Playing banjo sets one apart, at least nowadays. It's a loud instrument with a distinctive sound, no hiding from the metallic twang, pretending it's just another guitar, or that it doesn't transform any music played upon it. Unlike other folk instruments such as guitar or mandolin, it is not all that easy to play even poorly, and playing well takes dedication, determination, and understanding roommates/spouses/friends. I was once walking down the street on my way to a show, guitar on my back and carrying my banjo case, when I heard two young men behind me joking about "that Hee-Haw shit." No sense not letting them have their fun. The tv show Hee-Haw defined country music for me when I was young and foolish also--corny songs, bad comedy, funny accents and banjos seemed to go together all too well.
I was a long time coming to country music, beyond a few Hank Williams songs and country-rock. It took a former punk rocker, John Carruthers (and his great country-punk band Lancaster County Prison), to get me oriented. John and I were colleagues at a publishing company, and he explained that banjo wasn't just a Nashville adornment to make any song sound unsophisticated enough for rubes. It had a long and varied history, and players as odd and compelling and powerful as any Delta bluesman or bebop virtuoso. "Start with Uncle Dave Macon," he suggested. He had a few tips about playing, but I was years from trying that. I had to hear the instrument first on its own terms, to set my own biases aside as best I could and listen.
I bought a compilation cd, NASHVILLE: The Early String Bands, Vol 2.(County Records CO-CD-3522), because I saw Macon's name among the artists. Macon was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry. Born in 1870, he had deep roots in American music-making and embodied the accumulated traditions of minstrelsy, medicine shows, vaudeville, country dances, back-porch picking. The cd had two of his pieces, "Over the Road I'm Bound To Go" which he sings and plays with Sam McGee backing on "banjo-guitar" according to the notes (that would be a banjo body with a guitar neck and 6 strings), and "Bake That Chicken Pie" performed with his Fruit Jar Guzzlers Sam McGee on guitar/vocals and Kirk McGee and Mazy Todd on fiddles/vocals. The latter song, recorded in 1927, has a familiar country beat, almost a 2/4 rhythm suited to dancing, and a comic vocal about the joys of chicken pie eating. Good fun, but about what I expected to hear.
"Over the Road I'm Bound To Go" from a year later is quite another matter. It sounds like one elaborated banjo lick over and over, Macon spitting out couplets "Judge and jurymen, can't you see/I have murdered in the first degree" and "It may rain, it may snow/Over the road I'm bound to go" and "Every station I pass by/thought I heard a little lady cry" and whooping like a mad rooster every so often. It sounds like he's playing a different variation of the lick nearly every couplet, the notes just keep ricocheting like buckshot with incredible drive, supported by what sounds like spoons or tapping feet now and then (I'd guess feet unless Sam McGee had 4 hands). The song is one root chord with a lick that indicates the five chord without pausing long enough to play it fully. All of Macon's showmanship and musicianship are on aural display. I was hooked.
Yazoo Records has been a huge reservoir of American song for me in my listening--I buy just about every Yazoo compilation I find. The first was MY ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS: Early American Rural Music Vol. 2--Badman Ballads and Hellraising Songs (Yazoo 2040) which has Macon's 1938 "Railroading and Gambling" and another duet with Sam McGee, both men on guitar, from 1926, "Late Last Night When Willie Came Home." "Railroading" is another one-chord banjo frenzy played in classic clawhammer style with it's rolling boom-diddy beat, another series of couplets and a chorus phrase "Railroading and gambling/picking up chips from mad men/lord, lord, lord" all following the same major pentatonic scale, with some wonderful scat singing and banjo flourishes. It swings madly by its own metronome, never pauses to catch its breath. Macon's lyrics draw on white and black folk lyrics and vernacular, just as his banjo playing harkens back to African technique as well as using finger patterns developed in the late 19th century as banjo became a more accepted and formalized instrument.
