[11 January 2009]
Imagine, if you will, a typical banjo player. If the first image that comes to mind is a drooling yahoo straight out of Deliverance, you couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact is that the banjo, despite its association with the inbred and toothless, is an integral part of all kinds of music: not only American bluegrass and old-time country, but also jazz, Irish folk music, Celtic punk, indie pop, and even classical music have all featured banjos, some to greater success than others.
And forget that stereotype. What do Steve Martin, Sufjan Stevens, and Kermit the Frog have in common, besides being incredibly awesome? You got it, they all play the banjo. Let’s face it folks—the banjo is hands-down the coolest instrument out there, and more people are realizing it every day. Sure, some might call this a banjo comeback, but like Britney Spears, the banjo never really left. Unlike Britney Spears, the banjo has an ability like none other to sound completely at home just about every musical genre out there; try plopping ex-Mrs. Federline in a jazz quartet and see if she has the same success.
Though most generally perceive the banjo to be a purely American instrument, it was technically invented in Africa and brought to the Western world through slavery; the first document placing a banjo-like instrument in America isn’t written until 1774, though its arrival in the Western Hemisphere at large was approximately 150 years earlier in the Antilles. The early banjo was composed of a skin-covered gourd with a wooden neck and a varying number of gut strings. Previous names for the instrument include banjar, banza, and the thankfully now-obsolete “merrywang”. While modern banjos have evolved to the use of steel strings, fingerpicks, plastic heads and, in the case of bluegrass, resonators, the general concept remains the same.
During its three centuries in America, the banjo has managed to encompass both high- and lowbrow. In the 19th century it was associated with plantation music and the stereotype of the happy, dancing African-American; furthermore, evangelical Southerners of both races considered the banjo to be the devil’s instrument, according to ethnomusicologist Dena Epstein. Around 1910, the banjo had become an integral part of dance bands and jazz ensembles thanks to its volume and percussive abilities. Its place in jazz was usurped in the ‘30s by the guitar, and by the ‘50s, the image of the banjo-playing plantation slave had disappeared from popular media, replaced by the current banjo player stereotype: the isolated, Appalachian hillbilly strumming the old Child ballads.
Combating the banjo’s stereotype as solely an instrument for Southern whites are two top-notch banjo players currently exploring the banjo’s African roots: jazzgrass virtuoso Béla Fleck recently traveled to several African countries in order to research the banjo’s history as well as jam with traditional African musicians. The resulting documentary, Throw Down Your Heart—directed by Fleck’s brother, Sascha Paladino, and currently making the festival circuit—is an amazing work full of absolutely stunning music. The dialogue featured in the film is scant—the real language is the music created by Fleck and numerous African musicians, which has an ability to dissolve the cultural and language barriers of the artists. Jayme Stone, another jazz-influenced banjo player, traveled to Mali in 2007 for similar purposes, releasing the album Africa to Appalachia in the summer of 2008. The record itself is a fascinating blend of music styles, but perhaps the most important part of Stone’s trips were his discovery of two banjo ancestors previously unknown to North America: the two-string konou and single-string juru keleni. These primitive instruments probably don’t have much place in modern music, but their discovery adds an important link in the banjo’s evolutionary chain.
Its continued presence in bluegrass is a given, but where the banjo is currently making waves is among the musical genres currently not associated with it—pop and punk. Indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens turned heads when he burst onto the scene with Illinois in 2005; what’s more, his atonal banjo playing added a quirky/beautiful component to his quirky/beautiful songs, and quickly wormed its way into many a scenester’s heart. Nowadays it seems like the indie scene is the place to be for banjo music, with artists like the Avett Brothers and Langhorne Slim receiving critical praise and scores of devoted fans. Too badass for pop-folk eccentrics? Try Celtic punks Dropkick Murphys, whose best-known song, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”, prominently features Marc Orrell’s plectrum banjo (a four-string banjo used in Celtic folk music) in between bouts of hardcore shouting and accordion.
For me, the banjo also has a bit of personal resonance. After years of listening to banjo music in its myriad glorious forms, I finally bought my own in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. Six months later, it turns out that I’m the worst banjo player in the entire world, due not only to my complete lack of anything resembling rhythm or manual dexterity, but also my general flightiness. That’s okay with me; I’m not looking to be the next Earl Scruggs. What I have realized is that even when you completely and utterly suck, the banjo a lot of fun—well, it’s a lot of fun for me; for anyone forced to listen to me, probably not so much. My quarter-life crisis hasn’t exactly dissipated, but it’s a lot more entertaining these days.
As Steve Martin once said, “The banjo is such a happy instrument. You can’t play a sad song on the banjo; it always comes out so cheerful.” Not only is it impossible to be sad when playing the banjo, it’s pretty hard to be sad when listening to someone else play the banjo (unless of course you are the poor soul teaching me to play). Its ability to break down cultural and musical barriers reminds us that we’re a lot more connected than we sometimes realize.