Your *feelings* about minstrel-style banjos
February 24, 2020 9:45 AM   Subscribe

When you see a banjo with a scroll-style peghead (as opposed to other shapes), does it evoke... anything to you? In particular I am concerned if you see it and just immediately assume the person playing it is a racist or strange Civil War fetishist or similar. I know that there are a great many important and meaningful THOUGHTS on this topic, from many angles, but I'm particular interested in off-the-top-of-your-head reactions.

I am weighing the purchase of a new open-back banjo (for personal use; will not be creepily gifted) and am playing the puzzle game of finding the woods I want, the tone ring I (don't) want, and other options. I am considering some options that would include a "minstrel-style" scroll peghead*, and some that do not**.

For the record, I am a white man whose love of playing banjo is 0% ironic or fleeting. I play by myself or with friends (this instrument wouldn't go to jams no matter what because it's not going to be loud) while drinking rye whiskey on my porch. I am absolutely obsessed with the history of US music and culture but don't do re-enactment-type stuff or have any interest in "playing at" history so much as just really appreciating where my current shit is rooted (I like to think that I don't shy away from problematic history, but I am starting to wonder if my even asking this question shows I'm a monster).

I get that for a white person to so much as talk about banjos is to engage in cultural appropriation on some level and I acknowledge that. That's not exactly what I'm asking about but I don't want to ignore that relevant fact either.

Input from "music people" and "non-music people" is definitely welcome, and if you are comfortable sharing your race and age along with your perspective that might be helpful as well.

posted by Ignatius J. Reilly to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am a 35 year old white man who isn't a music person. I can't tell the difference between the banjos you linked to.

I have no feelings about banjos other than "do I feel like hearing twangy folk music today?"
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:55 AM on February 24, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Same. I would hazard that knowledge of banjo stuff is pretty minimal among non-music people? Mainly meams "old-timey" or (if you are of a certain age) makes you think of Deliverance.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:58 AM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a white woman and I wouldn't have picked up on the difference without you pointing it out-but why buy a product called the Minstrel? If it makes you feel weird (and it would make me feel weird...) don't get it. What's the benefit? Also, again, as a white person me not getting the difference immediately probably doesn't mean much.

My guitar teacher also teaches banjo and he does not have the scroll style top, as a data point.
posted by clarinet at 10:02 AM on February 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

(Also, if you are wondering what exactly "will not be creepily gifted" alludes to, it's this Ask and subsequent MeTa)
posted by Chrysostom at 10:03 AM on February 24, 2020 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: To be clear, I'm not actually considering that exact product, but rather used examples of banjos with similar headstocks, most of which have banal model names. I could have been more clear. So, that's kind of a sidestep, but I won't actually buy an OME Minstrel (unless you've got a thousand bucks I can borrow).
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:04 AM on February 24, 2020

Best answer: I am starting to wonder if my even asking this question shows I'm a monster)

White, middle-aged woman. Wouldn't know the difference or look at it askance and since you're a real banjo player, even if it were explained to me I would think you were playing that style of banjo because you liked the sound and not as any kind of cultural appropriation. Also, you seem thoughtful and appreciative and for that reason too I would not think you were culturally careless or insensitive.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:07 AM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The word "minstrel" is not exclusively tied to "minstrel show," its usage is waaaaaaay older.

I have jammed on mandolin in many bluegrass circles. I would not give a second thought to either peghead. I'd be more worried about you not standing directly behind me (I kid, I kid).
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:08 AM on February 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

Also, I now see your update re: the model name. BTW, that is a freakin' GORGEOUS instrument.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:09 AM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have no idea what we're talking about. I originally thought the issue was going to be that the first one had the screw thingies perpendicular to the head and expected the second would have them on the side like a guitar. But then the second one had the same. Then I thought the difference was that one has the screws facing the playing/strings side and the other the screws are the back? But I think I have it: It's that one has a square head and one has a more carved one?

And this matters because something? Something related to your being the shaped one is used by some other culture?

Confused non-music person.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:12 AM on February 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I looked at the two pictures you linked and had no feelings about either one whatsoever, in terms of racism.

I'm not saying the connotation might not be there, but I don't think it's well-known.
posted by Automocar at 10:14 AM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I grew up in Georgia, live near Nashville, and I see banjo and string players everywhere. My initial thoughts on seeing someone with a banjo are always the same: "bluegrass person" followed immediately by "hot damn someday I'll learn to play one of those".

