BANJO SYNCOPATION AS AN ELEMENT OF BLACK BANJO PLAYING: LEARNING HOW
By Bob Winans
My commentary here is prompted by newbie Guy’s desire to learn to play black banjo and all the discussion that has ensued from his expressing that desire. But I intend that it be of use to anyone interested in learning about playing syncopated rhythms on the banjo. Those of you who have been with BBT&N for a long time may know much of what I am covering, and some of it may have appeared in message threads over the years, and I apologize in advance for any repetition.
I begin by repeating the good advice of Tony and others to get a good grounding in basic downstroke playing, which you can certainly do by getting good instruction in modern clawhammer/frailing technique. When I first started playing, I had a hard time getting into downstroking; it just did not feel like a “natural” way to play a stringed instrument (although of course it is). What follows is advice about what comes after a firm grasp of the basic “bum-diddy” rhythm, and other aspects of clawhammer playing (hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, etc). Finger-style playing will come up briefly later in this discussion.
Obviously, if the goal is to play like the few remaining black banjoists who were recorded in the mid-to-late 20th century, one needs to listen over and over to recordings of those banjoists, particularly Dink Roberts, Josh Thomas, John Snipes, Lucius Smith, Clarence Tross, and Rufus Kasey.
As I pointed out a number of years ago in an article about some black banjo players (“The Black Banjo-Playing Tradition in Virginia and West Virginia”), a main difference between white clawhammer playing and black clawhammer playing is that black banjoists are more likely to use syncopated rhythms, not surprisingly, since syncopation or polyrhythm is an essential feature of African and African American musical traditions. So the contemporary banjoist who wants to emulate black playing needs to master syncopated rhythms on the banjo. This mastery will not come with a standard course of instruction in clawhammer banjo. But some historical banjo instruction books can help in this endeavor, as well as offer some insight into what early black banjo might have sounded like. I speak here of minstrel banjo tutors.
It may seem inappropriate to suggest that anything connected to an institution that demeaned and denigrated African Americans could accurately present any aspect of African American culture, but the minstrel banjo instruction books are the only written source that offer any chance of seeing (actually, hearing) that far back. Think of them as a window through which we can see something of what came before them. It may be a dirty window, allowing some distortion, but still very useful.
Of course, one might point out that another source for early black banjo is to extrapolate back from the playing of the oldest of the late 20th century black banjoists. Fortunately, what is a distinguishing feature of the playing of many of them, syncopation, is also a distinguishing feature of some minstrel banjo tunes. Such a confluence reinforces the value of the minstrel material.
Several early minstrel banjo tutors have been reprinted and are available at Elderly Instruments and other online sites. These include Briggs’ Banjo instructor (1855), Phil. Rice’s Method for the Banjo (1858), Buckley’s New Banjo Method (1860), and two by Frank Converse in 1865. You will need to read music to make use of these. Some of this material has been published in tablature form by Joe Weidlich, but his tabs do not always closely follow the originals, and he does not deal with the syncopated material I want to focus on. In addition, the most common keys are D and G or E and A, but where you find the notes in these keys on a minstrel banjo is different from on a modern banjo since the minstrel banjo is tuned significantly lower. The lower tuning of the minstrel banjo offers another parallel with the playing of 20th century black banjoists, who, in my experience of recording some of them, generally tune their banjos below standard pitch, although not quite as low as minstrel tuning.
By a “minstrel banjo” I mean a fretless, open back banjo, with a larger (skin) head than modern banjos, on a thin wooden rim at least 3 inches high, tuned either to dGDF#A (for playing in the keys of D or G) or eAEG#B (for playing in the keys of E or A), and strung with gut (or nylgut) strings. I keep my minstrel banjos tuned to the D/G tuning because I like the sound better, and just mentally transpose E and A pieces to play them. This type of banjo will get you close to the sound of the early black banjo, and a wonderful sound it is. A number of banjo makers are making excellent reproductions of minstrel era banjos. Of course, one can take a modern banjo and lower the tuning to learn the techniques laid out in the minstrel banjo tutors, but you won’t have the sound right.
To get even closer to the sound of the early black banjo, assuming you have any interest in that, you would want to use a fretless gourd banjo with gut strings tuned as above. Makers of good gourd banjos are also not hard to find.
