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Interview with Janet Burton: A Banjo Flower Propagates the Art

Posted by Paul Roberts on Sunday, March 23, 2014

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Janet Burton Plays the Banjo
Janet Burton

A passionate musician whose devotion shines a light of wisdom on a vibrant form of music and its roots in antiquity, Janet Burton propagates the art of banjo playing.

Janet Burton brings to mind Alan Lomax - a musician, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, archivist, writer, scholar and teacher - with whom she holds a lot in common. I met Janet on the Internet banjo community, Banjo Hangout, where she generously shares her musical talents, teaching abilities and insights. Her posts, like “The Devil Eat the Groundhog” represent high-level curricula, as well as performance.

As Janet pursues her awe-inspiring search into the depths of old-time music, she creates an impressive wake of understanding about our musical heritage.

Paul Roberts:

Tell us something about your early musical memories, influences and feelings about music.

Janet Burton:

I grew up in Los Angeles and had exposure to many musical styles. As I reflect back on musical experiences very early in my life I can see how and why banjo picking now fills and enhances my life.

The earliest memory goes back to my mother playing the piano. A couple of the songs I remember and recorded not long ago on Banjo Hangout are her versions of Indian Love Call and Finiculi, Finicula. My father only played records, though in his childhood he played piano for a radio station near the central Pennsylvania coal-mining town where he grew up. I took piano lessons for a couple of years as an 8-9 year old.

By the time I turned five my family went on annual vacations to Yosemite National Park. The guitar-playing ranger would sing in a family-oriented nightly program and when it was time to push off the famous Fire Falls from El Capitan Mountain he would sing Indian Love Call. “When I’m calling you, will you answer true? Then you will hear my love call ringing in your ear, I belong to you.” It’s a great memory—music with the magnificence of the out-of-doors. I associate my favorite fiddle tunes now with the mountains of Appalachia, Allegheny, the Blue Ridge, and the Ozarks. I respect and enjoy mountain people and have lived in the foothills and mountains as an adult.

Fire Falls and Janet Burton Banjo Music
The Fire Falls coming down El Capitan in Yosemite National Park

Playing guitar was important growing up. A Girl Scout in camp showed me how to play guitar when I was about 9 years old. Tom Dooley was the first song I learned. Eventually I took weekly lessons down the street with our wonderful neighbor Mary Ellen Clark, now in her 80’s. Mary Ellen took me as a child to the Topanga Canyon Fiddle Contest and after I learned banjo in college she invited me over to jam when the great fiddler Earl Collins was visiting. Mary Ellen was in that circle of musicians who got to jam with, as well as draw, some of the great players when they visited Los Angeles. She recently gave me her pastel drawing of Doc Watson. When I visit my childhood home I still play folk songs with Mary Ellen, like Sail Away Ladies and Tingalayo. Having had her as a childhood mentor is special.

Watching musicals and movies was a part of growing up and bore fruit in my youth and through my adulthood. Disney’s Fantasia had classical music set to animation. Mary Poppins was the singing magical nanny who showed me that laughter and fun is powerfully good. The Sound of Music taught me Do-Re-Me and showed me possibilities in creating a dramatic, musical presentation with children doing the acting and singing. Its title song was also my choir solo inthe 5th grade. The King and I was the true story of a teacher in Siam. Years later I taught kindergarten to Hmong kids from Thailand and we sang and whistled the song Getting to Know You.

I’d say the impact of watching these musicals as a youngster was keen enough to influence my choice in becoming a first grade teacher with music in the classroom. Here are several examples of how I now use music at school: songs are engaging and add to the quality of lessons in language arts, history, math and science. Instrumental music creates a background conducive for math and writing activities. Students learn from singing and chanting. We collaborate on writing songs appropriate to themes we’re studying. Together we make illustrated books from our musical compositions. Holiday performances are heightened when there’s live guitar or banjo accompaniment.

Grammer school choir and orchestra were prominent in my early years and through junior high. In choir I learned to sing harmony. In orchestra I played cello. I wanted to play violin, but the teacher said we needed cellos. The highlight of these times was participating in school performances. It’s good for kids to be able to perform in front of an audience. I was quite shy, so to do this as a child helped overcome shyness. One time I was playing first cello and the elderly composer of The Grand Canyon Suite, Ferde Grofe, was in the audience, crying and clapping with one good hand on his lap as we played his suite. I also think now that my enjoyment of banjo picking is related to having played the cello—the pitch range and the fingering are similar.

Guitar playing was useful when I became a summer camp counselor—something I did for several years. The experience of working with kids in camp as a teenager helped lead to my teaching career choice.

I think the significance of music in my early childhood is that it enhanced my life with beauty and high ideals. I also learned the mechanics of music, like timing, keys, scales, rhythm, and harmony. Music was all around me, but wasn’t introduced as a vocational path to follow. I’d call music my lifelong friend.

