Tom Briggs' Jig

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X:1 T:Tom Briggs' Jig M:2/4 L:1/8 R:Schottische B:James Buckley -- Buckley's New Banjo Method (1860, p. 15) Z:AK/Fiddler's Companion K:A A,C/E/ A/>E/ C|DF/A/ d2|A,C/E/ A/F/ E/C/|B,CB,z| A,C/E/ A/F/ C/A,/|DF/A/ d2|1 D/A/ d/f/ C/E/ A/c/|B,/E/G/B/ Az:| |2{d}c/B/A/c/ B/A/G/B/|A/F/E/C/ A,||:e|A/e/ (3c/e/c/ (3f/e/e/ e/e/|A/e/ (3c/e/c/ (3c/B/G/ E/B/| A/e/ (3c/e/c/ (3f/e/e/ e/e/|1 E/G/B/ (3d/B/G/ (3A/E/C/ A,z:|2 (3E/G/B/ (3d/B/G/ AA,||



TOM BRIGGS' JIG. American, Schottische (2/4 time). A Major (Buckley's): D Major (Ryan). Standard tuning (fiddle). AA'BB'. The term "jig" in "Tom Brigg's Jig" refers to a kind of syncopated duple-time dance tune, much associated with the banjo and almost always in 2/4 time; it does not refer here to the more familiar 6/8 Irish jig. John Hartford (Devils Box) thinks the use of the word ‘jig’, as in 'jig dancing' and the derogatory name for African-Americans, is derived from this. However, the term ‘jig’ in the British Isles long has been used generically for any kind of solo dance step, and it is likely the same usage migrated to America.

Tom Briggs (c. 1824/25-1854) learned to play the banjo from one of the first blackface minstrel musicians, Bill Whitlock. He played with Wood's Minstrels and performed in England in 1849. He traveled to California with E.P. Christy's Minstrels in the mid-1850's, via the Gulf of Mexico and the Isthmus of Panama, to tour the gold camps and to perform in San Francisco. However, soon after opening night in that city he succumbed to typhoid fever or tuberculosis contracted in Panama. His banjo tutor, Briggs' Banjo Instructor (Oliver Ditson, Boston 1855) was completed by his friend, minstrel James Buckley. Tom Briggs, according to Edward Le Roy Rices’ Monarchs of Minstrelsy (New York, 1911) was:

...one of the earliest and greatest banjo performers in minstrelsy; when he first went on the stage, in the early 40’s, he travelled under the name of Fluter. He invented the banjo thimble in 1848 [used for rapid tremolo picking], and it came into general use three years later. He was the first to do the bell chimes [i.e. harmonics] , and gave imitations of a horserace on the banjo. He played successful engagements in the 40’s and 50’s with Wood’s Minstrels, likewise Buckley’s Serenaders. September 20 1854, he left New York with E.P. Christy’s Minstrels to play an engagement in San Francisco; he contracted an illness on the way, and was unable to play. Tom Briggs died in San Francisco October 23, 1854; aged 30 years. (p. 46)

Briggs had been taught to play by one of the first minstrel performers, Billy Whitlock, an original member of the seminal Virginia Minstrels (Dan Emmett’s group) and was quite famous as a banjoist in his day. Unfortunately, as Rice mentions above, he contracted typhoid fever (“Panama Fever”) while crossing the jungles of the Isthmus of Panama in the years following the California Gold Rush, and died soon after reaching California on the ship the Golden Age. A fretless banjo tutor, Briggs’ Banjo Instructor, was published in his name in 1855, having been completed by his friend (and fellow-minstrel performer) James Buckley (for more on whom see note for “Dar’s Sugar in the Gourd”). It was the second known self-tutor for the banjo. The tutor has been reprinted in 1992, and is often referred to for learning the minstrel style of playing.

The New York Spirit of the Times reprinted an article from The Pioneer, a monthly magazine from California, that published a tribute to Briggs:

Poor Tim Briggs! How well I recollect him as he used to enter between the first and second divisions of the performance, with his banjo on his shoulder, and his cheerful "Good evenin', white folks!"

Black as Tome Brigss made himself, he could not help being good-looking. His fine features and his genial smile were white through the veil of cork, and it was no wonder that his brother players would group themselves at the side wings when he went in front, to gaze with affectionate admiration on him, whom they all "allowed" was the darkey Apollo.

There are some persons so resolutely handsome that nothing will disfigure them; no garb entirely disguise-- and of this sort was poor Tom Briggs. Wisely appreciating his good gifts, he chose a neat outline and a quiet manner, preferring the silent favor they insured with the observer, to the spontaneous roar which follows broad exaggeration. He was the dandy nigger, bright as a dollar, clean as a race-horse, fine as a star, and when his finger struck the banjo, you felt that he was filled with the spirit of an artist. Altogether, Tom Briggs was an extraordinary person, and, had he chosen a less humble instrument, and subjected his taste to the tutelage of science, he might have had his likeness taken looking sideways, as the great tragedians do, for he would have been the master of a vast renown. As it was, he distanced rivalry by mere natural progression, elevated the banjo to the rank of the guitar, and rendered his performance not only the feature of the concert, but a by-word of surprise. This was triumph. Whenever any one played to ears that had once heard him, the comment invariably was: "Ah, but you should have heard poor Tom Briggs!" This was fame! And Tom Briggs knew it, and felt its inspiring influence, and day by day he played more famously because of it.

