Thursday, March 24, 2011

Steve Martin and the Clawhammer Comeback

This was the scene last Monday night on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," where his guest was comedian Steve Martin, who is also an excellent banjoist.

As a boy visiting my Grandma Alexander in the 1960s, I would go up to the attic, where I would find an old Stewart banjo. It belonged to my dad's Uncle Otto, who used to play it in dance bands around western Ohio nearly a century ago. The tuning gears were broken, the strings were gone, and there was no skin on the head. It was quite heavy for a little boy, but I used to pretend to play it. My sister Mary got it in the mid-70s, and learned to play bluegrass on it before buying herself a Gibson designed for bluegrass. By 1979, the old Stewart was mine, and I've been pretending on it ever since.

Most of us associate the five-string banjo with bluegrass music, and Martin has been a capable performer with the instrument for years. But contrary to conventional wisdom, bluegrass is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back only to the 1940s. In this clip, Martin introduces (or re-introduces, you might say) the older, more authentic "old-time" mountain variety of playing, known as the “clawhammer” style. This is not the first time that Martin has performed this style publicly. It was also a staple of his comedy tours, in his heyday throughout the 1970s. In this second clip, dating from somewhere during that time, he plays a medley of "Loch Lomond" and "Sally Ann."

David Holt gives us a brief tutorial on the clawhammer style, how it breaks down, how to play it, how to apply it. While bluegrass developed around the microphone and the "high lonesome sound" of harmony, its precursor in the Appalachian mountains evolved around accompanying the fiddle, whether in front-porch playing, or at Saturday night square dancing. The rhythmic quality of old-time music is different from bluegrass, and no one in their right mind would use the latter to accompany a square dance (which doesn't mean it never happens).

Steve Martin produced an album called "The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo" in which he plays a variety of tunes, some by himself, some with other artists. He also does a medley in the old-time mountain style. It won a Grammy Award in 2009 for Best Bluegrass Album. For the Colbert Report appearance, Martin was joined by his latest collaborators, The Steep Canyon Rangers. Here they are together at the 2010 New Orleans Jazzfest.

No comments: