how little interest the minstrels had in African-American music.  There was no agenda whatsoever in trying to play authentic African-American music--indeed, the minstrels seem to be utterly uninterested in it.  The predominant banjo style, as portrayed by the minstrels, moves away from the pattern-based playing of African musicians almost immediately and into trying to play melodies like a fiddler--something that the banjo is ill-suited to do.  Once you're playing schottisches (the sort of dance tune that becomes more popular in minstrel shows as time goes on), you can pretty much assume that you do not have the funk.  If you hear most modern minstrel banjo recreators playing reels, you'll notice right away how the music often lacks the drive of good fiddling, and that's in those rare occasions where they play fast enough where you could dance a reel to it.  A common view among minstrel banjo enthusiasts is that clawhammer rhythm is later, but it isn't, and there's no doubt that a good clawhammer player has the funk and skills to beautifully accompany fiddle music at whatever speed.  That aspect of it is a bit of a mystery to me, but I assume that what we understand as "clawhammer" was just the way some African-American players played.  Maybe the minstrels just missed it.

We don't know names and music of countless African-American banjo players themselves.  There must have been hundreds of musicians--there are certainly hundreds of guitar-playing blues performers by the early 20th c. and they didn't come out of nowhere.  Even Scott Joplin's parents played banjo and fiddle.  A critic of my research haughtily suggested that I overlooked the most famous African-American banjo player of antebellum America--Picayune Butler.  I didn't.  I looked into him and concluded that he was a myth, a standard minstrel show character like "Jim Crow," a conclusion recently reinforced by Tony Thomas' recent research on Picayune Butler.  The most famous 19th-century African-American banjo player whose story and name we know was fictional.

It was in this context that I decided to look closely at Gottschalk's famous 1854 piano piece "The Banjo" that I had first tried to play on the piano in high school, and I came to a stunning realization.  No one had looked at it.  Certainly hundreds of pianists had played it, and musicians and audiences alike were thrilled by its imitations of familiar banjo textures.  Sometimes a comment might be made about the interesting way the piece appears to anticipate ragtime piano music.  Here's the problem--most of those textures were not otherwise documented for another half century after Gottschalk wrote the piece.  Scholars of the banjo claimed, based on the minstrel banjo methods, that these characteristic banjo textures were 20th-century developments, but there they are in fully-developed form in Gottschalk's piece, and none of them had thought to study the piece.  "The Banjo" is not based on the standard two-part European dance tune form that dominates minstrel show music--in fact, the piece takes its architecture from West African music--the repeating riff (kumbengo (Mande), fodet (Wolof), etc...) that forms the basis of a music performance.  Just like the blues, of course.  With all the variations and textures, I recognized that I was looking at the Rosetta Stone of African-American banjo music.  Here were demonstrations of many aspects of a style, enough to build a banjo performance practice, something that could transform our understanding of early American music.

And so, I sat down with the music to see if it could be played on the banjo.  As I discussed in my article, it was not difficult to tease out the banjo tune lurking right there.  Then I turned to a piece he wrote as a 15-year-old, "Bamboula."  The form was not as subtle or daring, but here again he captured banjo music on three distinct pieces that he assembled as one composition.  Take away the piano tricks and a teenager's taste for flash and flourish, and I had another rich source.  At about this time (c.1990), I became aware that in fact I was not the first person to look at Gottschalk's appropriation of African-American music.  Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks had at that point recently (1988) written "Gottschalk and the Grand Tarantelle," which rails at Gottschalk elegantly for his role in the great American music tradition of stealing music from African-Americans and making money with it.  When I wanted the poem to be included in my article (she had generously granted me permission to use it), the editors scoffed at its angry tone.  I insisted.  Especially in "The Banjo," Gottschalk's writing was so close to what a banjo could do that it was entirely reasonable to conclude that he had sat down with a banjo player and copied exactly what he heard.  Brooks was right, and I had proved it.

But it was just writing and notes on a page.  Because I wasn't interested in a career in musicology, I never went to conferences or anything like that.  I'm a musician, and I knew that to make the case, I had to record the music.  Then you could hear my ideas.  Especially when you hear the techniques and textures in the Gottschalk music applied to minstrel show tunes, traditional American fiddle tunes--it is definitely more Caribbean than Appalachian.  The bottom line is that the music is a blast to play and it feels as though I've discovered a musical treasure.  I'm not sure musicology has ever been done where the argument is made in the music, but that is what I have done here.  I don't want to say that the minstrel banjo playing these days isn't authentic, because I think it is, but I think this Gottschalk resource opens up an entirely different tradition, a pathway between the Jola in the Senegambia, Son House, and Dr. John.

Maybe the minstrels heard stuff like this and their music is what they made of it; maybe they didn't even pay attention to it.  When banjoist and pedagogue Frank Converse publishes a little tune in 1901 that he claims he learned fifty years before from an African-American banjo player (who of course is unnamed, and mostly condescendingly dismissed by Mr. Converse), it differs little from simple minstrel show tunes.  It might be authentic, but it is nothing like what Gottschalk shows us, which could be just the difference between the playing going on at that time in New York and New Orleans, as will be the case throughout the history of American music.  One interesting detail Converse mentions, however, is that the player tuned his second string up a half step (he reports this as the guy saying he put it "out of tune" which the guy never would have said!), so the standard clawhammer "double-C," tuned down to A.  That stuck with me somehow, and so I have performed all of this music with that tuning, except for "Leyenda" which I figured out thirty years ago on a conventional banjo tuned gCGbd.  That, and "Les Barricades Mysterieuses, " which I also still perform, are pieces I just love and they're extremely difficult--so I've got to use that tuning for those two.  One thing that has appealed to me with the alternate tuning (eAEab), besides the richer resonance it gives the banjo--I think it is an entirely superior tuning--is that I had to work out my own versions of things and not just reproduce what is in period banjo methods.   

I made my first gourd banjo in 1991, and it was a pretty thing (you can see it on my YouTube video of my performance of "The Banjo") but it was very quiet, and I had put too much relief in the neck, so the action was unnecessarily high.  It was enough to show me how wonderful a fretless gourd banjo tuned low was, and at that point I quit playing my conventional banjos to work on this, but I couldn't really perform with this instrument.  Still, I worked on playing it off and on over the next 18 (!!) years.  After I recorded "Cluck Old Hen" (July 2009) I recognized that I was going to have to make a new banjo to make this project work--a post here from back in 2009 describes the convoluted microphone setup I used to make that recording.  That's when I made my "#2," the design and construction which is also covered in an earlier series of posts (Oct-Dec 2011).  Even then, after I made it and was pleased with it, I continued to make modifications to it.  Really, until late 2015, I didn't have it in its final form--I then re-recorded most of my CD because it was a whole new instrument after its last round of modifications.  I kept the old "Cluck Old Hen" though.

Sometimes, it just takes a very long time to complete a project.  More soon...