BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SUMMER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
In 1991, a friend gave me a 5-string banjo. Little did I know it would lead to a ten-year obsession with this steel-string, re-entrant-tuned wonder. I studied Scruggs-style, Bill Keith’s melodic style, and Don Reno’s single-string style—all three techniques designed to produce a fantastic flurry of eighth notes at 180 beats per minute. It wasn’t until 1997, when I found Joseph Weidlich’s book Minstrel Banjo: The Briggs Banjo Instructor, that I discovered a genre of music with a slower rhythmic approach than bluegrass afforded.
The Briggs Banjo Instructor by Thomas F. Briggs was published in 1855 by the Oliver Ditson Company and is considered the first comprehensive tutorial on split-stroke banjo technique. Briggs, who died before its publication, had collected numerous African melodies and rhythms from enslaved people in the South. This new incarnation of Briggs Banjo Instructor by Kyle Gray Young presents 56 tabbed ukulele arrangements true to the spirit of the original banjo book.
The minstrel banjo era is universally considered racist, and the songs in this collection were most widely associated with the white musicians in blackface that popularized the tunes in the 19th century. In this book, Kyle Gray Young offers a compelling explanation of why songs from this period need to be played:
“There’s no denying that Briggs learned, and possibly then stole, the songs in this book from African American musicians that he visited on plantations,” he writes. “I certainly don’t want to celebrate the racist activities that Briggs engaged. But on the other hand, he was largely responsible for getting the first collection of African American compositions ever published. Briggs’ Banjo Instructor has its flaws, some of them inexcusable. I hope that with my new edition, this music can come back to life without any hatred for anyone. This is real American music, and some of the finest that was ever collected.”
The magic in these arrangements is how beautifully the re-entrant nature of the banjo transfers to the re-entrant-tuned [or high-G] ukulele, Young says. “It was just one of those ‘I wonder if that would work moments’ when I decided to try these on the ukulele,” he says. “To my amazement and delight, every single solo worked. I did the best I could to preserve the same banjoiness that the original Briggs version gives while also enjoying the many unique aspects of the re-entrant ukulele tuning.”
The instrumentals found in Young’s book are fun to play, and many songs don’t travel above the third fret. My favorites from this collection are “Old Dan Tucker,” which Young calls “One of the most perfect banjo tunes ever arranged.” I also enjoy playing “Circus Jig,” “Keemo Kimo,” and “Old Johnny Boker.”
I agree with Young that the music contained in Briggs’ Banjo Instructor should not be forgotten due to its minstrel past, but celebrated. Gray’s dedication pays homage to this uniquely American musical form. Young further states, “I would like to respectfully dedicate this new edition of Briggs’ Banjo Instructor to the memory of the African American musicians who brought the banjo tradition to North America. They didn’t have a choice. It was under the cruelest of circumstances that brought them here. Please allow this music to shine in the proper light that it deserved from the beginning.”
The book can be downloaded for free at kylegrayyoung.gumroad.com.