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Location: Shortcut to Homepage /Clifford Essex Publications/EARLY MINSTREL MUSIC ARRANGED FOR THE 5 STRING BANJO. FORTY SOLOS. WITH CD.

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The Home of the Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar and Kindred Instruments


Compiled and Arranged by Alan Middleton





The early black face minstrels in America did not accompany themselves with a banjo; that came later.  Acts like ‘Tambo and Bones’ were so called because of the instruments they played, ‘Tambo’ being an abbreviation of tambourine, and ‘Bones’ a hand held percussion ‘instrument’ consisting of two rib bones rhythmically clacked together.  It was not until the early 1830s that the banjo began to be incorporated into the black face minstrel style of entertainment.

The banjo, in a very crude form, was made by African slaves, and based on instruments that were indigenous to their particular part of Africa. These ‘banjos’ were introduced into countries engaged in the slave trade, particularly the United States and Great Britain. Many of these ancient instruments had names relating to the word ‘banjo’ - ‘Banza’, ‘Banshaw’, ‘Bangoe’, ‘Banjar’, ‘Banjil’, ‘Bangie’ and, one of the pieces featured in this book would have us believe — ‘Bonja’. More likely ‘Bonja’ is simply a mis-spelling of what someone heard mumbled by one of the early players.  — Or perhaps that was the correct name, and we have been using the wrong one for nearly two hundred years!  Now, there’s a thought !  The Bonja song is believed to be the first ever published song relating to the banjo.

We know from early Banjo tutors by Thomas Briggs, (1855), Philip Rice, (1858), and Frank Converse, (1865), that the minstrel style of playing was the downstroke using the back of the finger nail, together with notes played with the thumb, and today it is often called ‘frailing’ or ‘clawhammer’. This style was learned from the slave performers themselves. Briggs, in his Banjo Instructor of 1855, describes the style thus: "In playing, the thumb and first finger only of the right hand are used; the 5th string is touched by the thumb only; this string is always played open, the other strings are touched by the thumb and first finger...The strings are touched by the ball of the thumb and the nail of the 1st finger. The first finger should strike the strings with the back of the nail and then slide to…..”.

Frank Converse in his ‘Banjo Without a Master’ describes the style of playing: “Partly close the hand, allowing the first finger to project a little in advance of the others. Hold the fingers firm in this position. Slightly curve the thumb. Strike the strings with the first finger (nail) and pull with the thumb”.

A great many early settlers in the United States emigrated from England, Scotland and Ireland, so it is not surprising that many of their traditional songs and melodies were passed on from generation to generation.   It is possible that players may notice different rhythms or small melodic changes in any of these tunes with which they may already be familiar.  This is probably because the tunes have been changed over the years to fit new words, with different rhythms, and also transcribed for other instruments where a slightly different pattern of notes is more easily played. There is also the likelihood of wrong notes being introduced through cheap printing and poor reproduction, quite apart from imperfect memories! The fact remains that many of these pieces may have a common origin, despite their obvious differences, with one of the best examples being ‘Turkey in the Straw’ and ‘Zip Coon’, where a basic tune is made to fit different words.

In the 1830’s and ensuing years, there was enough public interest in this kind of simple music, assumed to be sung by negros, for entertainers such as George Washington Dixon and Tom Rice to write these songs and then ‘black-up’ to sing them. The words of many songs were written in a supposedly ‘negro’ dialect, which these days is considered to be offensive, and so there is a possibility that the songs may be forgotten.   But although the words may be of interest only to historians, it would be a sad thing to lose some good banjo melodies, so it was considered that players will appreciate and welcome the publication of simple arrangements such as those contained in this book.   Some of the tunes, such as ‘Long Tail Blue’ were used for songs, while others, such as the jigs and hornpipes, were straightforward banjo solos used for dancing, but all the music comes from what became known as ‘The Minstrel Era’, and has been arranged for modern fingerstyle banjoists.


