1525 Banjo Rant
The five string banjo made a comeback during the folk music fad. The fad has faded but the instrument lingers on and that pleases those of us who play.
But in recent years, the banjo has fallen victim to a dismal affliction that affects many aspects of our lives. We confuse musical virtuosity with complexity and speed.
With each new player we get less of the first and more of the rest.
The early icons were Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger. Scruggs was fast. Ho-boy was he fast. But he was also musical. If you listen to his recordings, even those he made at the beginning and end of his career, you hear actual music. Yes, it’s complicated, yes it’s “folk music in overdrive,” as someone put it. (The someone is unknown, but the phrase is generally attributed to song “collector” Alan Lomax.)
Seeger wasn’t a soloist like Scruggs. But he was an innovator none the less. (You want to know what he innovated, drop me a line.)
In recent years, we’ve welcomed a new generation of players. Maybe welcomed isn’t the right word. But each has tried to expand the reach of banjo music and most have failed.
Bela Fleck was the first of them. A breathtaking technician. He makes sounds no one previously imagined coming from a simple instrument assembled mostly using parts you can buy in a hardware store.
Breathtaking, yes. Musical? Not so much.
Latecomers like Tony Trischka and Jens Kruger have traveled the same path. Expand the repertoire. They dazzle. And they have good acts.
Tony looks like your favorite uncle. His stage show is filled with self effacing talk. He’s the genuine article. But his playing, brilliant as it may be, is often tiring.
Jens is a jolly Swiss with a loveable lopsided European command of English that makes him attractive. But the same about his playing.
This is not a recommendation to return to roots. There were problems in the good old days, too. Bad playing. Lyrics that used what has become an outdated vernacular even in the mountains of North Carolina and the flatlands of Kentucky. Monotony.
If you want to hear a good compromise artist slightly below the earning level of what passes for banjo superstardom, try “Mean Mary” James. She’s modern, makes good music, makes good videos.
Guys, it doesn’t have to be jet-fast, jazz- complex and Flamenco percussive. It just has to be nice to listen too.
--Guy in Alaska puts on a bear costume, head and all, goes into the woods and annoys real bears. Chased by wildlife cops, he then started to annoy people who came to watch the bears. Cops say he wouldn’t identify himself and they still don’t know who he is or why he did what he did.
--Sesame Street moving to HBO and PBS only gets first runs second? After 45 years? And now you have to pay to watch it?
--The Sesame Street move would be bad enough on its own, but with the breakup of Miss Piggy and Kermit, it seems like the end of the world. Piggy told us she was ready to hit the social scene. Kermit has not returned repeated phone calls or emails.
I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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