How Many Films Does It Take To Right The History Of The Banjo?
Q: How can you tell the stage you’re playing on is level?
A: The banjo player is drooling out of both sides of his mouth.
Q: You’re driving down the street and you see an accordion and a banjo–which one do you hit first?
A: The accordion: business before pleasure.
Q: What do you say to the banjo player in the three-piece suit?
A: Will the defendant please rise?
The jokes above are but three of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of banjo jokes in constant circulation. A quick google search of “banjo jokes” resulted in 469,000 hits in 0.08 seconds. Indeed, many of these are perpetuated by banjo players themselves, realizing that it’s better to get ahead of the game in laughing at yourself than waiting for others to mock you. These jokes do illustrate a serious truth, however, about the conflicted history of what just might be the instrument most imbued with the American character (or at least American history.) The attitudes and stereotypes expressed within the jokes above are one of the reasons that award-winning filmmaker, author, and professor Marc Fields decided to embark on a project that he’s been at for over ten years now.
Fields is probably not the type of person the average person would typically associate with the banjo. During our phone conversation, his demeanor was friendly and generous, but also erudite and serious. He certainly did not have a Southern drawl, nor did he speak in rural colloquialisms. (I also heard no evidence of drool escaping either side of his mouth.) None of this should seem out of the ordinary for a banjo enthusiast, but let’s be honest. A brainy New England college professor is not the first image that comes to mind when you bring up America’s most caricatured instrument (Fields is a professor of Visual and Media Art Emerson College in Boston.) Again, these persisting stereotypes of backwards hayseeds and uneducated rural hillbillies so intertwined with popular perceptions of the banjo are one reason Fields decided to make a feature length film documenting the instrument’s fascinating history. More importantly, though, the banjo’s narrative also tells many other stories about American history and the history of popular music in this country. The film’s press material states it this way:
“In its long history, the banjo has symbolized patriotism and protest, pain and pleasure, low entertainment and sophisticated leisure. It’s been a black instrument, a white instrument, a laborer’s pastime and a socialite’s diversion, a young person’s fad and an old-timer’s friend. But mostly it’s been a snubbed instrument. Whether it’s Dan Emmett in blackface, the Jazz Age flapper whamming on a 4-string or Pete Seeger leading an anti-war rally with his long-necked Vega, the banjo has been the symbolic prop for stereotypes about race, class, gender, region and political persuasion right up to the present day.”
In our phone conversation, Fields told me it was when he first heard the album, World Turning, by banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka that he had his “eureka moment.” The album is a historical journey of sorts, with songs illustrating banjo styles from its African origins all the way to its incorporation in contemporary jazz and beyond. After hearing this album, Fields realized that the banjo provided him the perfect format to explore all of his ideas about American popular music, including the many social issues involved in the history. He had worked with Trischka while he was producing a weekly television program for New Jersey Public Broadcasting over ten years ago. Shortly thereafter, the two embarked on The Banjo Project together, with Trischka as the musical director. They have amassed over 350 hours of footage and have gathered a virtual who’s who of banjo players and roots musicians providing interviews and performances.
Actor, comedian, author, and grammy-winning banjo player, Steve Martin, is the film’s narrator. The list of musicians involved is too long to recount but includes Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger, Ralph Stanley, Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taj Mahal, and Mike Seeger. There is also a wealth of historical footage including that of Dock Boggs, Gus Cannon, Uncle Dave Macon, and Charlie Poole among many others. Fields told me that almost without exception, the present-day musicians featured were enthusiastic and more than willing to participate. Presumably, many were happy to see their beloved instrument have its say, especially in the context of such an ambitious, thoughtful project. They aren’t the only ones interested, however, as proven by the broad support the film has garnered through its grassroots fundraising campaign.
|Marc Fields (back center) and crew with Carolina Chocolate Drops and Joe Thompson|
Fields turned to the social networking and fundraising site, Kickstarter, to help secure finishing funds for the film. It quickly surpassed its fundraising goal of $25,000 and the project can still receive donations through Kickstarter for the next several days (as of this writing.) This is important to the project not simply to secure the much-needed funds, but also to prove to potential broadcasters that support exists for the film. Every dollar raised for the campaign is a vote of confidence that an audience is out there for thoughtful cultural programming.