Page 4:  BACKSIDE ALBANY.  The song describes the Battle of Plattsburg as seen by a sailor involved in the fighting.  The melody is rather repetitious, but it is in an interesting minor key.
Page 5:   BOLTON CLOG HORNPIPE.   A good tune, which should be played at a fair speed, — but only when you are sure of the fingering!
Page 6:   BONJA.   One of the earliest banjo songs, and very simple in construction.   There is much repetition of the main phrase in the original, so this version is condensed. You can see and hear Mike Moss playing the 'Bonja Song' click here.
Page 7:   DAN EMMETT’S REEL.  A superb exercise in quick fingering.  Don’t start playing it too fast, or the triplets will trip you up!
Page 8:   JIM CROW. One of the most famous of minstrel songs.  It was usual for a singer to perform a few dance steps after a verse or chorus, but this song made a feature of it, with the words:   “Ev’ry time I wheel about, I jump, Jim Crow”.
Page 9:   HAYE’S CLOG HORNPIPE.  Similar in style to the Bolton Clog Hornpipe, this piece will need some practise to get it up to speed.
Page 10:   LONG TAIL BLUE.  Not a bird but, as the footnote explains, the song is about a blue long tail-coat.   It is a simple melody, but the short dance will need some right hand dexterity.
Page 11:  JIM LEE’S JIG.  Another good dance of the period, requiring some quick shifting in places.
Page 12:  THE OTHER SIDE OF JORDAN.  As sung by the Christy Minstrels, this would have been a popular favourite.  It has a catchy tune which makes an excellent banjo solo, although care will be needed in the dance section.
Page 14:   SPALDING’S JIG.  This is a typical piece from the period when the interest was as much in the dance steps as in the tune.  The original consists of five parts, but only four have been used here, and a certain amount of uninteresting repetition needed for the dance routine has been eliminated.  In this version the tunes make a good banjo solo, and involve some useful fingering technique.
Page 16:   LUCY NEAL.  A simple tune which is arranged as an easy solo for the average banjoist.
Page 17:   NIAGARA POLKA.  Another easy piece with an attractive tune.  The only thing against it is that it is too short!
Page 18:   THE COAL BLACK ROSE.  A very simple and rather repetitive song which makes an easy banjo solo.   There is some right hand fingering requiring a little care, but it is ideal for beginners.
Page 19:   ROARING JELLY JIG.  Apart from the intriguing title, this piece is well worth playing, although it may need some practise to achieve a faultless rendition at speed.
Page 21:  ZIP COON.   Both of these pieces are based on one of the best-known fiddle tunes which, over the years, has seen many variations.   Original folk tunes can change for many reasons, but the  obvious one in this case is where the melodies have been made to fit the different words.
Page 22:  SUN GO DOWN, UP COME DE MOON.  Most of the original pieces used for this book had no dynamic markings, but they were clearly shown on this one, although the words were not printed.  This is unfortunate because they could have been interesting, apart from giving an indication as to how the sections were divided.   They appear to be Verse, Chorus, and Interlude.
Page 24:  THE EARLY BIRD.  The original of this piece was sub-titled ‘Schottische’, but written in four-four time with accents marked on the first and third beats.  The Schottische is a round dance, and should be written in two-four time, (as here), so doing this results in the accents falling naturally.  Watch out for sudden changes in rhythm from a dotted quaver plus semiquaver to straight quavers.  More importantly, note that the composer introduced an occasional semiquaver plus quaver group, which is known as a ‘Scotch Snap’, — an example of which is in the first whole bar.
Page 26:  LUCY LONG.  This is another simple tune, well-known as an arrangement with virtuoso variations for bassoon.  As with many of these pieces, there are other versions of the melody.
Page 27:  THE A1 SAND DANCE.   A simple example of music for a sand dance, where the dancer sprinkles sand on the dance floor, and shuffles his/her feet to a rhythmic beat.   The piece is fairly repetitive, but watch out for the sting in the tail.
Page 28:  AMY ROSY LEE.  This piece has some interesting harmonies so it can be played fairly slowly, with expression.   In bars 31 and 47 the G major chord could be played at the third position instead of ‘open’ as shown.   The two parallel lines in bar 32 indicate a very brief pause, as if taking a breath before singing the chorus.
Page 30:   DANDY JIM.  This is a good solo for banjoists to get used to playing the notes above the twelfth fret.   There are also one or two bars with some tricky fingering which will help to improve your technique !
Page 32:   AWAY TO THE SUGAR CANE FIELD.    A certain amount of quick shifting is required in this piece, but it shouldn’t be played very fast.
Page 33:   GENERAL POPE’S JIG.  An easy piece with a nice example of a double snap in the second bar.
Page 34:   BELLE OF ALABAMA.  Another easy piece, with a simple tune.
Page 35:  THE BOATMAN’S DANCE.   This tuneful piece is ideal for the banjo.   It exists in several different versions dating from the 1840s, with one of them changing the title to ‘The Boatmen’s Dance’, and mentioning the Ohio River.
Page 36:  BESSIE’S GRAVE.   This is one of many sad songs about beautiful girls dying while young.  The carpets in the music rooms of the period must have been permanently saturated with tears.   Play it slowly and with expression.
Page 37:  THE JUBILEE.  This is the tune of a song called ‘Kingdom Coming’ by Henry Clay Work. It tells of a plantation owner running off to fight Lincoln’s forces in the American Civil War. 
The words of the chorus are: “De massa run?   Ha ha! /  De darkeys stay?  Ho ho!  /  It mus' be now de kingdom comin' /  An' de year ob Jubilo!”    The reference is to the words in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come.”    A ‘Jubilee’ is a time of rejoicing.
Page 38:  ELLEN BAYNE.  This is a Stephen Foster song, with a typically melodious tune.  You should play it as smoothly as possible.
Page 39:  LON MORRIS’S JIG.  A nice easy piece to rattle off at speed — when you know it.
Page 40:  HURRAH FOR MY HANSOM CAR.  The title page of this song shows the composer, Billy Richardson, ‘blacked up’ for his act with Hagues Minstrels at St. James’ Hall, Liverpool.  The Hansom Car is a Birthday present for an Irish lad, which explains the style of the piece.  A ‘Hansom’ was a two-wheeled horse-drawn cabriolet, seating two inside, with the driver sitting up behind, holding the reins over the roof.  It was invented by J.A. Hansom (1803—1882).
Page 41:  PEA NUT GIRL.  An odd title for an attractive solo in C minor, dating from the 1840s.
Page 42:  MARY GRAY.   This is another ‘weepy’.   It’s a nice tune, though, and should be played as directed, very slowly.
Page 43:  TONAWANDA HORNPIPE.  Composed by James Buckley, this is a typical banjo solo from the 1840s.
Page 44:  MINNIE MOORE.  Another sad little song bemoaning the early demise of a young lady. But, like the others of this type, it provides an excellent exercise in quiet, gentle, legato playing; — not easy on the banjo.
Page 45:  PEARL WALTZ.  James Buckley wrote this piece as a change from all the jigs and hornpipes.   There is a quirk of harmony in the third bar which takes the piece out of the ordinary.
Page 46:  NELLY WAS A LADY.   Yet another tear-jerker, with the kind of beautiful melody we expect from the composer, — Stephen Foster.
Page 47:   THE GAL WITH THE ROGUISH EYE.  This is the opposite of the previous piece, being a comic song, so it needs to be taken at a brisk pace.
Page 48:   SAVORY’S JIG.   This solo is not quite so simple as it looks.    
Page 50:   ROSA LEE.   The original music for this piece has directions for dancing, but no words of a song, although it divides neatly into the usual sections of Interlude, Verse and Chorus.   It should be played fairly quickly.


