Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Recapturing the Banjo

I have always been interested in the history of the banjo and the way is has evolved over the past two hundred or so years.  When Bela Fleck and Jayme Stone and others took their trips to Africa to “find” the American banjo’s relatives I eagerly watched and listened to what they came back to tell us.

Lucky for us, there is another musical project out there to help us learn about the banjo and it’s roots, this one by blues musician Otis Taylor and he’s teaching us a bit about the American roots of the instrument.  In 2008 Taylor released an album entitled Recapturing the Banjo and with it he uses the banjo as a blues instrument.  That is the thing that sets this album apart I think, hearing the banjo played by blues musicians in blues songs certainly adds a new dimension to the banjo and it further reinforces my personal goal to make the banjo be viewed as a “real” instrument- it can EVEN play the blues!

Taylor chose several musicians to join him on this album, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy DavisCorey Harris, Keb Mo and Don Vappie (Don Vappie is one of my two favorite tenor banjo players.). I am not totally sure all of those guys actually play banjo, some clearly do but some are playing it in a very odd and non-traditional way that really makes it seem different so it is possible that they are not seasoned players.  Don Vappie’s tenor banjo work on this project is wonderfully different from his jazz playing and is an indication of his versatility and mastery of the instrument.  He is the only one on this album besides Taylor (who is only recently known as such) who is actually known as a banjo player.

Is this Appalachian music?  Technically speaking….. probably not, but there IS a great blues tradition in Appalachia and blues music certainly shows up in traditional Appalachian music in the lyrics, the song structure and in chord patterns.  If we look to the history of our region and who lives here and who lived here, it seems logical that “The Blues” are a part of who we are and have always been.  Add to that the banjo being used as the main focus of the album and this gets my vote for being Appalachian music.

Recapturing the Banjo

Recapturing the Banjo Recordings-CDs – Level 4 –  M1630.18.T39 R43 2008

Highlights of the album-

Ran So Hard the Sun Went Down– I like this song a lot because it is a traditional song (Cluck Old Hen) with rewritten words about a “race relations situation” done in Taylor’s signature trance-blues music style and using a bunch of banjos.  It goes without saying this is a little different but I like it!

Spoke to the wrong person that day,
Went back home and hid away.
Woke up wonderin’ what’d I see?
Tar and feather comin’ after me.

Absinthe– I put this song on every mix I make for car trips or other listening, it is very cool and interesting.  I think banjo-wise Don Vappie is doing the bulk of the banjo work but along with him is a full rhythm section, electric guitar, horns, backup singers and Otis Taylor singing the song.  There are a variety of tempos being used in here, a fast tenor banjo, a slow horn, quick percussion, long and sultry electric guitar lines…. there is a lot of music going on in this song and you would do well to give it a few listens so you can try to catch it all.  I think the cacophony of sounds really compliment the lyrics and song subject.

Bow Legged Charlie– This song also has a lot going on in it.  Some of the instruments are panned hard right or left which make listening to all that is going on very interesting.  There are at least three banjos going, an acoustic guitar, bass and drums and one vocal but it’s mixed so that nothing gets in the way of anything else; you can hear everything separately and the sound of all of it together just about fascinates me.

So if you are ready for something just a little bit different, give Recapturing the Banjo a listen!

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