I wouldn't know the difference at all between banjo instrument setups.
posted by jquinby at 10:15 AM on February 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: White southern non-musician - I attend plenty of old-timey and bluegrass events (including lectures on the history of the genre). I would not notice the difference, and if someone did point it out to me I would have no connotations either way.

There are plenty of symbols I would react negatively to, but this isn't one of them.
posted by matrixclown at 10:24 AM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As an appreciator of the banjo, you’re maybe aware of the amazing music and ethos of Rhiannon Giddens. I think if you ask this question in a forum of folks who also appreciate her you might get more nuanced answers and thoughts. Knowing the history of the music you are playing puts you in a better position to think this through.
posted by amanda at 10:26 AM on February 24, 2020 [13 favorites]

Came to mention Rhiannon Giddens, too. She's got a lot of banjos, including at least one scroll-headed one.
posted by rikschell at 10:34 AM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Non-banjo playing white person who likes jug bands. I would not notice the difference between these banjos. I would only have a negative reaction to the word "minstrel" used in conjunction with banjos and not, say, the Jethro Tull song Minstrel in the Gallery.
posted by FencingGal at 10:34 AM on February 24, 2020

Response by poster: amanda: I love Rhiannon Giddens' music and black string band music in general, and play some Carolina Chocolate Drops songs with my kids. Her being African American and very much about reclaiming a piece of black history and culture makes this a different question than for me (some well-meaning schmuck).

And yeah, I think you're right that a less general forum is going to have more nuanced answers. I actually sort of thought to myself before posting this "if the thread is 97 white people saying 'nah, this doesn't make sense as a concern' and one black person saying 'it would weird me out if my neighbor had one of those' then I will have my answer."

But I also think that anyone who is into banjos and also thinks critically about US history and race is already sort of past the "it's all AT LEAST complicated" stage re: cultural theft and a number of related issues, so I'm more interested if something as banal (I am trying to choose based on tone alone, but am finding that by that standard I am leaning toward a particular scroll-shaped serial#) as a tiny difference in the shape of the peg head is going to make someone assume I enjoy blackface or something terrible. I feel like the general consensus from a lay forum that I really like (e.g., the green) is "go for it," but I think I will also ask some other folks with other perspectives.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:38 AM on February 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Is part of this contingent on playing styles? I mean - I see a banjo and my mind goes immediately towards Flatt & Scruggs, clawhammer/flat-pick, etc. Years ago we happened upon the Mummer's Parade in Philadelphia and if memory serves they were strumming them, in what I assume is a more...what, minstrelsy(?) way. I don't know enough about the styles to have the proper name.

I wouldn't notice the pegs, but I'd probably notice that style if someone was singing lyrics featuring minstrel-era/blackface images. I might think its weird either way, but probably much weirder if a white guy was performing those songs and singing about his mammy, the ol' folks at home, and so on.

Is this beanplating? It's starting to feel like beanplating.
posted by jquinby at 10:57 AM on February 24, 2020

Best answer: Oh hi, I'm a white person with a couple of early style banjos, like this and this, and I've been playing mostly music from the minstrel era up through 1920 or so for the last 10 years. I'm in my forties at this point, and I absolutely get where you're coming from, but you are definitely beanplating this.
But I think I have it: It's that one has a square head and one has a more carved one?
For a bit of context, the Ome Minstrel model that Ignacius linked to is inspired by banjos made in the early-mid 1800s, when blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. In particular, the banjos made by William Boucher in Baltimore in the 1850s have become shorthand for "old-school banjo that would have been played by blackface minstrels" for banjo players and/or civil war reenactors who get interested and look into early banjo music.

It's really nice to hear someone giving so much consideration to the banjo's problematic history (both in terms of blackface minstrelsy and in terms of cultural appropriation,) but my sense is that there's really not much awareness of these issues, regardless of race. RE: the "If you had a black neighbor, would they be weirded out by a banjo with an old-fashioned peghead" question, my take is "Probably not if you're playing instrumental old-time fiddle tunes on it." It would be far more problematic if you were playing a modern style banjo but singing historically accurate racist minstrel tunes.

