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Liner notes for "New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass"

Posted by corcoran on Saturday, April 8, 2023

The "New Dimensions" album by Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman was released in 1963 and introduced many banjo players to melodic playing. Marshall Brickman wrote a witty and informative piece that served as the liner notes, in a style that foreshadowed his later career as a writer and director. Because there is a danger that the original LP, including liner notes, will be lost in the foggy mists of time, I have included them in this blog posting. The notes are of some historical interest, and I hope you enjoy them.

 

New Dimensions in Banjo & Bluegrass

 

   In the past few years the 5-string banjo has come into its own. From lowly beginnings in a Louisiana field, through a long, trying minstrel-show apprenticeship, it has arrived and finds itself, Horatio-Alger-like, in a position of national acceptance. The familiar sound of the 5-string can now be heard in jukeboxes from San Diego to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Whether the type of nation-wide indecent exposure characterized by jukebox success represents a triumph or just a Pyrrhic victory is immaterial – it remains that goldfish swallowing, canasta, and even the Twist pale into faddy insignificance beside the great mid-century banjo rush. Thousands of classes in technique and performance have been organized; Master’s degree candidates who might have submitted a thesis on “The Influence of Potlach on the Kwa Kiutl” now concern themselves with “Uncle” Dave Macon or J. C. Sutphin; the goldfish bowls in fraternities have been replaced by instruction manuals and tape recorders, and folklorists and aficionados produce pamphlets, magazines, anthologies and broadsides with the fertile abandon of a mother guinea pig producing offspring. Pawnshop and attic hounds have scoured the likely places for instruments made 30, 40, 40 years ago, and in certain circles the unearthing of a Top-tension gold-plated flat-top Gibson Mastertone or a Vega White Ladye produces an effect, flipwise, not unlike the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. So great is the demand, and so optimistic the industry, that many old-line instrument companies have added banjos to their catalogues, and several new companies re producing only banjo for an eager market.

   All of which indicates that the enthusiasm generated by this – the only indigenous American instrument – is not a fad or a craze at all but a healthy revival, part of the general revival of interest in American folklore. Of course, even before Pete Seeger (like an evangelist in reverse) brought the gospel of the banjo from the country to the city, its popularity was firmly established in some areas, particularly the southeast, where the mountaineers resisted the influx of automatic culture and clung to their own handmade stuff. Earlier, banjos had participated in the musical life of America to one degree or another – the minstrel shows and the Jazz era being the obvious (and only) examples. But it took the combination of mass communication, modern techniques of marketing and distributing recordings, and an American penchant for doing-it-oneself, plus the talents and intelligence of people like Seeger and The Weavers to give folk music, and concurrently the banjo, the exposure it needed to catch on. Which it did, with a tenacity that is bewildering.

   Representatives of the untrammelled folk art are culled from Confederate mountainsides to appear before rapt audiences of collegians. Carnegie Hall has played host to bluegrass bands as well as to Bach and Bernstein; folk festivals offer seminars, discussions, workshops, performances and inspiration to enthusiasts. Country musicians who previously plied their craft on small radio stations or between features at drive-ins find themselves suddenly revered in concert halls by crowds of city dwellers. They are signed by large, thin-lapelled recording companies by day and interviewed by intellectual FM deejays at night. They are imitated, often with amazing fidelity, by zealots whose sources of inspiration are more cerebral than traditional. The instruction manual and phonograph record have replaced the mother’s knee.

   It is not surprising that the banjo has attracted as many devotees. Aside from the general appeal of folklore as a musical or literary genre – the beauty and power of folk lyrics and poetry, the distillation of decades of inheritance, the dynamism of a good folksong, the un-selfconscious art in a melody – there is a special appeal in the novelty and intricacy of folk instrumental techniques. The banjo, no doubt originally used as an accompanying instrument, progressed through varying stages of complexity to a position in which it can be used as a solo instrument. It can have an exciting, driving, or a wistful, delicate sound, but always a distinctive and recognizable sound. This last feature is an important clue to its popularity. Many a “folk singing” group feels compelled to include a 5-string banjo, however ineptly played, in its instrumental ensemble, the more to appear folky. Techniques have developed to the point, however, where the banjo can absorb as much ingenuity and talent as one brings to it. A major contribution was made by Earl Scruggs, who embraced certain stylistic elements which preceded him, added his own genius, and developed a style which bears his name. It enchanted not only the country musicians around him, but folk music enthusiasts and city dwellers from all over. The style is fast, it is rhythmic, it is exciting, it has authority; it is technique idealized, it is artistry with bombast. It is flashy, is impressive, and obviously, it is very easily abused.

   In this album we have recorded some ideas in, or based on, this technique. Several of the selections were done with fiddle and mandolin participating or backing, in an effort to put the banjo in a bluegrass context, wherein it is most comfortable; all of the selections were done with at least one guitar and bass, this rhythmic backdrop best setting off the freedom of the solo instrument. A word regarding the title of the album. In traditional Scruggs style, only one out of every three of four notes played is a melody note. The others are auxiliary, usually an arpeggio in the prevailing harmony, and serve a rhythmic rather than a melodic purpose. Consequently, Scruggs style has developed into a series of cliches or recognizable phrases, the varied juxtaposition of which forms the basic technique for dealing with musical problems and the invention of new tunes. Melodies with basic note value of sixteenth notes in common time – such as most fiddle tunes, jigs, reels, etc. – prove almost impossible in this style unless most of the turns and auxiliary phrases – in fact the characteristic and appealing subtleties – are deleted. This situation limits the banjoist in the area of melodic invention, and thus the basis of the style becomes its greatest limitation. The problem then is how to combine Scruggs technique with a freer melodic style, without sacrificing its inherent drive and excitement. The comparison between the two styles illustrated on side one, band one: Shuckin’ the Corn, by Scruggs. The banjo plays it in traditional style for the first three choruses; compare these with the break immediately following the first fiddle break. The Eight of January is almost completely melodic and individual in concept, yet is still strongly reminiscent of Scruggs style.

 

 

 

   Deserving of special mention are two musicians whose talent and creative ability had no small part in the execution of this record. Gordon Terry, fiddle; and Clarence White, guitar.

 

                                                                                                                             Marshall Brickman

 

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

 

   Born of American parents in Brazil, Marshall Brickman began to study classical piano at the age of five, but soon relinquished that to pursue folk music. In 1956, he entered the University of Wisconsin, graduating with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Music, concentrating on composition. He played the five-string banjo in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1957, for which he won a gold medal. A member of the celebrated Tarriers since 1961, he plays bass, banjo, fiddle piano and guitar.

 

   Eric Weissberg was born and raised in New York City. Since his first appearance as a professional musician at the age of ten on WNYC, he has amassed a formidable list of credits as a soloist and accompanist – on records, television, radio, and for the past four years, as a member of The Tarriers. Eric studied string bass under Sankey. He attended the High School of Music and Art and the Julliard School of Music, and he has appeared with the Aspen Festival and Westchester Symphony Orchestra as bassist. A jack of all musical trades, Mr. Weissberg plays bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and kazoo.

 

bass accompaniment – Jimmy Bond

 



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