History of the Banjo – Part 2 – Minstrel Era

White men began using blackface as a comic gimmick before the American Revolution. The banjo became a prop for these entertainers, either individually or in groups. By the early part of the 19th century, minstrelsy became a very popular form of entertainment. Joel Walker Sweeney and his Sweeney Minstrels were already popular by the 1830s. By 1843 the Virginia Minstrels began to do an entire show of this blackface entertainment and this is usually the date used to mark the beginning of the minstrel era. The Virginia Minstrels had 2 Banjo players, Dan Emmett and Billy Whitlock, a pupil of Sweeney. In addition Minstrel shows usually had a fiddler, a bones player and a drum/tambourine. We know from early Banjo instruction books by performers like Thomas Briggs, 1855, Philip Rice, 1858 and Frank Converse, 1865, that the minstrel style of playing was the “downstroke”, what we call frailing today. This style was learned from the slave performers themselves.

Briggs in Banjo Instructor of 1855 describes playing as follows: “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 as follows: “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.”

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