Paul Roberts :

Could you tell me some more of your adventures in music?

Musical adventures, Paul? That means they were risky and/or exciting. Well, would you find bear hunting risky or exciting? Or musical? When I first learned banjo I’d chosen a recreational class at my college. Though the subject was to learn 3-finger Scruggs style, a classmate introduced me to clawhammer and I was smitten. One source for learning was Pete Seeger’s now-famous book How to Play the 5-String Banjo. The Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase became a favorite. This was in 1974 and introduced me to the idea of hunting with hounds.

Cinnamon Bear (Janet Burton Interview 2013
Cinnamon Bear

Time jump to 1985 and I find myself with my two young children and an injured Plott hound dog walking through the Sierra Nevada forest to a large pine tree after our hounds have treed a beautiful cinnamon-colored bear. If I feel lost, the injured hound isn’t and Old Ike leads us. The risky part is getting close enough to the bear to take a photo. I’m afraid the bear will get nervous and jump on me, but I get closer and closer and finally get THE photo that lands on the cover of the April edition of Full Cry magazine. That’s the exciting part of this adventure, with photography being a lifelong hobby. Whenever I’ve sung Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase since then, it has more meaning. I still like blowing the same old cow horn before singing a hunting song for kids. It was once used to call the hounds in from hunting (they were trained to think it was dinner time).

Pete Seeger’s song became one of many that students always enjoyed.

Onto another adventure--performance is risky and exciting. My husband, Kit, and I have performed together since meeting at the Rough and Ready Fruit Jar Pickers in 2003 and marrying in 2008. This group performs every Sunday at the local Grange and again in the afternoon at assisted living and retirement homes. I’m sometimes found to be leading the entire band of between 10 and 25 musicians when the band leader can’t make it. Leading was worrisome for a while till I got used to doing it. Now it’s fun and easy, like being in front of a bunch of school kids! When it’s just Kit and I performing we call ourselves Plinky and Plunky, and play for community events emphasizing history.

JAnet Burton Family
4-year old grandson Harlan, Kit and Janet playing for Hometown Christmas in Forbestown, 2011



Here’s another performance adventure: If you’re ever in the old gold rush town of Smartsville on the last Saturday in April, come to our Pioneer Day. Kit and I are in charge of scheduling stage entertainment. If you bring children, they can perform on stage with Plinky and Plunky. (I can’t resist a plug here for our event. It benefits restoration of the historic old Catholic Church for community use and as a visitors’ center: Pioneer Day promotional video.) You’ll also see me portray Lotta Crabtree, who’s called the “Shirley Temple of the 1800’s. She sang, danced, played banjo, and acted on stage between San Francisco and New York City, dying a millionaire and leaving it all to charity in 1923.

And yet another performance adventure: Huell Howser was the producer of the PBS series “California Gold.” He had

visited and filmed our little town of Smartsville twice after reading a news article about local citizens who petitioned the government to put the middle “s” back in our town’s name after they took it away 99 years ago. Kit is president of the group (SCRFI) responsible for this. Huell entitled the film “Smartsville and Timbuctoo” and it’s now available to see on-line for free. He had the Rough and Ready Fruit Jar Pickers play “Y’all Come” three times for the camera, which made me happy since I’d taught the group this song. Some time after this wonderful event, Huell visited Nashville and made a professional video of his theme song, California Here I Come. He issued a challenge for anyone to post their own version, so our SCRFI group took up the challenge and we added a Smartsville verse. However, he passed away this year and we’ve never heard if our video won. My mother was 90 at the time and is sitting singing with us.

For Kit and me these performance adventures stand out like little gemstones. We’re not professionals, but have lots of fun while sharing our music. There’s a lot more going on when you’re performing than when you’re playing at home. When a performance goes well we’re elated.

My most current musical adventure has been to take Skype lessons from the talented clawhammer player Adam Hurt. For me this was a little scary--a humbling experience as I play in front of him for each lesson. He can hear even one note that’s off and show me afterwards where I need to focus. But he’s most kind and knowledgeable and is able to show me tunes from the sources I’m interested in. Maybe one day I’ll relax enough to be able to play really well for him!

>Paul, you did the world a great service by producing Adam Hurt’s Earth Tones gourd banjo CD. As Huell Howser used to say, “THAT’S AMAAAAAZING!!” Adventures with our lifelong friend of music are certain to bless us again and again.

Paul Roberts :
You've taken up a really intensive study with Adam Hurt. Would you like to expand on that? How does it fit into your overall interests in the banjo and where you're headed with it? Also, please describe some of your experiences learning banjo before meeting Adam.

