Hamilton College Library Online Exhibits

Banjo Instructor, without a Master (1865)

Containing a choice collection of banjo solos, jigs, songs, reels, walk arounds, etc., progressively arranged, and plainly explained; enabling the learner to become a proficient banjoist without the aid of a teacher.

by Frank B. Converse

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  • Joseph Weidlich published an updated version of this book in 1999, converting the songs to modern tablature and discussing minstrel banjo playing techniques [2].
  • In the preface, Converse cites "lack of well qualified teachers" as one reason for the book being published (iii).
  • Also in the preface, Converse offers Sigismond Thalberg's study of the banjo as evidence for the banjo's prominence and merit (iii). Thalberg was an Austrian concert pianist and composer who took up the banjo while touring the United States, ca. 1856-1858 [3]. He studied with James Buckley, and even composed some pieces for the banjo [4].
  • The material begins with brief and basic music theory instruction, as well as instructions for tuning and holding the banjo. There are five "positions" for the left hand analogous to those for guitar chords (though all songs here are monophonic).
  • Typically, the song is shown two measures at a time in regular musical notation, followed by detailed step-by-step instructions for each measure.
  • This is the only one of four books in Hamilton's collection containing "Arkansas Traveller," a popular fiddling tune in the nineteenth century, to include the accompanying skit (90).
  • It was reviewed by The United States Service Magazine in August 1865 as "handy," with the skit of "Arkansas Traveller" earning particular praise [5]. It must be said, though, the book is only handy as a learning tool and not for performance, given that the small size of the book brings about multiple page turns within most songs and sometimes the written instructions require backtracking. The music is simple enough, though, that a song, once learned, is quite easily committed to memory.
  • This book looks quite similar to The Banjo, and How to Play It [6], and the ads in the front are exactly the same. Do not confuse the two, however, as The Banjo, and How to Play It was published 7 years later and contains rather different material, included music to be played in guitar style, whereas all songs in this book are to be played in stroke style.
  • However, this book may actually be a later edition from 1872, since the back cover advertises The Banjo, and How to Play It. Though there is no author given for that book, very few of Dick and Fitzgerald's books are on music, lessening the chance of a coincidence. A reprint could explain the physical objects' similarity, discussed above.

Music Notes

  • The music contained here is very simple, with no song longer than 16 measures. Most songs are in simple meter, 2/4 or 4/4, with only 4 (13%) in compound meter. Many songs are also in the key of A major (very easy to play when using the given tuning), with 5 songs (17%) in E major and 2 songs (7%) in non-major keys (B minor and E Aeolian).
  • There are no composer or arranger attributions for any of the songs.
  • As previously noted, about half of the songs in this book can also be found in Converse's New and Complete Method for the Banjo with or without a Master. Titles of duplicated songs may be identical ("Whole Hog or None" [7]), similar ("Rumsey's Jig" and "Ramsey's Jig" [8], "Brighton Jig" and "Brighton" [9]), or completely different ("Bee-Gum Reel" and "Rural Walk Around" [10]).
  • An odd occurrence: both this book and New and Complete Method contain "Luke West's Walk Around" and "Matt Peel's Walk Around," yet the matching titles do not correspond to matching songs while Banjo Instructor's "Luke West's Walk Around" displays similarities to New and Complete Method's "Matt Peel's Walk Around" [11].

     [1] Frank B. Converse, Frank B. Converse's New and Complete Method for the Banjo with or without a Master, later ed. (New York: S. T. Gordon, 1869).

     [2] Joseph Weidlich and Frank B. Converse, More Minstrel Banjo: Frank Converse's "Banjo Instructor, without a Master"; Performance Notes and Transcriptions (Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream, 1999).

     [3] Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman, America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 82.

     [4] "[James Buckley; Thalberg]," Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, MA), May 20, 1871, accessed June 6, 2011, America's Historical Newspapers, 2.

     [5] "Literary Intelligence and Notes on New Books," The United States Service Magazine (1864-1866) 4, no. 2 (1865): 165, accessed June 30, 2011, American Periodicals, http://search.proquest.com/docview/127505894?accountid=11264.

     [6] 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).

     [7]  Frank B. Converse, Frank B. Converse's Banjo Instructor, without a Master: Containing a Choice Collection of Banjo Solos, Jigs, Songs, Reels, Walk Arounds, etc., Progressively Arranged, and Plainly Explained; Enabling the Learner to Become a Proficient Banjoist without the Aid of a Teacher (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1865), 81; Converse, New and Complete, 67.

     [8] Converse, Banjo Instructor, 43; Converse, New and Complete, 14.

     [9] Converse, Banjo Instructor, 87; Converse, New and Complete, 59.

     [10] Converse, Banjo Instructor, 38; Converse, New and Complete, 16. Thanks to Joseph Weidlich and his wonderful "Minstrel Song Cross Reference Index, 1851-1865," The Early Minstrel Banjo: Technique and Repertoire (Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream, 2004), 252.

     [11] Converse, Banjo Instructor, 45; Converse, New and Complete, 58.