...Every one conceded the superiority of Tom Briggs. All minstrel managers endeavored to engage him, and it is the misfortune of us here, that death forced him to leave the band for the cemetery, the first week of his arrival on these shores.

Wonder as he was, Tom Briggs had other merits attached to his professional pursuits. He was a model of a man. He possessed an honest nature, and a kind and gentle spirit; in a manner he was shy, reserved, and almost diffident, and entirely free form the hard habits that characterized many of his class. He had a great notion, too, of being a gentleman, and, instead of hanging about taverns and passing his time with low associates in vulgar pleasures, he devoted himself to good company, elegant attire, and to that laborious practice which is the mother of improvement.

Nevertheless, Tom Briggs pursued these inclinations and thus sailed aloof without offense to his professional associates...I verily believe his comrades took as much pride in his linen ruffles and straw kids, as he did himself, and perhaps felt that they were in some way associated with the dignity of the band. Certainly it is, that his unassuming excellence had made a deep impression on their minds, and when he was lowered out of sight, many a tear dropped from their eyes into the fresh sand that fell with a muffling sound upon his coffin.

The evening performance that followed the funeral ceremony was a doleful one. "For my part," said [Eph] Horn, the bone-player, "I scarcely knew what I was about. Tom and I had traveled together for many years, and it seemed to me as if I had lost a brother. All my main business on the stage was done with him, and when I looked around, in the middle of my performance, and found a strange face alongside of me in place of his, and remembered that I had just helped to put him in the ground, I near a'most 'broke down'."

As he said this, the eye of the humorist became moist, a slight tremor and huskiness was perceptible in his voice, and, turning half around, so as to look another way, he suddenly asked the crowd of listeners to drink.

"Ah! Gentlemen," said he, when they had all got their glasses, and he had cleared his throat, "you'll never see the like of poor Tom Briggs again--you'll not! He was different from most other players. They seldom take any pride in their business, they don't study, and they're generally satisfied with any cheap instrument they can get; but Tom was werry particular. He never stood upon the price of a banjo, and, when he got a good one, he was always studying some way to ornament it and improve it. He had a light one and a heavy one, for different kinds of work, and he played so strong that he had to get a piece of steel made for the end of his finger, as a sort of shield like, to prevent his tearing off his nail. He was werry fond of playing the heavy one, and, when we were coming up the coast, he would sometimes strike his strongest notes, and then turn round to me proud and say, "Ah! Eph, what'll they think, up there, when they hear the old Cremona speak like that?

It did not make any difference even when he took sick. He played away all the same. But after he got here he could play only on the light one. He used to have it hanging against the wall, so as he could reach it in bed. Most any time you went in you'd hear him talking to the old Cremona, as he called it, and making it talk back to him. But by'm-by, he got so weak he could scarcely hold on to it, and I have sat by his bed and watched him till the sound became so faint it seemed as if he and the banjo were both falling into a dream. All the while he kept a good heart, poor fellow! And we kept encouraging him along too; and every now and then he would raise himself up and say 'Ah! How I'll make 'em look around when I get strength enough, once more, to make the old banjo talk!

But at last he felt that he was going, and, after some straight, sensible talk, he told us that, when he died, to take the two banjos and pack them up carefull, and send them home to his father and mother. An hour before he went, he asked me to hand him the 'light Cremona'. He took a hold of it, and looked at it for a minute, as if he was a looking at a person who he was going to part with for ever, and then he tried to hit it, but he could merely drop the weight of his thin fingers on the chords. There was no stroke to his touch at all. He could just barely make a sound, and that was so fine that it appeared to vanish away like the buzz of a fly. It was so dim, that I don't believe he heard it himself, and he dropped his hand as if he gave it up. Then he looked at me as if he understood everything in the world, and, shaking his head, said, 'It's no use--hang it up, Eph--I cannot hit it any more!" There were the last words that poor Tom Briggs ever spoke."

At this the speaker wiped a tear from his eye; but it did him no discredit, for he had described the death of an artist, and given the best proof of a man.


Additional notes



Printed sources : - Buckley (Buckley's New Banjo Method), 1860; p. 15. Cole (1000 Fiddle Tunes), 1940; p. 80. Kerr (Merry Melodies, vol. 2), c. 1880’s; No. 425, p. 48. Ryan’s Mammoth Collection, 1883; p. 113.

Recorded sources : - Fellside FECD276, Vic Gammon & Friends – “Early Scottish Ragtime” (2016).




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