>My overall interests in banjo relate to old-time music as well as other genres. I’ve played classical, Celtic, popular, and bluegrass on banjo, but I really like figuring out how to play the southern mountain fiddle tunes. They’re mini-symphonies, emotionally charged, aesthetically pleasing. Clawhammer is my favorite way to play them and Adam is, in my book, THE Clawhammerist.

I learned clawhammer through tab books after one person showed me how to claw. I used mostly Miles Krassen and John Burke’s books in the 70’s. The Santa Barbara Old Time Fiddlers Association held many jams and gave me constant exposure to new tunes. They had a lending library of cassettes with old-time and Irish music. Each new tune learned was like uncovering a treasure. We played daily at the UCSB campus plaza to allow the hardy cloggers to dance and played at a lot of square dances. These are my best memories of college life. But I chose a different vocational path as a public school teacher, and raised a family, never completely putting the banjo down, but not focusing on it. In the last ten years I’ve picked it up again whole-heartedly, just for fun, without any expectations or long-term goals.

I had the book Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo, but didn’t get interested in studying until more recently. Going to four years of summer music camp in Grass Valley beginning in 2005 and taking 3-day courses from professional bluegrass players was helpful. I had one absolutely amazing private lesson from Craig Smith on board a bluegrass cruise ship to Alaska. Books and DVDs from Bill Evans, Tony Trichka, Alan Munde, Pat Cloud, John Hartford, Bill Keith and Jim Mills helped me learn to utilize 3-finger picking as I do now to perform in the Rough and Ready Fruit Jar Pickers. I also use it to accompany singing actors for about twenty songs at the annual Rough and Ready Secession Day musical comedy (based on real history). I learn songs for the play that I’m not familiar with by listening to youtube recordings, for example Mr. Sandman, Maverick, and El Paso, and then figuring them out. I need to play them in any key best for the singer without using a capo. Bluegrass studies have made that possible. Learning by ear and knowing chordal positions are very useful tools.

Here’s how I came to take nine Skype lessons thus far from Adam Hurt. After listening to his Earth Tones CD with solos on gourd banjo, I was inspired. I got a gourd banjo myself, as well as Dana Epstein’s book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals to learn more about banjo’s African roots. The mellow, smooth, earthy tone of his playing is unspeakably beautiful. The sources for his tunes go back to the southern mountain fiddling I’m entranced with. The arrangements are ingenious. I immediately began figuring out old-time tunes on the gourd banjo such as Shelvin Rock, Evening Prayer Blues, and Walking in the Parlor.

I kept teaching myself tunes from Adam’s CD, recording them on my Whyte Laydie openback banjo. The CD introduced me to the music of West Virginia’s Hammons family, which has snowballed to listening to other southern mountain fiddlers. One of the Earth Tones tunes that was particularly challenging is called Flannery’s Dream. It was a Tune of the Week on a Banjo Hangout on-line forum and I recorded it and posted my tab. Adam saw the thread and responded with one of his rare tabbed versions and it was one of those
“ah-ha” moments. I’d used a totally different tuning from him, but his choice of tuning made it much easier to play. He mentioned in his post that he gives Skype lessons. I showed this to my husband, Kit.
It helps to backtrack here to explain Kit’s experience with Skype lessons and how it fits in with my overall desire to improve. He plays mandolin and Mike Compton’s music inspired him. After traveling all the way to Owensboro, KY to do a Monroe camp with Mike in a group setting, Kit began four years of individualized Skype lessons with Mike. Kit considers getting to know Mike almost as valuable as his improvement in the mandolin. Mike’s wit and intelligence and his total commitment to his music is a constant inspiration to Kit.

When I showed Adam’s post to Kit and how mistaken I’d been in my interpretation of his version of Flannery’s Dream, Kit figured lessons from the best clawhammer player we’ve heard would be a good thing. He offered a Skype lesson from Adam as a birthday present last January. Kit and I had been listening to his new CD, Fine Times at our House, and one song, “Haste to the Wedding,” ended up on repeat for days. We’re convinced that Adam Hurt is the James Bryan of clawhammer banjo, James being our favorite virtuoso old-time fiddler. I took Kit up on the offer, feeling nervous knowing the high caliber of musicianship I’d be facing. I’m a self-taught clawhammer player and find some success at being able to listen to the fiddled tunes I like and adapting them to my own banjo style. But I knew that embarking on an adventure with Adam as my guide could only be helpful, fun, and stimulating. Working one-on-one has got to be the best opportunity for growth.

Adam’s lessons began with learning tunes from Earth Tones and his other recordings, such as John Riley the Shepherd, Brushy Fork of John’s Creek, Old Beech Leaves, Hogs and Sheep Walking in the Pasture, Josie-O, Glory in the Meeting House, Temperance Reel, Shortening Bread, and Sandy River Belle. His sources have included Art Stamper, Buddy Thomas, William Stepp, and Sid Hudnall—fiddlers I’m excited to learn about. He has a way of beautifying a fiddle tune on banjo and is generous in sharing his work.

Janet Burton portraying Lotta Crabtree
"The Fox" using a cow's horn

We’re studying several aspects of banjo that interest us both. Recently he’s helped me peer into the Round Peak style with tunes by Kyle Creed and Tommy Jarrell. A future lesson will use a Jarrell tune going up the neck. Another topic is syncopation, interesting to me after having pursued this in a Banjo Hangout Tune of the Week called L & N Rag. (Coincidentally, many Hangout members mentioned Adam’s great version of this tune on his Insight CD, another testimony of his talent.) To begin lessons in syncopation Adam showed me how to play Sandy River as played by North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin. My old-time education is increasing as does my repertoire and technical knowledge of playing the banjo.

Adam’s method of teaching is to show me exactly how to play the tune and verbally walk through the two or three parts while recording it. He then sends me the MP3s he records for our lesson. From his recordings I make myself a tab to study and practice from. And practice I must! One tune every three weeks seems to be a good pace for me, giving me time in my busy life to both practice and pursue my other banjo ventures. At the next lesson I’ll show him my progress. He’s always encouraging, but will also do what a good teacher must do—show me ways to improve and to correct errors.

There was a Tune of the Week I tried to learn in open G tuning called Little Rose is Gone. Then I listened to Adam’s recording of it with Chance McCoy and tried his Sandy River Belle tuning (fDGCD). Another “ah-ha” moment. It was much easier and sounded nicer. So I can say Adam’s teaching has begun to pay off.
I’ve splurged on an enormous book with over 1,400 tunes called Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes. Because it was pricey I was hesitant to get it. All of the tunes are notated for a fiddle. There are good notes at the end of the book--over 130 pages of just notes and tables. It’s been a worthwhile investment and many of the tunes Adam teaches me are in the book. There’s something important to me about learning from old-time sources, as if I’ve been imprinted with that desire. Perhaps it’s my father’s Allegheny Mountain birthplace, passing on to me a love of mountain music.

We’ve worked in different tunings and Adam encouraged me to explore in the Sandy River Belle tuning. Paul, you’ve always encouraged me to compose and I credit you for encouraging inspiration to take over. I ended up with a song I call Harlan’s Cave that impressed Banjo Hangout webmaster Eric Schlange and Banjo Newsletter editor Donald Nitchie. Donald allowed me to publish my song in the July, 2013 edition of banjo newsletter. For me that was akin to winning a trophy! This shows how my journey into Skype lessons can take me to unexpected and exciting places.
I’d say that Adam is helping me on this journey of learning the fiddle tunes that I feel rooted in. You could say he enriches the soil. Music is a like a magical garden and cultivating it is what life allows us to do.

Young Janet Burton in a banjo contest
Young Janet Burton in a banjo contest

Paul Roberts:
How do you use music in the classroom and why do you think it’s a vital part of education?

Music is a special form of communication and expression. Its unique expression of pitch, timing, meter, lyrics, and emotion can only be experienced to truly understand. Its universal appeal reaches every individual in myriad ways. Music can change attitudes and foster beliefs. To not use it would be a travesty. To use music effectively in the classroom is to enhance learning, personal growth and creativity. Its vitality makes a teacher’s job easier and more exciting for the student. First grade is a wonderful age to put music to good educational use. It makes good scientific sense, too, when you realize that music crosses both hemispheres of the brain and integrates the holistic side with the linear side. It uses more than one sensory mode—auditory and kinesthetic, if you’re singing, playing an instrument or dancing. The big instructional goal in first grade is to teach reading and that’s where music is my friendly and capable assistant.

Music appears in the classroom through singing, chanting, reading books, watching videos, working on computers, using listening centers, seatwork time for creative writing or math, performances, incentives and dancing. Its biggest achievement is to make learning effective and enjoyable.

Example 1: Singing
There’s literally a million songs for children. Some are pure fun, some educational, some therapeutic, some celebrational. We sing songs about America, animals, months of the year, days of the week, letters and sounds of the alphabet, parts of speech, holidays, history, science, and literature. Sometimes I play banjo or guitar—always within arms’ reach hanging on the wall-- and sometimes they play a rhythm instrument. I like to write songs, then make songbooks with the students, and practice reading while we sing.

One of my original songs is called The Ecosystem Song:

I know a way to say things
That's nice and simple and clear
But when you say fancy words
I don't understand
They go in and out my ear

Like food chain, what's that?
Food chain, what's that?
It's a fancy word that starts with the sun
Growing the plants to eat
Herbivores eat the plants
Carnivores eat meat

When students sing and read the book we created from the song, they actually learn new science terms. They’ve had the fun of illustrating the book and the satisfaction of learning to read/sing it. Sometimes we collaborate on writing original songs and I focus on helping them rhyme words in the verses. I pass out songbooks for various occasions and they’re kept in the desks for easy access. These are powerful learn-to-read opportunities and are placed in the classroom library.

Janet Burton in the classroom
Janet Burton playing banjo with her students

Example 2: Chanting
Chanting is a special form of music which is more rhythmic than melodic. We chant the alphabet and its sounds and spellings, the days of the week, months of the year, value of coins, numbers, and even our character building concepts (e.g. “Commitments are important steps to guard us from disaster And just to show we know them well Let’s say them even faster”). Rapping is a form of chanting and I have two favorite raps—one on eating good food and one telling the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Chanting gets and maintains their attention.

Example 3: Reading books

On the first day of school every year I sing a book with them called “Sing a Song Together.” They learn it after only a couple of readings. We keep practicing it and make masks to act it out, saving them for a special event called Grandparents Day, which I’ve done every year since 1989. It is the finale in our performance for our guests, which includes the singing of three Big Books, one of which is student-made. The students wear their masks, perform as if on stage, and the audience is amused and impressed. Other books can be sung during the year. Generally they rhyme and students will enjoy re-visiting them over and over.

Example 4: Watching videos
Every class utilizes movies and every single one has music. For instance, a science series I use is called First Nature Watch. It begins with exciting music as a montage of animal photography is shown. Next comes an animated story, which I also show them as a wordless book, and it’s told with music in the background. Then the movie shows a child re-telling the story in his or her own words while holding the wordless book. Last a volunteer from class gets up and again re-tells the story using the actual book. Music led them into the first lesson of the movie and accompanied the animated second part. Ultimately students become focused on using language to tell the story in their own words. This activity leads to reading comprehension and creative writing.

>Another good series of movies is the old Reading Rainbow PBS program with a different children’s book as its theme. It begins with the Reading Rainbow theme song, which we sing. “Take a look, it’s in a book, a reading rainbow. I can be anything—things to know, ways to grow, a reading rainbow…” Music is used again and again during the 30 minute program. A favorite episode of mine is Pete Seeger telling the story of Abiyoyo, based on an African tale of a giant. Students sing along with him, “Abiyoyo, Abiyoyo, Abiyoyo-biyoyo-biyoyo.” Later they have the book and CD in their Listening Center. My goal in using this resource has again been to lead them to love reading and become proficient in it.

Example 5: Working on computers
Part of my teacher job is to keep our computer lab running. It presents a reading and writing curriculum to the students in kindergarten through 2nd grade. The music on it is ubiquitous. There are songs for learning the alphabet, vowel sounds, contractions, parts of speech, and on and on. Students get to know them so well through our 25-minute computer session that if I later put on a CD with just the songs I’ll hear them happily singing along. Imagine teaching read skills so easily: “A-E-I-O-U, A-E-I-O-U, A-E-I-O-U, The rest of the letters are consonants…” Music accompanies the computerized games and read-alouds. I’m astounded at the variety of lessons offered on our school computers which also progress at each student’s individual pace. Amazing, enjoyable learning!

Janet Burton and husband clowning it up
Clowning it up for Halloween at the Rough and Ready Fruit Jar Pickers

Example 6: Listening center
A listening center is a station area in a classroom providing books, headsets, and an audio source for one or more students. Over the years I’ve built up a big collection of cassettes that go along with good literature for first grade. Then CDs came along and in the future the ipad may be in the next wave of reading collections. Words are read for the child as he or she turns the pages. The better the reader, the easier it is to pay attention to the words instead of the pictures. During the course of a school year this ability is ever-increasing. The variety of books has never failed to entice students to want to choose one.

>My favorite first book on the first day is Leo the Late Bloomer about a young tiger who can’t read, write, or draw. He’s quiet and is a sloppy eater. Time passes, life goes on, and at the end of the story he holds up his arms and says, “I made it!” I have different versions of the book and begin by reading the simplest. Later that first day I read the actual book. The next day I re-introduce it (as we continue making tiger masks for our future Grandparents Day performance). The finale is when I put on the CD that reads the book for us and includes excellent classical musical accompaniment. Music portrays the emotion in the story—sad, puzzled, excited, triumphant. Leo the Late Bloomer goes into the Listening Center for use during Workshop or free choice time. The stuffed animal Leo becomes a class mascot all year. He’s a tiger, not a lion (Leon is the lion’s name).

Example 7: Seatwork time
Music is used in to provide a pleasant background ambience during creative writing time. It may be played softly with classical music during students’ individual seatwork time for writing or illustrating. My gentle recordings of O’Carolan’s music work with this lesson. Sometimes we’ve written a song or story together and are illustrating a class book to sing or read and perhaps record.