For the most part, nobody has any cultural associations with banjo other than Deliverance and/or or Kermit the Frog. I think the types of banjo awareness are: (warning, broad generalizations ahead)
  • People who, even if they play some other instrument, don't really know anything about banjo; like, distinctions about 5-string vs 4-string (much less tenor vs plectrum) or the styles of music they're associated with are completely lost on them. They have a vague awareness of what a banjo looks like and sounds like, but some don't even know/notice the difference between a banjo and a guitar.
  • Banjo players who fall mostly into two camps: 5-string (bluegress and old-time) and 4-string (jazz and irish trad). There's a weird firewall between the 4 and 5 string camps, very little cross-pollination and a sort of mutually exclusive smugness by each that theirs is the "right" kind of banjo. Of all banjo players, the only ones I can think of who might take exception to a Boucher-style peghead would be bluegrass purists who revere Earl Scruggs' 1930 Gibson Granada resonator banjo among all others; and their objections would be aesthetic, not historical. Even among banjo players, there does not seem to be much awareness of the instrument's roots; 5-string players tend to think of it as a good old-timey instrument from appalachia, and you can still find people who get bristly when that narrative is challenged.
  • Civil War reenactors who go down the minstrel banjo rabbit hole in pursuit of "authenticity." I never got into reenacting but I spent a while in the outer orbit of that whole scene, and it may sound strange but from what I've seen the average civil war reenactor does not grapple much with any of these issues of racism or cultural appropriation. They just like dressing up and playing army on the weekend. If a civil war banjo person was going to take exception to anything, it would be that that Ome banjo has frets and steel strings.
  • People who get into early banjo music just because it's got such an interesting/compelling sound. You don't have to get very far into an instruction book like Briggs' Banjo Instructor (1855) before you encounter some virulently racist song titles; there is definitely an awareness there, but because it's an overwhelmingly white hobby (judging by active membership on there's not always a lot of sensitivity about it; even among a group of people who aren't racist, it tends to be treated as an elephant-in-the-room to be politely ignored.
  • In academia there is definitely a sensitivity to the banjo's legacy, but these issues are usually grappled with in context, and the banjo historians I know would not leap to the "this person is racist" conclusion unless they were given some other cause to think so.
(There are exceptions at every level, of course.)

Anyway, I can go on about this stuff forever. Feel free to memail me if I can clarify anything.
posted by usonian at 11:54 AM on February 24, 2020 [15 favorites]

Best answer: White female non-musician who has actually been to a CW re-enactment (20+ years ago, but the memory lingers ...).

The two things that come to my mind when I think about the banjo are Steve Martin and Andy from The Office. I have literally zero emotions from either of the pictures you linked to.

Get the one you like the most and enjoy playing it. Godspeed!!
posted by mccxxiii at 12:00 PM on February 24, 2020

Best answer: 35 yr old white woman, not a music person, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference between the types of banjos if you hadn’t pointed it out. I don’t know anything about the history of the banjo and didn’t realize until reading your question that it was associated in any way with minstrel shows (I am familiar with the basics of the history of minstrel shows). FWIW, I was kind of sheltered growing up - for example, I didn’t recognize the confederate flag or know that people still used it until I was in college.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:20 PM on February 24, 2020

Best answer: White, 40-something music person, play the banjo a little (clawhammer), have that big tome about the history of the banjo but have only barely started it, casual fondness for Rhiannon Giddens and Noam Pikelny. This shape evoked nothing for me.

I get that for a white person to so much as talk about banjos is to engage in cultural appropriation on some level and I acknowledge that.

You're presenting this as if it's uncontroversial and it strikes me as, begging your pardon, absurd.
posted by less of course at 12:33 PM on February 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: This would be a great question to ask in the Traditional Music Today facebook group, which was set up for conversations of this type, and has a bunch of members of color who've thought a lot about this sort of thing. As a 40-something white old-time fiddle player, my own thoughts align pretty closely with usonian's, though.
posted by hades at 12:35 PM on February 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a middle-aged white dude who is music-adjacent (my daughter is a vocalist and works part-time at a music school, I have seen dozens if not hundreds of recitals and performances) and who considers himself pretty conscious when it comes to issues around cultural appropriation and having a critical eye towards traditional customs and practices that may have offensive or hurtful origins.

It never would have occurred to me that the shape of the head of a banjo could have that sort of connotation, and even if you explained the possibility without getting into the details, I still would not be able to associate the scroll-head with the more problematic aspects of the instrument's history.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:36 PM on February 24, 2020

Best answer: White guy, late 40s, interested in military history and music (with a kid who plays guitar well): I didn't see any hidden meanings of any kind in the shape of either instrument. And I love Bluegrass and have CDs autographed by a finger-picking guitarist and am proud of my son's ability to play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on a guitar his great-uncle built.

