Classic Banjo from Smithsonian Folkways (album review)
This sampling of banjo recordings from the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections is the labor of love of two Smithsonian archivists: Greg C. Adams of the Rinzler collections and Jeff Place of Folkways. In what must have been one of the most rewarding work assignments in history, the two combed through hundreds of tracks to find 30 that are “iconic, instructive, or [reflective of] some of the more notable ways in which people have used the banjo over time.”
Beginning with a medley of traditional tunes and ending with an explosion of bluegrass banjo from Bill Keith (with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys), this album showcases the history and range of the instrument and the diversity of those who play it. Adams’ and Place’s delight in their task is transmitted to the listener: playing Classic Banjo feels like sitting on the floor with a friend, rummaging through CDs until half the night has gone by. This album is not a shoebox of familiar tunes: even those who have listened to banjo for decades will find fresh techniques, rhythms, and musical ideas in this outstanding collection.
Classic Banjo starts off with a blast of upper-register ear candy, a pinging and plunking of pure anarchic banjo that quickly takes shape as “Fly Around My Blue-Eyed Girl.” Pete Seeger’s vocals, tinged with a patrician vibrato, float above the maelstrom of metallic tones, which leap upward in controlled flights during some of the more jaw-dropping moments of this track. Seeger’s sound could not be more different from that of Irvin Cook, who pairs his gristly baritone and understated two-finger style in “I Wish to the Lord I’d Never Been Born” with the fiddling of Leonard Bowles, whose bow sounds as if it is scraping toast.
The CD does not shy away from primitive sounds. In Hobart Smith’s “Banging Breakdown,” stomping feet and thumps on the banjo head punctuate a series of downward-rolling phrases. The tune is simple, but the percussion provides an intricate overlay and a sense of barely contained energy. In Josh Thomas’s “Roustabout,” Mike Seeger draws from a style he describes as “African-Virginian” to bang out a relentless series of minor-key riffs while singing plaintively above.
Dink Roberts’ “Coo Coo” stretches the limits of listenability: the first few notes hit the ear like a burst of shrapnel, and Roberts’ playing seems to know no laws. With heathen glee, he shoots up into the stratosphere of the range for extended unaccompanied interludes during which he alternates between two pitches, then tumbles down in atonal rapids of sound before taking up the vocal line. You’ll either never listen to this track again or consider Roberts a deconstructionist genius. Either way, he ends the song with a comic aside that sets the others in the room laughing and speaks to the communal nature of the music.
All the tracks on this CD have a complexity that belies their rustic origins. Lee Sexton’s “Fox Chase” is so backwoodsy that you can feel pine needles under your feet, but it starts at a run, decelerates to a canter, throws in some notes from an alien key, switches melody and possibly time signature, then slows to a halt, telling a story through sound alone.
Some artists ooze sophistication. Don Vappie’s “Gut Bucket Blues” refreshes with its trumpet licks and its interweaving of influences ranging from jug band to New Orleans-style brass band. Doc Watson plays “Rambling Hobo” with such mastery, the notes sound as if spun from air (he does not mention that he learned the tune on an instrument made out of the family cat). The chiming of guitar and dulcimer on Ola Belle Reed’s “Foggy Mountain Top” sets off her voice, worn smooth by age, and creates an enveloping sound reminiscent of the Carter Family.
Forty-two pages of liner notes accompany the tunes, putting each into context as well as providing a history of the instrument (whose alternate names in its early days include strum stump and merrywang). The banjo’s reputation as a rustic slave instrument, object of minstrelsy, and hillbilly noisemaker did not deter people from all walks of life from unpacking its charms: the CD features recordings by coal miners, railroad workers, sons of slaves, members of legislature, and professional musicians. The notes include historic photographs of players, many of whom stare down the cameraman with a look of defiance.
The curatorial skill of Adams and Place ensures that each piece stands out as a distinctive offering, balancing with the others and setting them off by way of differences in texture, tempo, and style. You can listen to all 64 minutes of this album without getting sick of the sound or feeling as if you’re listening to the same thing over and over—no mean feat when it comes to showcasing one twangy instrument played mainly in the American southeast. Whether funky, introspective, rousing, or hypnotic, the tunes on this CD will move you. Place’s assertion that “We will continue to mine the vaults for new collections” inspires hope for a Classic Banjo volume II, volume III, and so on. Any who buy this album will wish that they could join Adams and Place in their next excavation.
Compiled and annotated by Greg C. Adams and Jeff Place
Released August 2013
Sources: Classic Banjo liner notes; http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/doc-watson-and-his-tall-drink-o-water-merle-20120530 (Doc Watson banjo info)
Image from the Smithsonian Institution and used under the terms of Fair Use: http://www.folkways.si.edu/classic-banjo-from-folkways/american-folk-bluegrass-country-old-time/album/smithsonian
Originally written for Old Time News, the UK’s only old-time magazine. Reprinted with permission. http://foaotmad.org.uk/