Before there was Madonna, or Lady Gaga.
Before there was Page, Hendrix, and Clapton.
Before there was Elvis, or the Beatles.
Long before any of these icons of music riffed their way into our collective consciousness, there were the minstrel banjoists.
With names like Emmett, Briggs, and Buckley, the minstrel banjo players were the rock stars of the 19th century. They were the ones touring internationally, playing to packed houses, and burning up the fingerboard to the delight of adoring fans (click here for an excellent history of the minstrel era).
Times have changed, of course.
But the influence of these early 5-string stars still holds sway today, especially amongst fans of downstroke style banjo. Though the history of the minstrel show era is complicated, one of the bright spots of its legacy is the wonderful body of music it left us with. Like Appalachian old-time, it was the synergistic amalgamation of a of range diverse musical influences, and a uniquely American art form.
A body of music that, if you’ve learned the basic clawhammer technique, is accessible to you (with a bit of time in the woodshed, of course).
So, for this installment of the tune of the week, I’m introducing our first minstrel banjo tune in the form of Frank Converse’s “Callowhill Jig.” It’s a lilting, infectious little melody.
If you’ve never dabbled into minstrel tunes before, you’ll find that playing them will feel simultaneously familiar and strange. This is still downstroke style banjo. The nail of your index or middle finger and the flesh of the thumb are still your string-striking implements. The fretting hand also gets plenty of action, and you’ll find alternate string pull-offs commonly employed to generate melody notes.
But gone is the bum ditty backbone you’re accustomed to. The rhythms here are bit different, and the melodies a little more ornate. You’ll find ample use of triplets, some of them (as in the 5th measure of this tune) generated by dragging your nail across multiple strings – the Galax lick, slow motion style. You’ll also find the thumb emerging often from the shadows of rhythmic support to play melody notes on the 5th string, a variation that may take a bit of getting used to.
I think these tunes are loads of fun, and the new techniques you pick up along the way will only expand the range of music you can make with your 5-string. New shades of color in your style palette, so to speak.
These tunes were played on what we now refer to as “minstrel banjos” – fretless, strung with gut, and tuned lower in pitch than the modern steel strung banjos of today. “Standard” tuning for the minstrel banjo repertoire was the equivalent of what we now label as “standard C”, or “drop C”, tuning: gCGBD.
On a minstrel banjo, the pitches were down to either dGDF#A (which is what my gourd is tuned to) or eAEG#B, known as “Briggs” and “Converse” tuning, respectively.
As I said, the rhythms used in minstrel tunes are often a bit different – less squared off than what you’ll find in the typical old-time banjo repertoire. I’ve tried to represent them here in the tab, but you’ll probably find it easiest to listen to the video to get a sense for how it should all come together.