Thursday, July 21, 2011

Things With Strings: Banjo

It sat in the spare room upstairs at my Grandma Alexander's house. The old banjo once belonged to Dad's Uncle Otto, Grandpa's brother. It was a Stewart, vintage 1916, that he likely bought through a mail-order catalog. Uncle Otto used to play for house parties and dance bands in the small towns and rural hamlets of west central Ohio nearly a century ago. But by the 1960s, he was gone, and it just laid there, with no strings, no skin stretched over the body, and no tuning pegs. And it seemed to a little shaver like me to be bigger than life, not to mention heavier. This did not stop the imagination from going to work, as I would pretend to play it.

My sister Mary inherited the old banjo in the mid-1970s. By the time we both got out of college later in the decade, she had learned to play reasonably well, and put it aside in exchange for a Gibson bluegrass model. It was passed on to me. I made a few improvements over an earlier and (in my estimation) poorer attempt at restoration, and I've been pretending on it ever since.

This picture above on the left is from September of 1982, from a former life, when I played at my own wedding reception.

They say that bluegrass music is the ugly stepchild of the country music world. If that is true, then the old-time mountain style of music is the ugly stepchild of bluegrass.

Most people think of bluegrass as a traditional form, what Alan Lomax once dubbed "folk music in overdrive." The reality is that it is a fairly recent phenomenon, dating back only to the 1940s. Old-time music grew around the back porches and barn dances in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. Bluegrass music grew around the microphone with the tight harmonies of the "high lonesome sound." The rhythm, the cadence of mountain music is different, slower, more jaunty. This as opposed to the speed-driven, jazzy style associated with bluegrass. Many cannot tell the difference between the two, including well-intentioned bluegrass bands which try to play for square dances. But there is a difference.

Actor/comedian Steve Martin is a consummate banjoist. While most audiences associate him with the bluegrass style, he is quite adept at the old-time mountain music which preceded it by about two hundred years. The instrument is likely a derivative of the African "banjar," an instrument made from a gourd with animal skin stretched over it, and strings added from one end to the other. Sometimes it was played with an improvised bow, while other times it was "rapped" with the bent hand across the strings. The African slaves and freedmen brought it to the New World, and they shared it with the Scots-Irish who began to hole up in the Southern mountains, as it evolved into the form we recognize today. So many customs and folkways were shared between the two. This was only one of them.

The second video clip (above) provides an up-close-and-personal view of the clawhammer style, presented by David Holt as seen on the DVD "Beginning the 5-String Banjo" which is available at Homespun Music Instruction and

We've seen Steve Martin play a spirited medley in the old style. We'll close this out with a little snippet of him playing an Earl Scruggs classic, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." True, it does get the heels clicking. Too bad you can't dance to it.


No comments: