The Banjo Zone: Two new documentaries highlight the ascendant 5-string
Picture, if you will, a humble instrument, initially made of wood, skin and gut, pirated thousands of miles from its origins to a land where it has come to be the butt of countless jokes, and yet a symbol of our nation’s racial history and musical fashions.
You’re moving into a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. It lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. That’s the signpost up ahead — you’re about to enter the Banjo Zone.
To ease your journey into this land both foreign and wholly of this soil, we offer two video guides, concerted works of art in themselves, one which navigates the history and cultural ramifications of our subject, the other which puts under the microscope the odd and wonderful humans who are today’s master banjo builders.
The more readily available guide debuts on PBS television stations on November 4, 2011 as PBS Arts from the Blue Ridge Mountains: Give Me the Banjo (it will no doubt be reshown many times, and be available for rent and purchase, check your local PBS station for details). The more intimate guide is the fascinatingly personal Conversations with North American Banjo Builders (Volume 1 – Banjo Builders East of the Mississippi).
“Give me the banjo…When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!” ~Mark Twain
Give me the Banjo is a polished, nuanced social and cultural history. It features stunning archival footage of historic players like Gus Cannon and Doc Boggs, performance clips of modern masters like Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka (who was the project’s music director and main collaborator of writer-producer Marc Fields) and Steve Martin (who also narrates), and a cogent analysis of the connection between the banjo’s history and the legacy of racism in our nation.
“You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny appropriation, and exploitation,” ethnomusicologist Greg Adams says early in the show. And considerable energy is spent documenting how the banjo’s ancestors came to this country from Africa, hostage to the slave trade, and how its role in the American entertainment experience represented dominant culture attitudes towards people of color through time.
In the 1700’s the banjo was the province of slaves and free immigrants from African and the Caribbean, a handmade folk instrument that connected its players to their home culture.
In the 1830’s Joel Walker Sweeney became the first white man to play the banjo, which he later turned into the featured instrument of the first minstrel shows. As Give Me the Banjo documents, the stunning rise of the black-faced minstrel show as a dominant form of entertainment “trivialized the African American community,” according to musicologist Christopher Smith, and became an early embodiment of the appropriation that later played out in the early history of rock and roll: “white boys playing the blues.”
From Sweeney to Pete Seeger, the humble 5-string manifested a fascinating journey, coming to symbolize in turn industrialized aristocrats, country bumpkins, working class revolutionaries and others. All of these plot twists and turns are lovingly presented in Give Me the Banjo, sumptuously illustrated and musically represented by the finest players. The documentary started under the working title “The Banjo Project,” and used the grassroots fundraising tool Kickstarter to raise funds needed to complete the production. With its depth of research, and deft editing, it comes off as a polished project, one that will come to be seen as a classic in the cannon of banjo “literature.”
Conversations with Banjo Builders, on the other hand, is a personal-scale adventure, the work of a singular aficionado who lovingly profiles the luthiers who have made the early 21st Century a Golden Age of banjo building.
Craig “Frailin’” Evans came to banjo like many of his generation: through Earl Scruggs smoking 3-finger bluegrass rolls featured in “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. Bela Fleck, similarly affected, said that song is “like mercury, every note is metal, perfect and stunning.”
For Evans is was the seed of a lifelong obsession with the banjo.
Growing up the 60s, “twice a year my mother would drive us from Early, Iowa (population 600 at the time) to Sioux City so we could buy school clothes,” Evans explained via email. “All year long I saved my money from mowing lawns and shoveling snow to buy a new Flat & Scruggs 33 1/3 album to listen to throughout the year. I discovered I should slow it down to 16 rpm to figure out just what Earl was playing.
“My first real banjo was a German Framus I’d purchased for $75 from Flood Music in Sioux City my Junior year in High School. In college I played in a jug band and became enamored with the melodic play of Bill Keith. I was hooked for life on the banjo, but I didn’t really know it yet.”
Evans’ interest moved from bluegrass to old-time music and the open back instruments on which it is played.
As he approached his 60th birthday, he hatched a monumental birthday present for himself: a driving tour of the United States (spread over parts of two years) to interview and make video documentaries of leading open back banjo builders.
“The world has never seen such a time in banjo building. Personally, I feel their stories of inspiration, philosophies and goals not to mention artistry need to be captured,” he posted on March 17, 2011, announcing his project to the on-line community Banjo Hangout. The Banjo Hangout is thriving collection of 60,000-plus, one of the most vibrant and complex on-line music communities around.
Released late this summer, Volume 1 – Banjo Builders East of the Mississippi offers 14 mini-documentaries of about 20 minutes each. The resulting 3-DVD set (including additional feature interviews with retailers, musicians and others) captures the personalities, philosophies and building techniques of America’s most prominent builders. Volume 2, featuring builders west of the Mississippi, is in production right now.
Among the builders featured in Vol. 1 are Mike Ramsey, Bart Reiter, Bill Rickard, Kevin Enoch, Chuck Lee, Jeff Menzies and George Wunderlich. They represent a broad spectrum from fine artists building one-of –a-kind creations sold in art galleries (Doug Unger) through highly-tooled high tech builders who have perfected production techniques and quality control (Bill Rickard). They range from modernists to traditionalists who recreate museum-quality period reproductions using only tools available during the Civil War era (George Wunderlich).
Evans chose luthiers who built banjos as a primary source of income to distinguish them from hobbyists. He sought builders who have been in the business for five or more years and who build 20 or more banjos per year. However, these were not hard and fast rules.
“Banjo builders are amazingly independent,” Evans told us. “They don’t follow any traditional drummers. Mostly they are Renaissance people, but that terms would embarrass them.
“Some are brilliant scientists exploring more ethereal parts of their character. Most are tactile, hands-on learners. Many had to build a banjo before learning how to play it! With one exception, the first 14 I’ve met are all completely, hopelessly in love with the instrument. They find it both historic and current.
“One calls it a contemporary medium for his practice of art. I think many would share that sentiment. All find satisfaction in building and all are aware their banjo building is more a compelling labor of love than a profitable trade, though they are getting by.”
Evans piloted his Subaru over 6,000 miles for the first leg of interviews. The interviews take place in locations ranging from basement shops and dedicated out buildings to pristine living rooms and cluttered music stores. You can practically smell the stores of wood seasoning in drying racks. Through a standardized interview-style conversation, brief shop tour and photo essay of the builders’ wares (all accompanied by audio of musicians playing that builder’s instruments) viewers get a glimpse into the personalities as well as the craft of these men, from nerdy Will Fielding, to the master jig-maker Chuck Lee, the crusty Bart Reiter to the jovial Wunderlich, punky Pete Ross to down-home Greg Galbreath.
“I saw remarkable, refined instruments,” commented Evans. “Watching a builder handle his creations was like watching a mother caress her newborn baby. Their rough hands would become delicate and sensitive as they smooth over a banjo neck, or point out the detail of an inlay. I was fortunate enough to capture some of those moments on camera.”
Unlike Give Me the Banjo, Evan’s Conversations is clearly an amateur production. To put it in builder terms, the PBS show is like the American banjo manufacturer Deering Banjos: polished, precise, acknowledging history, offering the best product money can produce. Conversations is the work of a craftsman learning while he is going. Some of the “rasp marks” are visible in his carving: there are jumpy cuts in the editing, two-camera set-ups that clearly show the second camera in the frame, incongruent focus, and off-center framing.
And through it all, Evan’s presence asking questions, listening intently, like you might imagine a folksy Dan Rather on an early 60 Minutes. Evans’ formulaic interview style enables him to organize reams of tape and draw some apples-to-apples comparisons between folks whose approaches are more of a smorgasbord. His standard questions are both a helpful organizing tool and a limiter, suppressing in some cases the sense of where these interviews could have gone. Too often editing choices seem bound by including favorite questions, such as: “Twenty-five years from now, when someone picks up your banjo, what little bit of you is still inside?” even if the answers are not particularly interesting.
Conversations features some fine playing, including many cuts from Evan’s own CD Frailin’ with Friends. The titles and graphic cards are artful and well-composed, though the DVD requires viewers to watch a longish intro before each interview, which could have been better used just at the beginning of the volume.
All in all, these criticisms are minor compared to this landmark project that will have an energizing impact on banjo players and old-time music lovers. And we are in the midst of an amazing ascendency of both! Open-back banjos are currently outselling bluegrass resonator models by five to one according to Gryphon Stringed Instruments’ Tom Culbertson.
Why the change? As Culbertson writes on Gryphon’s website: “An entirely new generation has grown up and taken an interest in the styles of the past, as well as employing the banjo for their own styles of music. But it’s not just young people playing old-time. Folks who have tired of trying to develop their virtuoso chops for the competitive world of bluegrass have found the easy going nature of old-time music a comfortable fit. The banjo has also begun to reclaim its place as an accompaniment to singing ballads and related styles. It makes a refreshing contrast to the ever-present guitar.”
“What I enjoy most about banjos is the positive effect they have on people,” writes Evans in the liner notes to Conversations. “They are happy makers! Most of us can’t explain why banjos do what they do, but few instruments can make people dance, sing, or forget their worries as fast as a banjo.”
Government-mandated warning: Conversations will undoubtedly spark a virulent outbreak of Banjo Acquisition Syndrome. Upon learning of the work of luthier Will Fielding through this DVD, your humble author found himself trawling the internet at all hours until he found a lovely used Fielding Bantam that is now his main banjo!
This article initially appeared in The Victory Review.
Mike Buchman is Communications Manager of Solid Ground, a Seattle-based human service and advocacy organization. He’s been a music journalist for over 30 years and a performing songwriter for 10. For info on his upcoming gigs (featuring the Fielding Bantam!) check out mikebuchmanmusic.com.