>Parallel to this is the more rhythmic music that accompanies certain activities. I call this “math music.” It’s livelier and works for activities such as pattern block exploration or hands-on sorting and counting of manipulative items. Some of my own banjo recordings of fiddle tunes works as background music here because they’re linear tunes with a regular beat and the parts repeat.

Janet Burton 1987 Jug Band performance
A school Jug Band performance in 1987

Example 8: Performances

Students and their families love a performance. Grandparents Day, Christmas, and Spring performances provide opportunities. We can also sing and act out songs such as The Keeper, Puff the Magic Dragon, and Froggie Went A-Courtin’. What fun for students to make costumes and gigantic props! For a while we did a weekly performance for each other, called The Gathering. It took much effort on the teacher’s part, but students liked both getting on “stage” and watching each group. The performances with music, as opposed to spoken lines, seemed to be more audible and lively, perhaps easier for students to learn (ah-ha!).

I’ve often taught songs to the first grade--to as many as 120 first graders--and lead with guitar or banjo. Banjo is louder and easier for them to hear. This ability of mine goes back to choir in grammer school and to my summer camp song leading days. Every Friday I’ve been honored by my principal to lead the entire school of over 500 with a patriotic song after the flag salute. My favorite song is “A Grand Old Flag,” but I’ll change the song each month. This is a performance of sorts and often has come in handy when there are dignitaries at school. Performing well with students gives me, the kids, and the audience the satisfaction of a job well done.

Example 9: Music lessons as a reward
Teachers often use incentives after allowing a student to track their progress while working on a specific goal. When I student has met their goal I offer rewards, such as computer game time, a book, or a music lesson. When they choose the lesson they choose either banjo or guitar. I give them the experience of strumming as I chord and sing along. Usually it’s the only time I have them holding my instruments in class, which adds to the
specialness of this reward. Some of these students grow up to learn a musical instrument later and remember the music we did together.

Janet Burton 1987 Jug Band performance
This celebrates Dr Seuss 7(Theodore Giesel's) birthday. We're singing Old River Man by John Hartford from a Plinky and Plunky songbook the kids can also color.

Example 10: Dancing
Sometimes we’ll dance to music. There are dances for fitness, folk dances, and good ole classroom special day partying!

How does using music in the classroom effect your personal involvement with music, your own musical journey?

>Here are my priorities in life: God, family, work, music. And I wish to be a friend to everyone. So when you ask me about my musical journey, I can say it’s important and fulfilling, but my intrinsic feelings were never to put it first. The calling to serve my family and the students in my class comes before music. When I got my first job teaching children in a public school I was elated and knew inside that this was what I was meant to do. The classroom allows me to unite those two priorities of work and music, making my work fun. (Ever wonder why we “play” music, but “work” at our jobs?)

>There are two parts of my personal goals for music, specifically involving banjo picking. One is to be able to play well by myself. The other is to share the music with others as they either join in or listen. These two parts make what I can call my “own musical journey.”

>I play every day for myself—some would call it practicing—and when I play well I’ve reached my first goal. I like to play a tune, especially one which I’ve arranged for banjo, over and over until it’s easy and I don’t have to think about how to play it any more. It becomes like a mantra that allows my mind to wander, relax, rejuvenate. The musical piece is as pleasant as a good painting, good food, or a beautiful outdoor scene. This wouldn’t happen in the school setting. School does, however, relate to the second part of my musical goals.

Playing for and with others, sharing music—what we call “performing”—is equally important. Then the classroom setting joins with my musical journey. If I lead the class or first grade in singing as I play banjo I’ve accomplished this goal--I’ve performed well and shared my music. Perhaps when I was a little girl in Yosemite National Park and the park ranger would lead us in songs with guitar accompaniment, I found this to be the most fun and meaningful activity in the world. Now as an adult I can be like that park ranger. The songs I share in school are appropriate for kids, though they aren’t the songs I’d sing at a jam or other performance. Songs such as “Abraham, Martin, and John,” “The Circle Game,” “Down by the Bay,” “Up on the Housetop,” and “The Chipmunk’s Christmas” for me belong just in school.

The music I’m enjoying most now is outside of the school setting, except for a few songs. It’s in the genre of music called “old-time.” It includes American southern mountain music and Celtic music. Some have lyrics which makes them good sharing songs for jams or performances. But mostly, it’s instrumental music which I get so excited about and often post on Banjo Hangout. This has got to be the most fun part of my musical journey in life thus far. I envision a far-off day when I’ll still be able to rock in my chair on the porch and pick some of these good old-time tunes.

What do you think of Banjo Hangout?

