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Review of Classic Banjo from Smithsonian Folkways

Posted by jrubins101 on Tuesday, September 3, 2013

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By Jeffrey Rubinstein

Compiler Greg Adams makes it quite clear from the first sentence of the liner notes that this release is from a  very specific and important collection of American music in the Smithsonian Folkways Classic series, which is not to be confused with 'classic banjo' in some other sense. Unfortunately, most listeners won't consult the liner notes before checking out the thirty masterpieces contained in the CD and may wonder how a CD entitled, Classic Banjo could possibly omit such titans of the five-string as Earl, Ralph, J.D. and Reno.

Still, the song list represents the breadth and scope of the banjo and its possibilities in genres linked to localities as widespread as the deep south, through Appalachia, as far north as Nova Scotia and Ireland. The banjo's origins as an African instrument brought to this continent by slaves and incorporated into the music of white, rural America is charted with cartographic precision throughout the collection.

Undoubtedly, the social climate of 20th Century southern America was segregated. The history of the banjo, however, built no such barriers, and mutual influence, whether intentional or not, is apparent in many of the selections, including, "Jaw Bone" by Willie Chapman. Black American banjo is well represented throughout the CD, including Elizabeth Cotten on "Georgia Buck", whose distinct style is due in no small part to her practice of playing the banjo, as well as her guitar, upside down. This version is earlier in her career, when her voice was higher and her playing much quicker than in later recordings. If banjo fans are not familiar with the deep, rich tradition of black American banjo there are diamonds to mine throughout, such as "Coo Coo" from Dink Roberts, and Josh Thomas' "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues".

While there are no Earl Scruggs recordings, Scruggs style and its influence is given considerable time in the liner notes. The notes provide a comprehensive overview of these artists, their sometimes obscure biographies, often giving some insight into the impressive array of techniques, as well as briefly describing the complex history of the banjo.

It's an eclectic selection and a testament to the versatility of the instrument. To the uninitiated ear, the banjo can sound harsh, twangy and jagged, generally played at a dizzying speed. Although speed is characteristic of masterful banjo playing,  its resonant, rhythmic allure is just as captivating when played at a slower tempo, such as "Bright Sunny South" by Dock Boggs or Rufus Crisps' "Walk Light Ladies." For sheer banjo muscle and audacity, however, it would be hard to beat Lee Sexton's "Fox Chase."

A welcomed inclusion is Doc Watson, whose exuberant and prodigious style on guitar is just as evident on the clawhammered, "Old Hobo". Doc returns on guitar with Roger Sprung, and Earl's presence is felt again on "Smokey Mokes".

The strength of the CD, beyond the sheer brilliance of the players and the diversity of the song selection, is that Adams did not impose a rigid criteria from among his choices at Smithsonian Folkways. Banjo artists are presented playing solo, with a band, instrumental, tenor, bluegrass and clawhammer. To those who are less familiar with tenor banjo, "Skylark/Roaring Mary", with Mick Moloney on banjo, provides an intriguing introduction to the Irish tradition's emphasis on precise triplets and beautiful melodies.

The collection ends with Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys, with Bill Keith on banjo, recorded many years after Scruggs left the band. "Bluegrass Breakdown" is a feature for the revolutionary banjoist, and where we might be reminded again of who is not on the CD, it's easier to be forgiving once Keith plays a masterful melodic break in his innovative style.

While the recordings included on the CD span the 20th Century, including such contemporary masters as Tony Trischka and Ken Perlman, all of the songs appear to originate before Scruggs came on the scene. Perhaps the suggestion is that this represents the pre-Earl banjo era, before being dominated by his driving three-fingered style that would revolutionize the instrument. Earl, as well as Ralph Stanley, always acknowledged his roots, and Smithsonian Folkways Classic Banjo is as fine a survey of that influence and the complex history of the banjo, as the casual music collector is likely to find.

Visit the Smithsonian Folkways page to purchase the album, or previews tracks, get liner notes and free downloads, and more >

1 comment on “Review of Classic Banjo from Smithsonian Folkways”

Alex Mal Says:
Monday, September 9, 2013 @9:49:10 AM

You can also download the CD and liner notes from the Folkways website. I love downloading their liner notes--always a wealth of information there. Scruggs never recorded on Folkways to my knowledge. It was probably tricky for them to secure the rights to his music to include in the compilation.

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