WHAT THE EARLY BANJO TUTORS HAVE TO TEACH US
One does not encounter syncopation in the Brigg’s and Rice tutors I noted above (well, two pieces in Rice, “Whoop Jamboree,” and “The Darkies Jig,” do have a bit of syncopation). But they do show that what their white authors have picked up as the core of pre-existing black banjo playing is “bum-diddy” (i.e., in 2/4 time, an 8th note followed by two 16th notes). Already they have simplified black playing, logically enough since these tutors are for beginners. But even so they can lead one to techniques and rhythms beyond normal clawhammer playing.
If you come to the early tutors as a clawhammer player, you may conclude that many of the tunes look pretty straight forward, and be tempted to play them in standard clawhammer style, without paying too much attention to the fingering specified in the tutors. I was thus tempted when I started playing this material, and for many of the tunes, that approach works fine. But I advise you to pay attention to the fingering given in the tutors, because doing so will free up the way you use your fingers and prepare you for syncopation. Standard clawhammer playing rarely departs from certain unwritten “rules” for what the thumb and index finger do. The most important of these is that notes played by the thumb, whether on the 5th string or as a “drop-thumb” note on another string, are rarely played on the beat. The fingering in the minstrel tutors is more freewheeling than that, and on-the-beat thumb notes are common. Sometimes whole passages are played with what I call ”reverse stroke“ or “thumb-lead clawhammer.” As a clawhammer player, I had struggled to come up with a decent version of “Devils’ Dream,” until I encountered Rice’s version, in which the whole B part of the tune is played with thumb lead. (The term “thumb-lead” is normally associated with a particular kind of up-picking, as in “thumb-lead finger picking,” but the minstrel tutors make it clear that thumb lead can be an integral part of downstroking.)
Dom Flemons and Sule Greg Wilson have correctly urged those interested in playing black banjo to be aware of diddy-bum (two 16th notes followed by an 8th note) as well as bum-diddy. That is, do not get too fixated on the bum-diddy rhythm (or the double-thumbed, filled out version, which, keeping with the onomatopoetic descriptors, can be called diddy-diddy [four 16th notes]); be open to other rhythms. I would expand the list and say you also need to know bum-di-didily, diddly-diddly,bum-di-bum-di, di-bum-di-bum, and others.
Bum-di-diddly (dotted 16th + 32nd + 16th triplet) appears quite regularly in Briggs and Rice, and less frequently in Buckley. The same is true for diddly-diddly (two 16th note triplets). The bum-di-diddly rhythm feels to me like a drum pattern. In any case, the use of triplets is common in the minstrel banjo tutors, while it is almost non-existent in clawhammer playing, except for the occasional pick-up. I have not done an analysis of the playing of black banjoists to determine how much use they make of triplets. In fact, if someone out there would like to undertake that analysis, I would be glad to hear the results. But their frequency of occurrence in minstrel banjo music suggests the need to be aware of rhythms not common in standard clawhammer.
Bum-di-bum-di (8th note + 16th + 8th +16th ) and di-bum-di-bum (16th note + 8th + 16th + 8th ) get us into the realm of syncopated rhythm patterns, without at all exhausting those to be found in some minstrel banjo tunes. I hope that what I have already discussed makes clear that the minstrel banjo tutors are not suffused with syncopated tunes. But Buckley’s 1860 Method has far and away the greatest number of syncopated tunes. Buckley seems to have been particularly sensitive to and appreciative of banjo syncopation. So if you are interested in pursuing this matter of banjo syncopation, you should get the Buckley book. (You could also buy the Rice book to learn the basics of downstroking [it is a good instruction manual] and bypass a course of instruction in modern clawhammer style.)
In addition to these rhythmic patterns which can be described onomatopoetically, another important element of syncopation is shifting the beginning of a musical phrase (usually a brief one) off the beat, so that is comes just before the beat (“anticipating the beat”) or just after the beat (“delaying the beat”). The syncopated effect is intensified if this shifting is done repeatedly.
The following tunes in Buckley embody syncopated rhythm patterns:
Jake Bacchus’ Jig
Root Hog or Die
Deacon Buckley’s Jig
Gas Light Jig
Great Eastern Jig
Jake Bacchus’ Reel
At this point, I would suggest that you listen to a presentation that I gave on minstrel banjo syncopation, first at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering and then at the 2006 Early Banjo Gathering, where it was recorded. Go to my website (WinansBanjo) and click on “Lecture Audio” in the Navigation box on the left. Read the paragraph there and then click on the second link, the one to the musical examples. This link opens up a slide show that accompanies the lecture, which you then access by clicking on the upper links. The first six tunes noted above (along with others) are used as examples in the presentation.
Another source for syncopated minstrel banjo tunes and some discussion of them is Hans Nathan’s book, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (1962). Nathan includes the following syncopated tunes from an Emmett manuscript of tunes (although for some he chose to give the version published in 1845 in a clarinet tutor rather than the version in the manuscript):
Negro on the Wood Pile Jig,
Moze Haymar Jig,
Peter Story Jig,
Pea Patch Jig,
Eelam Moore Jig,
Root Hog or Die Jig,
My First Jig,
Bull Upon the Battery Jig,
Dr. Hekok Jig,
Sliding Jenny Jig,
Van Bramer’s Jig,
I am currently in the process of preparing a facsimile edition of all 48 tunes in the Emmett manuscript, 33 of which show significant syncopation and 9 of the remaining 15 have a so-called “scotch snap,” a low-grade kind of syncopation. Emmett was clearly another minstrel musician who was keenly attuned to syncopation, likely because of the influence of a black brother banjo and fiddle duo, the Snowdens, in his home town of Mount Vernon, Ohio (see the book by Howard and Judith Sacks, Way Up North in Dixie).
Nathan has a chapter in his book entitled “Early Banjo Tunes and American Syncopation,” which has as examples selected passages from additional syncopated tunes in the Emmett manuscript. This chapter was the starting point for my research into banjo syncopation. Nathan had earlier published this chapter as an article which you can read online if you have access to JSTOR.
Tony, in one of his recent commentaries, stated that minstrel banjo tunes sound very European to him. I would agree that the vast majority of the tunes in the early minstrel banjo tutors or in minstrel sheet music feel European (as opposed, of course, to African, despite the ultimately African roots of the banjo) and Nathan’s book also has a chapter (“Early Minstrel Tunes”) in which he discusses the Scottish, English, and Irish elements in some of the tunes. So, syncopated tunes, which can have something of an African or African American feel, are a small subset of the minstrel banjo repertory, which does not diminish their importance for our purposes here.
Listening to syncopated minstrel banjo tunes will help one get a feel for banjo syncopation of the sort that not only was probably an important part of pre-minstrel black playing, but also informs the playing of 20th century black banjoists, and it should help in the process of incorporating these kinds of rhythms into your own playing. A first source would be the musical examples in my online lecture on syncopation, referred to above. In addition, you can hear me playing Emmett’s “Pea-Patch Jig” on New World Records CD 80338, The Early Minstrel Show, as well as a fiddle version of “Dr. Hekok Jig.” On Rounder Records CDROUN0321, Minstrel Style Banjo, I play “Whelpley’s Jig” and “Buckley’s Jig” (as a medley) from the Buckley tutor.
Greg Adams and Tim Twiss are two other banjoists who have also ventured into playing these syncopated tunes, and they are probably better at playing them than I am. On YouTube, you can hear and watch them play the following tunes from the lists above:
From Buckley: Peel’s Jig (GA), Jake Bacchus’ Jig (GA), Newton’s Jig (GA), Fisher’s Jig (GA&TT ), Firemen’s Jig (TT), Buckley’s Jig (TT), Great Eastern Jig (TT)
Emmett Manuscript tunes from Nathan: Peel’s Jig (GA), Dr Hekok’s Jig (GA), Bull Upon the Battery Jig (GA), Van Bramer’s Jig (GA+TT+Carl Anderton on gourd banjo)
On their new CD, Genuine Negro Jig, the Carolina Chocolate Drops perform “Genuine Negro Jig” (which they also call “Snowden’s Jig”) from Emmett’s manuscript. Theirs is a fiddle version, with percussion, and it doesn’t precisely follow the Emmett’s notated manuscript version, but they have captured the essence of the tune in a fine performance. I presented them with a copy of the manuscript tune and Greg and I played if for them on minstrel banjos back in February 2008, and they very quickly added it to their repertoire.