These older musicians interest me as a way to connect to music before mechanical recording and almost lost to us now. Macon was the son of a Confederate Civil War veteran, born 5 years after the war ended. New Orleans blues guitarist Rabbit Brown was slightly younger, born around 1880. Banjoist Uncle John Scruggs, filmed around 1930 playing an old minstrel tune "Little Old Cabin Down the Lane," looks old enough to have been born in slavery--check out the clip on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TgIeaGzeLQ for shots of his clawhammer playing, the index fingernail picking the notes, the thumb bouncing on the shorter drone and 4th strings for rhythm. Each of these musicians used songs from white and black traditions, instrumental techniques passed back and forth from black to white musicians, and sang in deeply drawled accents reflecting the inextricably twined cultures of Africa and Europe in America. Macon arguably sounds "blacker" than Brown and closer to Scruggs.
In 1992, the Tennessee Banjo Institute sponsored a series of workshops, part of which is also available on Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4a4FxaRjQk shows the late Scott Didlake discussing the origins of the instrument with Mike Seeger and others. They have several recreations of primitive banjos, made of gourds that Didlake grew himself, and he posits the gourd banjo as the predecessor of the electric guitar as well as the modern banjo, capable of volumes and vocal nuances that early guitars just could not express. "The well of souls" is his phrase for the gourd banjo, an instrument whose African origins are clear and unmistakeable, whose every part--gourd, wooden neck, skin head, and gut strings--came from living beings, whose music kept cultural memory and identity alive and growing and expanding even in the most dire circumstances.
Every banjo player taps that well of souls the minute they pick up the instrument. Ironically, the composer whose songs most elevated minstrel banjo playing, Stephen Foster, did not himself play banjo--he owned a small guitar, played piano, and apparently flute as well. Blackface minstrel performers were the first white public performers on banjos, imitating the clawhammer or frailing strums of black players. Thomas Jefferson mentions the "banjar" as a slave instrument, and I like to think of him picking one up and giving it a whirl when he tired of his violin or wanted to impress Sally Hemmings and their mulatto offspring. We know banjos were played in the Carribean almost as soon as slaves were first imported in the early 17th century. Banjos may have gotten associated with "hillbilly music" and the white south, due not just to its popularity among rural white southerners but through the marketing of the music industry, but its African origins and role in creating African-American identity (elements of which all Americans of any hue share) cannot be erased.
Gus Cannon might be the best known of the old black banjo players, and his Jug Stompers were well-recorded in the late 1920s. He was born in 1883, or perhaps as early as 1874, and his combo of 3 musicians featured his banjo and jug-blowing, guitarist Ashley Thompson, and Noah Lewis on harmonica. Again, Yazoo has preserved his music on various cds, among them BEFORE THE BLUES: The Early American Black Music Scene Vol. 3 (Yazoo 2017), on which appears the song "Feather Bed." This is the same major pentatonic melody as Macon's "Over the Road and Bound to Go" with the same chorus and many of the same couplets. Cannon's tempo is a bit steadier and has a pronounced rhythmic accent on the 1 and 3 beats that gives the 4/4 time a 2/4 feel. There's a picture of the band, Cannon holding his banjo and wearing a jug in a neck brace similar to a harmonica rack. He seems to be holding a pick in his right hand, and the recording sounds as if he is strumming plectrum-style rather than playing in the more rhythmic clawhammer style. Plectrum playing developed as banjo orchestras gained popularity in the late 19th century, playing popular songs and early ragtime music, then early jazz, where the banjo was a key rhythm instrument loud enough to compete with horns and drums. Cannon's "Feather Bed" sounds a bit more modern and even commercial than Macon's "Railroading and Gambling." The harmonica is the main solo instrumental voice, not the banjo.
Other great old banjo players I've been listening to include Buell Kazee, Clarence Ashely and Dock Boggs, and I've taken songs from all of them into my band repertory. Ashley's classic "The Coo-coo Bird" is on my new cd, but I play tenor guitar on it, not banjo. I've performed Kazee's "The Dying Soldier" often, usually as a clawhammer tune because that is a more fixed right hand technique and easier for me to execute while singing. Boggs, another blues-drenched white banjo player, was like Ashley and Kazee recorded in the 1920s/early 1930s and then forgotten. Ashley kept playing with neighbors, Kazee became a minister, Boggs worked in mills and sold his banjo. Fortunately, all three men survived to be rediscovered in the 1950s and recorded and honored for their seminal work. I've taken to playing Bogg's "False Hearted Lover's Blues" in recent shows, but usually on mandolin or mandola. It's another one chord, pentatonic song imbued with his particularly grim fatalism--"When my earthly stay is over/throw my dead body in the sea/just tell my false hearted lover/the whales will fuss over me."