Banjo Hangout is a marvelously fun website. It’s easy to think of many reasons why.
BHO strengthens your link to the musical genres you enjoy most. My first venture into banjo-picking in the 1970’s steered me toward old-time music—folk, square dance reels and waltzes, Celtic tunes. Time went by, I moved, raised a family, and worked at my elementary school vocation. Before discovering BHO I was no longer closely connected with the old-time community, but now because of it I’m once again connected. My Hangout friends are from the USA, Canada, Argentina, the British Isles, France, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Uzbekistan, China, Italy, Spain and Africa. And all from a laptop computer!

There are many forums for participation and study on BHO—something for everyone (the reader should check it out for yourself if you haven’t: My favorite forums are Sound Off!; Playing Advice—Clawhammer and Old-time; Other Banjo-Related Topics—Clawhammer and Old-Time; and Media Archive. The Jukebox is full of members’ music and is classified by genres—again, something for everyone’s taste--from classical to Celtic, from bluegrass to old-time, even one called “Other.”

If you want to learn a tune you can usually find it on BHO. If you learn a tune nobody else has presented, you can do so on Sound Off! and it will become part of the archives. There are tabs available plus you can post your own tabs.

In the Classifieds I found my two newest banjos—a gourd banjo and a Mac Traynham Whyte Laydie. I’d wanted a cello banjo since I saw them advertised in catalogues, and BHO was my link to hearing it on Sound Off! and on your Gold Tone website, Paul. I found my Skype teacher, Adam Hurt, through the Tune of the Week discussion thread.

The variety of ways to participate on BHO is astounding, and I haven’t mentioned even half of what’s available—there are also links to sites for fiddle, dobro, guitar, and mandolin from the same webmaster.

BHO is like the modern day Library of Congress, but nobody has to travel far for song-collecting. Before I became a member (which is free), I’d be searching on-line for a certain tune and would often find it on this site. There are also links to youtube videos of both famous and unknown musicians—a literal treasury of music.

BHO has a storehouse of information. By posing a question you’re sure to get answers, which is why I first became a member. I’d gotten a bridge in 2009 made of bone and wanted to know more about it. I couldn’t post a question for discussion unless I became a member. Several knowledgeable people helped me with my query and I became more aware of the other tools on the website to help guide my banjo journey.

If you’re fond of reading or watching movies, you can get excellent book and DVD recommendations on BHO. The last good book I read associated with BHO was The Last Cavalier, The Life and Times of John A Lomax. I learned about the Library of Congress as an immense resource, strongly influenced by John Lomax and containing many tunes often heard on BHO, as well as at jams and performances worldwide. Stephen Wade’s new book The Beautiful Music All Around Us was recommended and discussed. Some members became interested in learning the songs from the Library of Congress mentioned in the book, including me. The last good DVD I’ve watched was recommended by Hangout member Craig Evan, called “The Librarian and the Banjo.” This is Jim Carrier’s documentary of how Dena Epstein came to write her book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals (referred to in an earlier interview question). If you’re seeking new information or entertainment, BHO may be your link to high quality discoveries.

I’m impressed with the warm and caring community of Banjo Hangout. I discovered in 2011 for the first time that I could record and upload an MP3. On my first Sound Off! MP3 post of the tune “Big Sciota” I asked for confirmation that everything was correctly uploaded. Several members were encouraging and supportive. Now when my computer inevitably crashes ( two days ago was the last time this happened ), I know my MP3s and videos are safe on my BHO

Homepage repository. This has happened only because of the friendly BHO community. If you travel to festivals where banjo pickers gather, you’re certain to meet a Hangout member and there’s the feeling that you’re meeting an old friend.

Banjo Hangout has a webmaster, Eric Schlange, who is involved, innovative, and enthusiastic about his venture. Recently he held the first video contest with over 60 entries. Currently there’s a second video contest which has motivated me to record and share the contest tune, Boatman. Eric’s intent is to involve even more banjo players on his site and he’s successful.

Improving my playing and increasing my repertoire is a huge bonus of BHO membership. Who would have thought a few years ago that I’d post over 250 MP3s and over 30 videos on-line? I think BHO is a marvel of the modern world.

As a person who has taken an in-depth, scholarly approach to banjo and old-time music, what are some of your takeaways from your research that are most meaningful to you?

Janet Burton portraying Lotta Crabtree
Janet Burton portraying Lotta Crabtree (on right)

Three results of my studies that stand out are increased knowledge about old-time musicians, new skills to improve my banjo playing, and familiarity with the regions where the music has flourished.

I have a hunger to learn through reading, watching, listening, and applying. Old-time music written history and recordings abound. Books and articles reveal the experiences and personalities of musicians, bands, and song-collectors, such as the Carter family, Bill Monroe, Melvin Wine, Doc Watson, Turlough O’Carolan, Francis O’Neill, The Chieftains, John and Alan Lomax, Mike Seeger, and Stephen Wade. Through reading about their lives I relate to their passion to learn and share the music.

