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Playing Since: 1961
Experience Level: Purty Good
corcoran has made 14 recent additions to Banjo Hangout
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Occupation: neuroscientist, banjo player
as many as I can get my hands on
My major influences, in roughly chronological order, were: Bob Gibson, Eric Weissberg, Earl Scruggs, Bill Keith, Eddie Adcock, Allen Shelton, J. D. Crowe, Don Stover, Butch Robins, Bill Emerson, Alan Munde, Sonny Osborne, Craig Smith, Kristin Scott Benson, Steve Huber, and Mike Lilly.
Bluegrass bands: Earl and Lester in the 1950s, Bill Monroe and the BGB, J. D. Crowe and the New South, BGAB, Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, Osborne Brothers. Other forms of music, in no particular order: The Band, Bob Gibson, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Fats Waller, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, the Beatles, Mike Seeger, Jennifer Warnes, Ray Charles, Blue Rodeo, Van Morrison, Cindy Church, Neil Young, Jesse Winchester. Chris Smither, blah blah blah
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Last Visit 5/19/2013
Monday, February 25, 2013 @8:55:30 AM
I first became interested in the banjo when I heard Dave Guard’s playing with the Kingston Trio, back around 1960. Now Guard was admittedly not a very good banjo player, at least in my opinion, but he had enough prowess to pique my interest. A guy I knew in my high school, Jimmy Thompson, was a banjo player, as it turns out, and Jimmy introduced me to the playing of Bob Gibson. In fact, Jimmy was pretty much a Gibson clone and could sing most of Bob’s songs in an appropriate tenor range as well as play most of Bob’s arrangements on the ole five-string. Well, that got me hooked., and I borrowed the money from my parents to buy a banjo, a bottom-of-the-line Gretsch. It was not a very good banjo, but it got me started. I took some lessons from a classical guitarist named Herb Roth who had a rudimentary knowledge of folk style banjo. Herb pointed me to Pete Seeger, and that opened up a whole new world for me. Herb eventually also passed me a tape of Flatt and Scruggs, and Earl Scruggs’s playing took over my banjo brain in a way that has persisted to the present. But that’s a story for another blog.
For perhaps a year I immersed myself in Bob Gibson and Pete Seeger. Herb arranged for me to take some lessons from guy named Hardy Freeman, a graduate student at the University of Chicago who was a Seeger fanatic. Hardy showed me some stuff of Pete Seeger’s that was not in Seeger’s book, and he also introduced me to the playing of Billy Faier (e.g., “Green Corn”). All the while, however, I continued to listen avidly to Bob Gibson; to me he was the gold standard. And what a great banjo player he was! His up-picking in Seeger style was inventive, authoritative, and memorable. He played double-thumbing as well as anyone. He could execute an old-time breakdown (e.g., “Block Island Reel”), and he played a flamenco tune for the banjo in a unique and delightful arrangement. His version of what Seeger called “whamming” was as accomplished as anyone’s, and he came up with a subtler version of whamming that he used to good effect on numerous tunes – listen, for example, to his playing of “Wayfaring Stranger” on the album “Gibson and Camp at the Gate of Horn”. Frailing is about the only folk style I don’t recall him making use of. Incidentally, some of Gibson’s most inventive and forceful playing was not found in his studio recordings, but appeared on the informal recording from a jam session that was released recently (2011) with the CD of his concert at Cornell in 1957. In any case, I spent hours trying to duplicate aspects of his playing, until, that is, I discovered Earl Scruggs.
Gibson’s first recordings emerged around 1956 – “Offbeat Folksongs” on Riverside, and subsequently the Stinson recordings -- on which he pretty much restricted himself to the banjo. His focus on the banjo continued through his later recordings in the 1950s, but by 1959 on “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight” the 12-string guitar began to make its pernicious influence felt. By the 1960s most of his playing was focused on the 12 string, although he employed the occasional banjo accompaniment even through his later recordings. Sadly his voice and his playing were stilled by progressive supranuclear palsy, a dreadful neurological condition that eventually killed him in 1996.
So Bob Gibson’s excellent banjo playing was featured only in a small window of time, on his recordings from 1956 to 1959. I wish he had continued to feature the banjo in his recordings, although even the limited available exposure to his banjo playing had a profound influence on me and several other players I knew in those days. Whether newer generations of banjo players are even aware of Bob Gibson’s banjo prowess, much less are influenced by him, is an interesting empirical question for which I lack relevant data. If you know people who are inspired by his work, please let me know.
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Gibson Mastertone: Flathead 5-String Banjos of the 1930's and 1940's
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