Other online resources include the Ning Minstrel Banjo site and the associated Banjo Clubhouse . The Ning site offers lots of discussion of minstrel-banjo-related issues among “enthusiast of early banjo” (although not many are interested in looking for relationships between minstrel banjo and black banjo) and videos of performances by members. The video page also lists several excellent instructional videos posted by Tim Twiss, based on the Rice tutor. Tim, by the way, has two fine minstrel banjo CDs out and has posted on the Internet more than 300 videos of his playing of tunes from at least a half dozen early banjo tutors. Most of those videos are available on the Banjo Clubhouse site, which he moderates, and which includes audio from other players as well.
I need to point out (or maybe I don’t need to) that playing this syncopated stuff is not easy. After a competent minstrel stroke player attending my lecture at the 2006 Early Banjo Gathering had seen the music on the screen and heard Greg and I play the examples, he declared that this stuff was “scary-hard.” So this is advanced stroke-style technique, to be undertaken after a solid grounding in downstroke playing, whether learned through clawhammer instruction or directly from the a minstrel tutor.
I wish to make it clear that I am not claiming that the syncopated tunes listed above from Buckley and Nathan were necessarily played by black banjoists of the early and mid 19th century, nor that if they had played them they would have sounded just like they are written or as they are played by the musicians noted above. But I do claim that these syncopated tunes mirror a rhythmic approach to playing the banjo that is African rather than European, and provide us a window into that approach.
To make use of this approach as a player, one does not have play on a low-tuned, gut-strung, minstrel-era banjo. After all, the 20th century black banjoists that we study played on modern, steel-strung banjos. And, once having mastered the techniques of banjo syncopation, one does not have to limit oneself to playing the tunes noted above. Taking a lesson from the earliest itinerant black piano players of the late 19th century who took existing tunes and “ragged” them, before the composition and publication of formal ragtime pieces, one can apply syncopation to any tune. As a final exercise here, let me show you an example, played on an 1890s banjo in a modern modal tuning, of how that application can work with a particular tune, a modal tune frequently played by old-time musicians, “Cold Frosty Morning.” The first version is a very basic, “bum-diddy” version of the tune. The second version is a banjo version close to the fiddle version played in my area (nothing is sacrosanct about this version of the tune – I know of half a dozen other, equally valid, versions). The third, syncopated version was worked out by me some time ago to satisfy my own curiosity about the possibilities of syncopating an existing tune. My syncopated version is only one of many possible syncopated versions. In order to include many different forms of syncopation, it goes overboard, with syncopation in all but one measure, which is not “natural.” Even a highly syncopated music such a piano ragtime is less densely syncopated than my exercise. Although I probably do not have to explain it to this audience, in all versions, “h” means hammer-on, “p” means pull-off, “s” means slide, and “t” means thumb note. Once you can play the syncopated version comfortably, smoothly, and up to speed, you are well on your way toward mastering banjo syncopation. The next step would be to internalize these kinds of rhythms and the techniques for producing them, so as to inject them at will into whatever you are playing. I hasten to add that I have not yet reached that final plateau.
Cold frosty Morning I -- Bum-diddy version
Read the next several sentences and then click here to listen. This action will open a Myspace popup music player (I gave up on trying to embed a music player on this page). As soon as that player is fully loaded in another window, click back to this window and wait for the recording to begin. The wait could be an interminable minute or so (depending on time of day); in the meantime you can be studying the notated score below and then be ready to follow it when the recording begins. The audio for example II below will follow the first audio by about 30 seconds, and then another 30 seconds for the audio for example III.
Cold Frosty Morning II – Fiddle-like version
Cold Frosty Morning III – Syncopated version, in extremis
After devoting all these pages to downstroke playing, it is worth pointing out that the genre, “black banjo,” includes up-picking, or “finger style,” as well. Finger style, called “guitar style” at first, initially appeared, overtly, in print in 1865, possibly, as some have argued, also picked up from the playing of black banjoists. It gradually became more dominant during the rest of the 19th century. Probably many black banjoists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries used this style, frequently, I would imagine, along side of downstroking. Gus Cannon can be taken as an exemplar of this phenomenon, and Tony is working on an essay exploring his playing. The important thing to say in the context of this little essay of mine is that syncopation was as essential an element of black finger-style banjo playing as it was in black downstroke playing.
I hope this screed proves helpful, and I welcome comments, suggestions, and questions.