I have a 5-string banjo and a 4-string tenor banjo. I'm not very good on the 5-string, so I perform with it cautiously. I understand the open-G tuning because I use it on dobro, but the thumb and fingers do very different things on guitar than on banjo. Clawhammer is a more steady rhythm for my purposes; the later style developed by Snuffy Jenkins, Earl Scruggs and other bluegrass banjo players is really a pursuit of virtuosity. There are simpler two- and three-finger picking patterns players also used. At least I'm told they are simpler. I remain in awe of those who master them. There are numerous banjo players around New York City who are quite proficient; we are in a bit of a folk revival these days akin to that of the 1950s, plenty of jug bands, bluegrass bands, old-timey groups playing in clubs and bars and colleges and busking in good weather. I want to mention two banjo players in particular who have impressed me on numerous occasions.
Cousin Eli Smith teaches various banjo styles and performs around NYC, and he hosts an internet radio show and a live music showcase in the East Village. He's the best young clawhammer player I've heard, and sings in a high rough tenor whine with remarkable phrasing--nothing showy or false to his roots in the concrete hollows of lower Manhattan, just plain American singing at its best on songs he lives and breathes. He also plays two- and three-finger banjo on some songs, and his knowledge of banjo music is both deep and practical. I don't think of him as scholarly, like Mike Seeger, or utterly virtuosic like Bela Flek. He just plays the skin off that banjo every time with personal modesty and devotion to the cause of music. You can catch a brief sample of his work at http://youtube.com/watch?v=S5Q-2bkZ9ZM playing the old time tune Ruben's Train. Eli is about the song, not his own chops, and honoring his musical ancestors as well as building a community of musical souls. You can see some of the fruits of his labors here, but if you are in New York, find out where he plays next and make it your business to see him live.
The other young banjo player I've most enjoyed is Hilary Hawke and her band Hogzilla. Hilary studied with Tony Trishka and plays in the post-Earl Scruggs bluegrass style. She is a fluent and swinging player, keeps the 8th and 16th notes rolling right along, knows the classic banjo tunes and licks. She's good enough that she could just keep doing that if she so chose, get plenty of work, be "the girl banjo player" on an instrument dominated by men. It's exciting to hear her play the traditional banjo music, and I've jammed with her a few times in hectic settings where her calm command and good taste always shine through the country-tinged chaos. Her band Hogzilla has some other fine musicians, and she generously shares singing, songwriting and instrumental duties with them. Hilary's own voice is not "pretty" in the ordinary sense--it's hard-edged. She has a natural feel for blues values, the flatted thirds and fifths and sevenths so useful on the banjo itself, and uses them well while rarely playing a standard blues form. I admire this tremendously not simply because it shows some understanding of music, but because it expresses a feel for life itself. Her song writing is deep in a similar way--she fronts a group on banjo, but there are no obvious banjo flag wavers or barn burners. Some are built around banjo licks, but none are mere vehicle for flashy display. The songs demand listening--and reward it. You can get a taste of her playing here where she performs with some of the luminaries of the NYC country scene, and her own music can be sampled on her myspace site. My personal favorite of the moment is her song "God" but they're all swell.
Something unique happens when you put a banjo on your knee and let it ring. I truly believe you connect to the past through music, as well as determine the present and affect the future. Music is a way of measuring motion, to paraphrase jazzman Marion Brown, and defining how time passes. If the measures are clear, the definitions insightful, then the music means something to others and may live beyond the maker. I have an ancient tenor banjo I love playing in the park (it's a bit unpredicatble for stage use, although I do try now and then). My favorite tuning is DGDG, a modal tuning that allows a lot of improvisational options and relatively simple chords, great for the pentatonic tunes like "Pretty Polly" and "The Coo-coo Bird" and "Feather Bed." It's nearly trance-inducing and meditative at times. In the standard CGDA tuning, I love playing "O, Susannah" and "Camptown Races" and "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "Beautiful Dreamer." Someday I'll try to get banjo lessons from either or both of my colleagues Eli and Hilary. For now I just watch them closely whenever I can and hope my eyes connect to my fingers at some point.