A highlight in my studies of musicians is my annual portrayal of Lotta Crabtree (1847 – 1924) during our Pioneer Day festival in Smartsville, California. As a child she toured the mining camps of the California gold rush (including my neighborhood), entertaining the miners with her dancing, singing, and banjo picking. Lotta was popular and successful on stage all the way from Broadway in New York, where she was born, to the Palace Theatre in San Francisco. I’ve read every book I could find written about her in order to most accurately portray Lotta Crabtree as a living history character. She was vivacious, funny, talented, and generous, leaving millions to charity upon her death.

A growing CD collection and on-line sources allow me to listen to old-time music from various regions. Without seeking and immersing myself through my CDs with their good liner notes, I would miss a lot. A few of my favorite CDs are by Adam Hurt, Bruce Molsky, John Herrmann, Brad Leftwich, Bob Carlin, and Abigail Washburn. They keep the music alive at festivals, workshops, concerts, jams and coffee house performances. I know them through their music.

Rare Lotta Crabtree Photo

Lotta Crabtree

A scholarly approach is normal for me, rewarded by new knowledge and skills. Tab and instructional books, workshops, music camps, and lessons have allowed me to become familiar with two different styles. Both 3-finger picking and clawhammer banjo express old-time music effectively. 3-finger picking goes well with just about any song, but more exhilarating to me is clawhammer’s ability to play both rhythm and melody when it suits the tune. Study and comparison have allowed me choices. Next comes the wood-shedding and practice musicians must do.

Being a native California who hasn’t traveled a whole lot, knowledge of the southern mountain regions of the U.S. comes slowly. Yet through studying I get an inherent sense of belonging there. A highlight of my life came through reading a book called A Guide to The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. I visited Virginia afterwards and was able to participate in the music I’d read about. My current favorite banjo came from a luthier I met and played with in Floyd, Virginia—Mac Traynham.

Many of the banjo/fiddle tunes I learn have place names as the title. I’ll take out my map and look for information about locations such as Big Sciota, Chatanooga, Little Olentangy, Walnut Gap, Shelvin Rock, Snake River, and Catletttsburg. I’ll associate the titles with certain musicians as well, usually fiddlers.

I’ve taken from my scholarly approach to music a richer identity as an individual within an immense community. Though we trace much of American old-time music from the British Isles and though the banjo is associated with African origins, the musical range is worldwide. One can find similar native music in China or Uzbekistan or Norway or Ghana. My conclusion: studying about music and sharing it are special gifts of life.

No enormous aspirations, Paul, except to play banjo greatly, have fun, and be a good supporter. I want to continue making good music with my husband and share it when requested. I hope to keep on arranging American fiddle tunes with the clawhammer style. I’d like to remember my arrangements as I age and am saving my tabs in a rinky-dink notebook called “Granny’s Tabs A-Z”. I want to share my arrangements if it helps another player. It will be wonderful if Banjo Hangout continues through the years as a source of communing with other pickers. I hope to stay in contact with my Banjo Hangout buddies. My greatest desire is to do God’s will for me with my musical gift.

Paul: Janet, I get the feeling we could pull two or three books of old-time knowledge out of you if we kept going. It's really a pleasure to learn more about you and from you. Thank you for allowing me to interview you.

Janet: Paul, you are an amazing and artistically sensitive soul who is uplifting the banjo and its music ever higher. Thanks. That's all folks!!

This interview was originally published on, Paul's retail site for Gold Tone musical instruments.

7 comments on “Interview with Janet Burton: A Banjo Flower Propagates the Art”

Lew H Says:
Friday, March 21, 2014 @1:28:00 PM

Great interview! Great lady! Great picker!

rickhayes Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @1:19:06 PM

Fine job Paul and well-deserved recognition for Janet.

jamesd Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @2:57:04 PM

Very good reading and an interesting lady. Good job.

JanetB Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @5:17:02 PM

Thanks for this honor, Paul, and Eric Schlange, too. I think of myself as a quiet person, but after re-reading this interview perhaps I should admit I'm quite the chatterbox. Paul, your poetic questions lend themselves well to reflection and I remain grateful for this keepsake you've created.

Music is a miracle and no amount of words can duplicate it, so I'm going back to picking now....

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 @12:38:07 PM

Wonderful interview! Thank you, Paul, for bringing this to us.

Janet - is BOTMC in your future this September? It would be great to hang out a while with you (again) - last year's visit was much too short.

bhniko Says:
Thursday, March 27, 2014 @10:58:59 AM

What a nice journey through life and the music of the banjo.
Thanks for your help with my questions and especially the tabs.
I have always enjoyed your music and skills, and as mentioned to you before your lessons with Adam now have you playing with full confidence and authority. You have been a great inspiration to keep me plucking away.

neillconnor Says:
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 @2:32:53 PM

What a great in-depth interview and what great inspirtation both Janet and paul are in the banjo community.

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