The Banjo Post (Musical Musings #3)

I know, I know. In my blog called One Man and His Banjo, I’ve not once even talked about the banjo save for an odd throwing out of the word here and there. You were probably wondering, dear reader, if I could even play banjo at all. I’m going to prove to you that I actually do. I’m not one of those guys who can strum two chords on the banjo and so goes around saying “I’m totally a banjo-player”. I have done my research on this instrument, believe you me. Do you not believe me? Below is something I dug up from a year ago, and it’s a summation of just part of my banjo research. So, for the banjo’s sake, here are some of my thoughts on the instrument. Warning: this post is really long.

The banjo has been a unique instrument ever since its introduction to America in the mid-1800s. And in the latter half of the twentieth century, the banjo was famous for its crisp picking patterns and unusual sound that made bluegrass what it is. But especially in this early part of the twenty-first century, the banjo has made a slow but steady move outside of bluegrass and into other genres. And these other genres are not modern-day country and western, though the banjo is present in those genres. The genres I’m speaking of include jazz, rock, classical, and pop, among others. The banjo is becoming more widely accepted as more than a simply bluegrass instrument, and it gradually seems to be detaching from a purely Appalachian instrument, moving towards a label of simply American in nature. The real question, however, is whether this newfound movement is really new. Is the banjo suddenly experiencing this change of pace, or has this been a progression that’s been happening all along? As my thesis, I propose that the banjo was always meant to be a multi-genre instrument and therefore represent many cultures, not just one.

In order to understand the significance of the banjo’s cultural representation, we must first look at an overview of the banjo’s history. The banjo was brought to America by slaves, and it was most often used to play African spirituals, dances, or other forms of music from the African culture. It wasn’t until one of the slavemasters, named Joel Walker Sweeney, decided to learn the banjo from his slaves that the banjo started to show potential for performance. Many of the African folk tunes and spirituals displayed a very similar picking pattern to the later style of American banjo picking known as clawhammer.

When comparing African picking styles to clawhammer, it’s easy to see how the style of the banjo developed from its African beginnings to the sounds of America. While the picking patterns are similar, there is a definite and distinct cultural shift in the way the banjo is played. So from the very beginning, the banjo was already representing more than one culture.

Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the banjo became popular in America, and as it came from the South, the Appalachian culture was most prevalent in the music the banjo was used to play. The banjo was often used with a guitar and a fiddle, among other instruments, to make what is known now as old-time music, which is best described as the traditional music of the Appalachian culture. But while old-time music was often used with a banjo, the musicians of the genre would say that the definition of old-time really wasn’t limited to one culture. Banjoist Jens Kruger describes old-time music this way: “You play along with… the banjo, guitar, whatever’s there. It could be an accordion, could be a harmonica… really anything.” This led Kruger to elaborate on the representation of different cultures in the old-time genre: “The immigrants brought instruments with them: the Germans brought a lot of guitars… there were lots of fiddles from the Scots-Irish, mandolins from the Italian, and the mandolin was widely popular in England.” Finally, Kruger talked about the progressiveness of old-time and bluegrass by saying, “Doc Watson gave me the answer that… he would listen to the radio… and try to write out the words as quickly as possible… Then they would just play the hits of the time. So you’d sing the songs that were already in the family, and then bring in some new ones… It could be a pop song.”

And if old-time was this culturally diverse, the entrance of bluegrass to the scene was even more progressive for the banjo. While the banjo had been picked before, never had there been a clear, concise pattern that set the standard for picking. Then one day, in the 1930s, a man named Earl Scruggs was discovered by a musician trying to put together a country band, and immediately took Scruggs on. Scruggs had developed a three-finger pattern of banjo playing that is so developed that virtually every banjo player today learns by that style. The style is almost never varied from banjoist to banjoist, making Scruggs arguably the most imitated musician of all time. And it was this style that led to the banjo really beginning to move from the Ozark culture to popular music.

Scruggs’ unique picking style basically took the folk band he was in and transformed it to the bluegrass sound we know today. Scruggs often played old-time mountain tunes of the Appalachians, but Scruggs played in the bluegrass style of today. When comparing Scruggs-style picking with clawhammer, it’s not very hard to see how distinctively different the two are, but even so, Scruggs’ picking style still retains the exact same folk-country root that is heard in the clawhammer style.

It’s safe to say that Scruggs always viewed the banjo as a progressive instrument, versatile enough for most if not all genres, and he wasn’t the only one. According to Jens Kruger, Scruggs’ playing was hard to listen to in old-time circles. As he told me, “Earl Scruggs… wasn’t very accepted in North Carolina for a lot of the old-timers, because he played really fast and aggressive. It was like punk music to them. He actually played something that was completely outside of the old-time tradition.”

