Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- World Turning

When I was much younger than I am now, I came across a print of a painting that really spoke to me.  It was a painting by Henry Tanner of an old African-American man in a rustic cabin.  In his lap sat a young African-American boy holding a banjo and he was obviously being taught how to play by the man.  I always liked that painting because it seemed happy and tender and somehow genuine too.  I just found it in our library’s Artstor database which you can access from this page: http://mozart.radford.edu/dbfinder/dbfinder/index.php?mode=subject&depart=art

I like to wonder about things and what I wondered about that painting was what song the man was teaching the boy and whether the boy would keep up with learning to play or if he was just doing it to humor the old man (maybe his grandfather?).  This was around the time I started learning to play the banjo myself and I would see that painting occasionally in books I had about playing banjo.  I would also see pictures that made me wonder who taught the old man to play, pictures of things inside Egyptian tombs for example, pictures of instruments from India and more importantly, pictures of instruments from the West Indies and Africa. I suppose even at that early time I knew the banjo and slaves brought to America had a lot to do with each other but I didn’t know too much else about its history.

That brings me to a subject I touch on often in this blog, the banjo’s history.  As I mentioned in my entry about Bela Fleck’s documentary Throw Down Your Heart, the banjo came from Africa and is a direct relative of the akonting. In America, the banjo was made at first from gourds and skin heads, much like the akonting was in Africa.  Over time other materials were used maybe depending on what was available at the time or maybe in experiments to generate different sounds and looks.  Soon enough the banjo evolved into something akin to what we use today (or exactly what we use today depending on your preference).  With these new banjos came new playing styles and new music that was written for these new banjos.  In the 1800s the banjo was used in traveling minstrel shows.  Many pieces were composed and published  for these minstrels.  One of the most famous minstrel players was Joel Walker Sweeney from Appomattox, Virginia who is credited with adding the 5th string to the banjo- something that caught on obviously.

   The birth of the banjo : Joel Walker Sweeney and early minstrelsy / Bob CarlinJefferson, N.C. : McFarland, c2007 –  Main Collection – Level 4  –  ML419.S93 C37 2007  –

By the late1800s minstrel shows had stopped and in some areas the banjo was a genteel parlor instrument that played what is called Classic music (not to be confused with classical music, these are two different things).  The Classic music period was very popular in the northern United States, but also in England where it seemed to really catch on and remain alive much after the style had all but died out in America.  Here is a photograph of Tony playing what looks to be a Vega Fairbanks classic banjo.

(Used with permission from David Shields, photographer)

After the classic period, came the jazz period for the banjo.  Jazz bands started popping up to play in clubs and for dances and they needed a rhythm instrument that could be heard over the horn section and so the banjo was used.  For this music, the banjo needed to be loud and so it was played using a flat pick instead of bare fingers like most had been doing up to this point.  The banjo was changed a bit at this time too and evolved into one of two types of 4 string banjo, either tenor or plectrum banjo.  Both were loud and both could be used as rhythm or lead instruments and both are still in use today.

The great thing about all of this is that all of these changes to the banjo’s look and use didn’t end the older iterations of the banjo, they were and are still around and are still being used today.  What changed was which style of banjo and music were popular.

After the jazz period started to die down for the banjo, the bluegrass period started and the banjo was once again mostly played as a 5 string instrument, this time with metal fingerpicks to make it loud but in a different way than the tenor banjos. Banjo visionaries such as Snuffy Jenkins, Earl Scruggs and Don Reno in the time period around 1945 were experimenting with playing styles very similar to the playing styles of the classic period but were doing it on much louder instruments with fingerpicks.  A somewhat new style evolved from these experiments that we call “Scruggs style” today .  I think we are still in the bluegrass period now though it is probably getting ready to end to be replaced by another jazz period using 5 string banjo and metal fingerpicks.  (An interesting aside-  Earl Scruggs and Don Reno swapped banjos one time and you can read about it here!)

You are probably wondering why I am telling you about the different phases in banjo music, and that brings me to my musical recommendation from the McConnell Library Appalachian music collection……

   World turningBy Tony TrischkaCambridge, Mass. : Rounder, p1993Recordings-CDs – Level 4  –  M1630.18 .W67 1993

Tony Trischka is a banjo master in every sense of the word.  He is an accomplished player and writer and has written many instructional books for learning banjo.  As a teacher he has taught some of the best and most famous banjo players alive today, most notably Bela Fleck.  When asked about Tony Trischka one time Bela Fleck said “if it weren’t for Tony Trischka there would be no Bela Fleck”.

On World Turning, Mr. Trischka takes us in an audio tour of the banjo styles I mentioned above- all styles of playing that he is well experienced and knowledgeable about.  It is a wonderful collection of both original and traditional songs played by Trischka and various others in his musical world.  This eclectic group includes Alison Kraus, Cynthia Sayer, Buddy Wachter, David Grisman, Darol Anger, Violent Femmes, members of R.E.M. and others- all giants in bluegrass, jazz and rock.  That Trischka is comfortable and able to play banjo in so many genres says volumes about his mastery of the instrument.

Some album highlights:

Benko’s Rag – I love the jazz period of the banjo and this song is representative of that (sort of).  Plectrum banjo greats Buddy Wachter and Cynthia Sayer (Cynthia plays drums on this number though, not banjo) and Ed Goldstein on tuba accompany Trishka and the combination of 4 string and 5 string banjos totally works!

World Turning – Alison Kraus and Dudley Connell perform vocals on this song.  This song is “bluegrassy” but has a sharp edge to it.  I love Trischka’s banjo work in the background and the way he supports the vocals with it.  The interplay of fiddle and banjo and the way they play around each other behind the vocals almost delights me.

Ditzy & Zesty – This jazzy little number is really fun to listen to.  I love David Grisman and most anything he plays on is going to be swing-y and fun and this song is no exception.  He calls his music “dawg music” and that’s pretty much what it sounds like.  The band on this are all (or were) members of The David Grisman Quintet at one time or another- they never had a banjo player, so  Trischka’s very interesting banjo lead in there is icing on the cake and again makes me wish there was a banjo in dawg music.

Ladies of Refinement – I am a big fan of Classic music on banjo and was happy to see a classic banjo piece included on this CD.  Honestly I could do without the vocal in this song but the instrumentation makes up for that for me.  Classic banjo is wonderful and I wish it had not died out in the United States.

Booth Shot Lincoln –  I like this song because it is just banjo and fiddle, the way things used to be done in days of yore.  The “band” used to be just fiddle and banjo and as we hear in this piece, it is a beautiful sound, full rich and maybe a little haunting.

So there you have it, a quick snapshot of the musical timeline of the banjo and a few selections from this wonderful album by Tony Trischka.  Give it a listen, there is so wide a variety of music on it I am sure there will be something on it to tickle your fancy!

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