Uniquely American and utterly distinctive, the sound of the banjo has enjoyed a serious renaissance in a variety of circles over the past decade. Contemporary pop musicians like Sufjan Stevens, Stephin Merritt and Beck have adopted it for their own (even hip-hop artists like Prince Paul, Buck 65 and Danja Mowf are getting into the act), while a new generation of traditional performers is rediscovering a forgotten heritage.
Few other instruments have inspired such passion—or controversy. The provenance of the banjo has long been a point of contention, with the African origins of the instrument sometimes overlooked in favor of an Ameri-centric view that credits Virginia native Joel Walker Sweeney—a blackface performer who enjoyed his greatest popularity in the 1830s—with perfecting the modern banjo. Old stereotypes still plague African-American players, and banjoists of all backgrounds often find their weapon of choice openly derided as capable of delivering crude and unmusical punishment. How to account for such misconceptions?
Global Rhythm went straight to the source, asking five of the instrument’s most important contemporary performers to speak about the banjo’s history and their own experience as players. Common threads and themes, along with some stark differences, began to emerge. For the most part, these focused on the African roots of the instrument (and the controversial legacy of Sweeney’s influence), the undeniable longevity of the current folk music revival (stemming largely from the release in 2000 of the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its platinum-selling soundtrack), and most of all, the amazing health and evergreen popularity of the banjo. As Béla Fleck puts it, “I see a healthy future for the instrument. It’s going along just the same as it has for as long asI’ve known it, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change in my lifetime.” This is the story of their instrument, in their own words.
Generally acknowledged as the father of progressive banjo, TONY TRISCHKA’s recording career spans 35 years and dozens of LPs. He has performed with a wide array of artists, including Ornette Coleman, Bruce Springsteen, Alison Krauss, the Boston Pops and William S. Burroughs. His most recent release Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular received a 2007 Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album.
I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years and everyone tells me “It’s the sound.” That in-your-face, flashy, beautiful, electric banjo sound—there’s simply nothing else like it. I was somewhat shy as a kid, so for me it was a way to be overt without being showy. Plus it’s a high-velocity instrument those breakdowns are downright quick! When you’re a young kid with testosterone to burn, that’s appealing.
One of the things that Bill Monroe brought to bluegrass music was a hard-driving push to the sound of the banjo. When he was at The Grand Ole Opry, Monroe would play shows all over the country. Earl Scruggs [Monroe’s longtime banjo accompanist] told me that Monroe would lead into a show by picking up a mandolin and playing it like a maniac fast and right into their ears, saying “Hear this, boys? C’mon and get up there that’s what they want!” That kind of spirit and speed was what differentiated bluegrass from the music that came before it, which was considerably more laid back.
Personally, I’ve been exploring new approaches to the instrument since the ’70s, when it was