Hamilton College Library Online Exhibits

The Banjo, and How to Play It (1872)

Containing, in addition to the elementary study, a choice collection of polkas, waltzes, solos, schottisches, songs, reels, hornpipes, jigs, etc., with full explanations of both the "banjo" and "guitar" styles of execution, and designed to impart a complete knowledge of the art of playing the banjo practically without the aid of a teacher

by Frank B. Converse

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  • Converse perceives music as a science, and believes it should be taught systematically, beginning with "elementary principles" [1], which here are the basics of music theory (7-13).
  • Converse recommends using guitar style for "polkas, waltzes, and pieces containing harmony generally [2]" (17).
  • Converse provides 19 "exercises" with the same kind of measure-by-measure description as in The Banjo Instructior, without a Master except that Converse presents all the music notation together instead of splitting it into two measures at a time.
  • The reader is told whether to use banjo style or guitar style; exercises 8, 9, and 10 are meant to be played in both styles (35-37).
  • A "miscellaneous" section follows the exercises, with much less instruction, containing pieces for solo banjo as well as banjo and voice.

Music Notes

  • Almost all of the pieces are in A major or E major, with one song in G major (58) and a jig in E Aeolian (59).
  • All the vocal songs are from a male point of view. One of these songs "The Cream-Colored Horse," "as sung by Harry Stanwood" (90). Stanwood was a well-known comedian and banjo player during the 1860s and 1870s, performing with a number of minstrel troupes, including Duprez and Green's Minstrels, Emerson's California Minstrels, Bryant's Minstrels, and Haverley's California Minstrels [3]. "The Cream-Colored Horse" uses the same music (and lyrical conceit) as "The Man on the Flying Trapeze," the latter which was sung by a bus-ful of passengers in Frank Capra's 1934 comedy It Happened One Night [4].

     [1] Frank B. Converse, The Banjo, and How to Play It: Containing, in Addition to the Elementary Study, a Choice Collection of Polkas, Waltzes, Solos, Schottisches, Songs, Reels, Hornpipes, Jigs, etc., with Full Explanation of Both the "Banjo" and "Guitar" Styles of Execution, and Designed to Impart a Complete Knowledge of the Art of Playing the Banjo Practically with the Aid of a Teacher (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1872), iii-iv. Converse believes in teaching enough music theory that a banjo student can read regular music notation, in contrast to those such as George Dobson who taught a simplified method, a kind of tablature notation that required no knowledge of music theory.

     [2] "Pieces containing harmony generally" are probably ones that are not wholly monophonic, but contain chords.

     [3] "[Charley Reynolds; Lew Benedict; Harry Stanwood; Green's Minstrels]," New Haven Palladium published as New Haven Daily Palladium, evening ed., December 4, 1863, accessed July 7, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 2; New York Herald, October 13, 1872, accessed July 7, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 4; New York Herald, January 9, 1873, accessed July 7, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 2; Sunday Times (Chicago, IL), November 21, 1875, accessed July 7, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 7.

     [4] Capra, Frank, dir., "The Man on the Flying Trapeze," It Happened One Night, perf. Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, in The Premiere Frank Capra Collection (1934; Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2006), DVD.