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Monday, July 05, 2010

Banjo Snobs

July 5, 2010 -

Snobs make me tired.

A gentleman I know on another banjo forum, recently complained that he had been 'schooled' by old-timey and bluegrass players about his unusual playing style his granddaddy used that a relation of his taught him recently.  He's getting older now and would like to teach someone else how to play this way so the style is not lost.  It's apparently the opinion of some banjo wags that the style has no value since it's not "authentic".  It uses an up pluck followed by a frail and thumb pluck variant similar to clawhammer, but with a different feel to it.

I told him he needs to find someone to teach the style to - preferably kinfolk, but at least leave someone behind who knows how to play it. There are lots of folks out there who would love to pick up a little known authentic style.  Even if it's a style that belongs to just one family, it's a valid and authentic way to play banjo.

Heck, if there's a group out in the hills of West Virginia that play the banjo with their noses while swinging naked from a tree, who's to say the style is not authentic?   If that's your style, find some kinfolk you can teach it to and tell 'em you'll leave them your banjo when you're gone - all they have to do is pick up the playing style and pass it on.

The folk purists make me tired.  They take an art form (folk music) and try to add rules as to what is correct and what is not when, in fact, any style of playing that produces interesting music is "authentic".  Bluegrass grew from a lot of traditions, plucking (if you will), the sounds from several old-time styles, adding some innovations by "folk" like Earl Scruggs and passing it along to a new generation. Really good musicians often learn a variety of styles. 

I encouraged Alex, to at least record some of his music on video and post it to Youtube so that it doesn't get lost.  He should record some "how-to" teaching videos so that anyone who wants to learn the style can look at his videos and learn to play the style.  Look how many great songs would have been lost if the Lomax brothers hadn't run around all over the countryside with a tape recorder.  "Home on the Range" for instance would never have survived to this day without them.  How many other songs and musical styles have been lost because they were never recorded.

Who cares if some tin-pot banjo tyrant says your style isn't authentic. I don't care if he is a musicologist.  There isn't a musicologist worth his salt that can know every type of music that's out there, much less tell you what style is right and what is "wrong".

If you've got a unique style or your family has their own songs or traditions, do what you can to preserve it. Get it all down on tape or video and post it in the great eternal Internet archives.  Save the videos on DVD too and get copies into the hands of as many sympathetic banjo players as possible. Make preserving your family's style of banjo playing (if they have one) your legacy to your family and to traditional banjo music.

Some of the anger that odd duck banjo players get, whether from bluegrass, clawhammer or old-time people is because some players get pretty snooty about their own "authenticity" and somehow come to regard themselves as the guardians of banjo purity.  They try to "school" bluegrass banjo players of clawhammer or old-time or independent backwoods plucky-frailers because their style is "wrong", "not authentic" (you're wearing the wrong hat while you play) or "too commercial".

When are people going to stop practicing this sad form of banjo socialism.  A Greek dictator (they called them tyrants back in those days) went to visit another dictator to find out how to keep his people in line.  The second tyrant took him into a field of corn and sent his slaves into the field with knives. The slaves cut off the heads of any stalk of corn that stuck above the others till they had mown the field to a flat uniformity.  The beauty of this method, the dictator explained, was that once the people became used to the uniformity, the "regular" stalks would start cutting the heads off the tall stalks for you - you'd no longer have to do it yourself.

When are we going to realize that the more different styles there are out there, the more banjo players there will be and the more new and innovative music you're going to hear. If we open it up to every old tradition and new-fangled innovation, we keep banjo playing from becoming an ossified, stuck in mud "art" form, hemmed in by pseudo-traditions about what we can and cannot do. Doesn't anyone hear how stupid we sound when we try to argue about what's right and wrong in banjo playing.

This is the banjo for heaven sakes. The thing started out as a string a stick and a gourd for crying out loud. The banjo's music has from the beginning been all about making it up as you go. It's the height of arrogance to get caught up in an argument over what's "right" and what's "wrong" about the way anybody plays the banjo.  It is enough that they play it and it's even more cool that they bring their own artistic sense to the playing.

Nothing kills a musical style or instrument faster than to hem it about with rigid rules about what is acceptable playing and what is not. I get just as excited about some grizzled old farmer flailing away on a ratty old fretless using a stile his granddaddy invented as I do about some so-called "authentic" old-timey band with the proper hats and shoes, or about Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck or Roy Clark.  I even enjoy Rocky Top, Dueling Banjos and Cripple Creek. I've heard them done so many different ways I can't count and I never get tired of hearing what the next guy is going to do to them.

It's all cool.  What I say about it is simply, "Let them banjos ring!  (or plunk, twang, hammer on or roll like machine gun fire for that matter). 

I'm just sayin'.

Tom King

* We called this style "Hairgrass" - a variant of 70's hair bands only played while barefoot and wearing a tie with washtub bass, guitar, banjo and flute and gospel music.  It was early in the summer, so my hair hadn't grown out much yet, though I had a good start on my beard (I'm the banjo player).  I went to a Christian academy and we had to shave and trim during the school year.  So summers we all got hairy mostly because we could and also because it made our elders nervous.  

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