Kruger also mentioned that Scruggs’ band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, played the “hit music of the time”, which was swing. “For a lot of people, they were a swing band on acoustic strings,” Kruger said. This is evident especially in songs like “Foggy Mountain Special”, which was written as a direct alternative to pop music of the day, swing.

Scruggs even expressed that he wanted the banjo to be a more contemporary instrument, and when his partner Lester Flatt wanted to keep their band solely bluegrass, Scruggs pushed the point of a more mainstream sound, and the two split up over it. Scruggs then formed a rock/pop band with his sons, and he began to play jazz on the side. Scruggs continued both his bluegrass and non-bluegrass efforts until his death.

While most bluegrass bands have done non-bluegrass pieces every now and again, it wasn’t until the 1990s that non-bluegrass banjo started to be taken seriously. It started with a man named Bela Fleck, who had been inspired by Scruggs and others, and with his banjo started a jazz trio. For many years, Fleck played the same Scruggs-style banjo that had defined bluegrass, but he used it to redefine jazz. A good example of this is one of Fleck’s definitive jazz pieces, called “Life in Eleven”, in which a harmonica is also used. There are definite patterns in his playing during this song; he’s not just playing individual notes. The banjo, while still retaining its bluegrass sound, also fits with the distinct jazz sound.

Bela Fleck has covered a multitude of genres on his banjo, including bluegrass, jazz, rock, classical, and even African tribal pieces. Through his extreme genre-crossing, Fleck has exposed the culture of the banjo as multifaceted, and he’s combined the banjo with different cultures. One of the most prominent ways he’s done this is through his classical-inspired concerto, The Impostor, written for banjo and orchestra. This is one of the end results of the banjo being taken so seriously as a non-bluegrass instrument within the last few years. Even while performing a classical-style piece, Fleck can still be heard using the picking patterns that Earl Scruggs used to define bluegrass.

While Bela Fleck is probably doing more for the banjo than anyone else in history, there’s one culture that Fleck isn’t reaching: the majority of American youth. Most American young people aren’t interested in banjo, except for the occasional country song that may use one, and labeling the banjo with “jazz” or “classical” won’t get their attention in regards to the banjo. This is because American youth are fans of pop music. But how can the sounds of the banjo intertwine with the drums and electric sounds of pop music today without making a song sound like something other than a pop song? But remember, this has happened before, when big bands were pop music. Somehow, in spite of old-time stereotypes, the banjo did find its way into the pop scene. And now, it’s happened again.

Sleepy Man is a trio of teenaged brothers, who play banjo, guitar, and fiddle, respectively. At the age of nine, Johnny Mizzone, the banjoist, was recognised for his unprecedented skill on the banjo, and the brothers travelled all over, playing on television for David Letterman and Oprah, and later playing at Carnegie Hall. While the group began their career playing bluegrass, they began to move towards an alternative folk sound, and now they have begun to create pop music with banjo as a main instrument. The songs they release now certainly fall into the pop genre, yet the banjo is prominent. This unique style seems to work for Sleepy Man, and the banjo sounds almost as if it were made for the genre. Like The Impostor, Sleepy Man’s latest releases are an end result of the banjo as a non-bluegrass instrument. The vocals, percussion, and other instrumentation in Sleepy Man’s music comes directly from the pop genre, but the banjo is still heard, using the same patterns that Fleck and Scruggs have used in bluegrass and beyond.

In light of the banjo’s history, groups like Sleepy Man would be considered quite astounding to the old-time musicians mentioned at the beginning. And this is not because of the wide audience the banjo is reaching, nor is it because of the Scruggs-style of banjo picking that some thought wouldn’t go anywhere. I think they would be amazed at the amount of the Appalachian and even African tradition still retained in the banjo to this very day. The Africans did use picking patterns, which was later developed into the old-time style of picking banjo. And though Earl Scruggs introduced a very new and very modern style of playing, his patterns still reflected the old-time and African traditions. And because of Scruggs’ complete and versatile system of picking patterns, banjoists are able to continue playing exactly the way Scruggs did, which is reflective of old-time, which is similar to African music. And through jazz, classical, or even pop, the patterns still hold, and they make the banjo adaptable to, I would argue, any genre.

In conclusion, pieces like The Impostor and bands like Sleepy Man are not so far off from where the banjo began. They use the picking pattern that came from old-time that came from Africa. And while the banjo spent its early years of development in the Ozarks and Appalachians, it’s history has been one of constant change, always shifting from one genre and culture to another. And that’s why I believe that the banjo was always meant to be a multi-genre instrument and therefore represent many cultures.

What do you think of non-bluegrass banjo? Let me know in the comments down below!

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