Complete with a CD of all forty solos played by Alan Middleton

A Review by Mike Moss

Of all musical instruments, none has been as deeply and intimately associated with a single genre as the banjo and minstrel music. An instrument designed to imitate those of the African slaves, the banjo became a part of the minstrel show in the 1830s and remained as such, in all styles ranging from stroke style to plectrum, for well over a century: the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show, for instance, was aired on television until 1978, and endured as a stage show until 1987. A Clifford Essex director, Clem Vickery, was featured in the show in both the popular BBC T/V series and on the West End stage, as the musical speciality playing plectrum banjo. Nowadays, due to its offensive nature and the evolution of society, the minstrel show is often seen as an embarrassment and is rarely mentioned; and yet, some of the most enduring melodies in the history of popular culture – such as Swanee River or Camptown Races – were born from the minstrel phenomenon.

There are plenty of books published which explore the early styles of minstrel banjo – that is, how the minstrels historically played the banjo – but this book is not one of them. As its title indicates, the goal of this book is to explore minstrel music, whether or not it was written for the banjo; as such, this selection includes arrangements of songs or pieces originally written for the piano-forte, specifically arranged for the modern fingerstyle five-string banjo. The selection presents a general overview of the music in the genre, ranging from an arrangement of Bonja, originally a song with piano-forte accompaniment, and one of the first songs about the banjo and African Americans, to a broad selection of songs and dances such as the ever-famous Turkey in the Straw, whose now-stereotypical use in cartoons was consecrated by its premier in the 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie.

The usefulness of this book as a cultural artefact is immediately apparent: for instance, many scholarly publications point out that, in spite of their claims that they were playing authentic African tunes, the minstrels’ music was primarily influenced by English, Scottish and Irish music; however, actually playing the tunes allows the reader to experience this fact first hand. Thus, playing the tunes in this book can be seen as an active way of studying musical and cultural history.

The arrangements are both tuneful and easy, being well within the grasp of the average fingerstyle banjoist; as is typical of Clifford Essex publications, this book combines high-quality classic style notation, with both right and left-hand fingerings, with tablature, so the book is accessible to all banjoists. When reading this book, the reader should keep an open mind at all times, as some of the titles are offensive by today’s standards, while considering that these tunes from a bygone era deserve to be studied as a part of our musical history.

Postage UK: £3.00      Elsewhere: £7.50 (airmail)

(Based on 2 Reviews)

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