Let’s hear more about the project from the horse’s mouth, though, including when the film will be completed and where we might be able to view it. In addition to my phone conversation with Fields, I sent him a few questions via email. Here is the interview.
Dustin Ogdin: I assume that you’ll be looking to broadcast The Banjo Project film through PBS television. Is that correct? Will you also be looking for foreign distribution?
Marc Fields: My previous work has all been for PBS and that was my intention for The Banjo Project. Recent changes in the media landscape – cutbacks in funding, less support for arts & cultural programming, cable competition and the rise of web-based and digital on demand – may present other broadcast and distribution possibilities. My goals are still the same: produce a substantive, high-quality documentary that reaches the widest possible audience
DO: Do you have a tentative timeline for completion and distribution/broadcast?
MF: With the funding from the Kickstarter campaign, I will return to the editing room in March and try to have a final cut by August. If I can get the rest of the money needed for mixing, color correction, music/film licensing, etc, I could have it ready for public screenings by mid-September.
DO: I once heard documentary filmmaker Ken Burns say (I’m paraphrasing) that almost all of his films were primarily about race because race is the central story of America. Race, of course, is very much tied up in the story of the banjo as well. How did you negotiate this difficult terrain given the sensitivity demanded of this conversation?
MF: Well, I prefer a paraphrase of the late Dr. Billy Taylor’s statement about jazz, “Everything you need to know about America you can learn from the banjo.” So yes, the banjo’s music and history reflect on racial identity and conflicts, but also on other issues as well: class, region, gender and pop vs. folk culture. I also believe that exploring American popular culture requires that we deal with the worst as well as the best aspects our nature – Taj [Mahal] said, “If you’re gonna heal, you have to deal with it,” — and I think that the fact that American music has emerged out of these exchanges, conflicts and collisions explains why it is so rich, so varied and so appealing to people all over the world. I recognize the sensitivities around the issues and I hope that a thorough appreciation of the music and its historical context will be redemptive rather than corrosive. If a particular musical style or song speaks to you, it doesn’t matter where it comes from — but learning about it may change your assumptions or open you up to new possibilities.
DO: This project is obviously a banjo geek’s dream (amen!) I feel certain from watching the trailer and visiting your website, however, that this film will have broad appeal far beyond the banjo-playing and loving community. Can you discuss your strategy in making a film that appeals to banjo lovers as well as those very, very bizarre people who are ambivalent or, dare I say it, even hostile to the instrument?
MF: This is really a story full of colorful characters, great music, and dramatic historical and cultural events – what’s not to like?
DO: What are one or two of the most surprising or unexpected things you’ve learned during the making of this project?
MF: Surprising: the breadth and depth of the subject; Unexpected: how difficult it’s been getting funding.
DO: You turned to the social media website, Kickstarter, to help secure part of the funding for this film. You’ve already met your support quota (congratulations), but I’m certain more funds are needed and can only help. For those considering donating in the last days of this worthwhile campaign, can you talk a little bit about the huge budgets required of filmmakers, and the difficulty of financing documentary films, specifically? In particular, I know that researching and financing the rights to music can be especially troubling and downright overwhelming given the many stakeholders involved (publishers, performers, songwriters, etc.)
MF: The major expenses in post-production are the editor (and editing facility), professional audio mix (w/ sound mixer), color correction, graphics/animation, and especially the costs of music and film clip rights and clearances. The Kickstarter campaign will allow me to get to a final cut with my editor, with perhaps a little left over for graphics/animation. In addition to finishing the documentary, we’re also planning a comprehensive online archive of banjo history at www.thebanjoproject.org utilizing all of the interviews, performances, stills and recordings we’ve gathered, including much that won’t be in the broadcast program.
So, pony up a few bucks, readers, if this sounds like something worthy of support. Just like the most talented musicians aren’t always the ones who get the most attention, there are no absolute guarantees that worthwhile projects like this can get past the media gatekeepers to meet the audience they deserve. At the end of the day, I’m sure a project of this quality and ambition will find a broadcaster to meet a wide audience, but grassroots support only makes that process faster and easier. And, to you banjo players like me out there… If you’re tired of hearing all those bad jokes, run to your computer and help with this project (but try not to drool on the keyboard before you’ve hit “send”….)
Banjo Project fundraising on Kickstarter
Banjo Project on Facebook
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.