Hamilton College Library Online Exhibits

The Complete Preceptor for Banjo (1851)


Containing all necessary instruction, with a large collection of music adapted to the instrument, including most of the songs sung by the Christy Minstrels

by Gumbo Chaff, A. M. A. First Banjo Player to the King of Congo, and author of the Ethiopian Glee Book, Ethiopian Accordeon Instructor, Ethiopian Violin Instructor, Ethiopian Flute Instructor, &c., &

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  • This is the 1851 edition of the earliest known banjo tutor [1]. It was written by Elias Howe, whose pseudonym is taken from Thomas Dartmouth Rice's 1834 blackface character Gombo Chaff [2], and published by Oliver Ditson.  Howe himself had published the same book in 1848 [3], yet then, in 1850, sold some of his works to Ditson (this one among them) and agreed not to publish anything for ten years [4].
  • The title is misleading for the true banjo beginner.  "All necessary instruction" consists of a.) how the strings are numbered, b.) how to hold the banjo, and c.) how to tune the banjo in C and D.

Music Notes

  • The repertoire within consists, as the title implies, exclusively of minstrel songs.
  • These arrangements are not idiomatic to the banjo, and are perhaps modeled on those for flute or violin [5].
  • No song is longer than 3 lines, or about 32 measures.
  • There is little variety in key; most songs are in D major or G major.  There are use of other modes besides major/Ionian: five songs are in Mixolydian mode (5 of 46 or about 11%) one in minor (2%), and one in Dorian mode (2%).
  • Though most songs are in 2/4 or 4/4, some are in compound meter: 7 songs (15%) have time signatures of 6/8 or 3/8.

     [1] Joseph Weidlich, The Early Minstrel Banjo: Technique and Repertoire (Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream, 2004), 51.

     [2] Sarah Meredith, "With a Banjo on Her Knee: Gender, Race, Class, and the American Classical Banjo Tradition, 1880-1915," diss. (Florida State University School of Music, 2003), 35. "Gumbo Chaff" and "Gombo Chaff" are variants of the same name. Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 53, caption for illustration 11. Meredith hypothesizes that this particular pseudonym was intended to lend an air of authenticity (36).

     [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), 266n55.

     [4] Patrick Sky, Mel Bay Presents "Ryan's Mammoth Collection: 1050 Reels and Jigs, Hornpipes, Clogs, Walk-arounds, Essences, Strathspeys, Highland Flings and Contra Dances, with Figures, and How to Play Them" (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 1995), 11.

     [5] Weidlich, Early Minstrel Banjo, 58; Gura and Bollman, America's Instrument, 38.

The Complete Preceptor for Banjo (1851)