The word "minstrel" does have nasty, racist overtones now, but unless it's printed in fiery letters down the whole back of the banjo's neck, or you don't, like, shout "This banjo's name is Minstrel!" at the start of every number, who will know? The only people who can identify it as a Minstrel from a distance probably think more about music than about racism, and will expect the same is true of you.

(Unless you suck, in which case everyone who finds out its name will assume you're a racist and bought it solely to carry around as a racist prop. Or maybe that's just me, projecting.)
posted by wenestvedt at 12:58 PM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You're presenting this as if it's uncontroversial and it strikes me as, begging your pardon, absurd.

That's fair. Where I'm coming from is this: the banjo is coded for many people for perfectly valid reasons as a "white" instrument. Indeed, there was even a period of rather successful whitewashing when even real, actual historians said it was invented by a white guy named Sweeney (this was baldly disproven by plenty of available evidence the whole time). Only in the last few decades have scholars began to look into the instrument's African history and the African/African-American/Carribean roots of what many of us had been telling ourselves was very much a white music form. It has a complex history, but not a complex public image, is what I was going for, and so so much of that has to do with racism and cultural imperialism.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 1:02 PM on February 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: As a white-presenting banjo player I really butted my head against the whole old-time/bluegrass/folk/Americana scene here in DC, mostly because you know what? It's white AF. The players, the fans, the event organizers, all of it. And the rest of the music scenes here are a lot more diverse. And I think that's largely accidental, a result of predilection and exposure in many ways, but there's some underlying stuff there that gradually came to bother me. To the point that it helped break up a band.

I don't think the headstock of a particular style of banjo is going to signal anything one way or the other to most people.

I do think it's worth examining old-time/bluegrass/folk/Americana and the curiously racialized history of this particular instrument. I think the statement that "For the most part, nobody has any cultural associations with banjo other than Deliverance and/or or Kermit the Frog," is somewhat inaccurate, because of the extent to which, in the US at least, the banjo itself came to signify "rural white people music" to a lot of people.

It's a rewarding instrument, and I'm really not trying to persuade or dissuade anyone here from playing the banjo. Good on you for asking the question.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:22 PM on February 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I wouldn't worry about it, not because minstrel-style banjos don't have baggage, but because that's not a minstrel-style banjo. Frets; steel strings; tailpiece; frailing scoop; modern tuners; narrow, thin neck rounded for its entire length; synthetic head; three-foot, bi-wood bridge; truss rod--this is a modern banjo with a kinda fancy head.

The history of the banjo is fraught, but the cultural space it occupies today is extremely well-established. The banjo was stolen from Black people like a century before Rock & Roll was. I think your instinct is right that playing a minstrel-style banjo (fretless, friction tuners, skin head, square neck etc.) makes enough of a reference to an era when the racial politics of the instrument were tricky that it would be worth an extra thought. But this isn't one.
posted by Krawczak at 2:29 PM on February 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I saw Rhiannon Giddens in concert recently, and she explicitly called out playing minstrel banjo as an act of reclamation of the traditions that minstrelsy stole from the enslaved and their descendants. So I, too, would be hesitant to buy one just because it was cheaper or nicer or whatever. (Sorry, can’t immediately find a cite for her saying it elsewhere)
posted by hollyholly at 4:45 PM on February 24, 2020

I'm a white violinist from a musical family with no serious banjo players (one casual who mostly plays guitar); most of the non-classical music I play is for contra dancing, playing in groups of other folk musicians who are mostly white. At least in my region, contra dance musicians and bluegrass/old-time musicians don't have a huge overlap, even though instruments and playing styles are often the same; probably one in four contra dance bands around here has a banjo player. Every banjo player I know through contra dance bands is a multi-instrumentalist who plays other melody instruments as well as banjo; my impression is that that's not so much the case in bluegrass circles. Honestly I have no idea what kind of pegheads any of their instruments have; even the musicians I play with often enough to be able to tell the difference between their banjos, that wasn't even on my radar as a distinction to notice. I grew up with mandolinists and mandolins also have variations between their scrolls (most obviously, some have actual scrolls like violins, some look more like guitars, or lutes) ... that I basically don't notice unless I'm tuning one and trying to figure out which peg goes with which string. Tldr; from usonian's list, I have about as much banjo-awareness as someone still in category one can have, and I would not notice this visual distinction or associate it with minstrel banjo as opposed to other modern banjo styles.
posted by C. K. Dexter Haven at 4:19 PM on February 25, 2020

Response by poster: Crisis averted. I'm getting a custom banjo with a slotted headstock from this lovely builder: for LESS than the OME.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 7:30 PM on February 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

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