Archive for the ‘banjo’ Category

Akonting Story

June 28, 2015

by Chuck Levy (from

In 2006, the Center for Arts in Healthcare and Education at the University of Florida began to work with a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya to form a collaborative exchange. As part of this, hospital leaders from Kenya came to visit in Gainesville, and while they were here they visited when I played for patients.

It happened to be a good day, when children responded by smiling and dancing, and adults let down their burdens for a moment. Although I was never sure if it was my musicianship or simply the fact that I was a doctor playing for patients, my new African friends were very enthusiastic about my performance, and invited me to come to Nairobi.

I was also able get approval to use my grant to visit to The Gambia under the tutelage of Daniel Jatta, who introduced me to Ekona Diatta and Remi Diatta, master Jola akonting players. I only speak English. Neither Remi nor Ekona speak English. Yet both were patient and able teachers. It helped that while akonting technique turns out not to be identical to clawhammer, it is mighty similar. By the end of my visit I could play a few tunes.

However, when I returned home to the U.S., and tried to present what I learned, I was unsatisfied. With some reflection, it became obvious that I had not paid enough attention to the singing, which is so integral to Jola music. Therefore I returned to Gambia in 2008 for a second round of instruction, to learn to sing the Jola akonting songs. I met Greg C. Adams there, and together we traveled with our hosts to their home village, Mlonp along the southern shore of the Cassamance River.


Gourd Banjo Making Workshop: NYC, 7/26-8/1/15

June 10, 2015


From Jamaica to Brooklyn: Gourd Banjo Making Workshop
Brooklyn Lutherie
The Old American Can Factory
232 3rd Street suite #E003,
Brooklyn, NY,

Gourd Banjo Making Workshop offered by Jeff Menzies July 26-August 1st. Jeff Menzies is a professor of sculpture at the Edna Manley College of Visual Arts and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica. Instrument making has become an extension of his sculptural practice. Jeff is offering a weeklong intensive gourd banjo making workshop walking students through the Art of making a gourd instrument where students will explore form and function.

An emphasis on the history of the banjo will be analyzed throughout the course. Students are welcome to create a gourd instrument of their own design with the technical support of Jeff Menzies. No experience in wood working or music is required. Tuition is $650. $150 deposit is required to secure your enrollment.

All materials are supplied with the tuition fee. There is a limited enrollment of 12 students so don’t wait to long to register. Registration closes on June 26th. Please feel free to email Jeff Menzies directly with questions.

Kyle Creed’s “Liberty” LP

December 25, 2014

Track Listing:


Morgan Sexton

December 14, 2014



Morgan Sexton was born January 28, 1911, in Linefork, Kentucky, to Shaderick (Shade) and Harriet Cornett Sexton. As a young boy, he said, “my cousin, Press Whitaker, and me got some old lard buckets and cut the bottoms out and fixed us some banjos. They sounded awful, but we played them like they were real banjos.”

Sexton’s father was a banjo player, and he began to teach his son to play, but shortly thereafter he became ill and died, leaving his wife with seven children and no source of income. “When I was about 11 years, I quit school to go to work for my uncle gathering crops. I was 13 when I worked in a sawmill for 50 cents a day. From there, I went to work cutting railroad ties,” Sexton recalled.

Despite the long hours and hard labor, Sexton continued to play the banjo, helped along by his sister, Hettie. When he was 17, he bought his first real banjo for $10.86 from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. “I had to walk four miles to Ulvah to pick it up,” he said. “I played it all the way back home. I would try to play it every day when I got home from work.”

Sexton was 25 when he met and married his wife, Virgie Hayes. At that time, he was working “up on Bull Creek logging timber.” A year later, he started working in the coal mines. “This was long before they started to use the rockdust (powdered limestone) they use now (to keep the coal dust down).” The conditions in the mines were oppressive, and by the time Sexton retired in 1976, he had contracted silicosis, a disease of the lungs caused by coal (or quarry) dust.

Over the years, playing the banjo was a great joy for Sexton. Throughout his lifetime, he played for his family and friends, keeping active his repertoire of hundreds of traditional ballads, love songs, and dance tunes. When neighbors came to his house, he liked to entertain them with his music and stories of his childhood in Kentucky. Everyone in Sexton’s family played the banjo, including his mother, who died in 1947.

Both Sexton’s singing and instrumental styles were unaffected by contemporary influences and musical ideas. His banjo picking was a delicate and absolute individualized version of the Appalachian two-fingered style, liquid and serene, each melody using its own particular tuning in the old-fashioned way. Although Sexton usually played by himself, he was sometimes joined by his neighbor Boyd Watts, a fiddler, at schoolhouse events, at Christmas, and in end-of-the-school-year programs. At square dances, however, the banjo alone was passed from one player to the next.

During the last decade of his life, Sexton began to play and sing in public, performing at the Celebration of Traditional Music at Berea College and the Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in addition to demonstrating his talents on many radio programs and at local events. He was honored at the Banjo Institute in Lebanon, Tennessee. Sexton prided himself in preserving the old-time banjo styles he learned growing up and in teaching his nephew, Lee Sexton, to carry this tradition on for future generations.

Will Slayden

November 9, 2014



Will Slayden: African-American Folk Songs From West Tennessee (Tennessee Folklore Society CD)

Recorded music can serve a variety of purposes. Sometimes it entertains, sometimes it empowers, and sometimes it merely documents the weaving of a particular thread in our cultural fabric. At various points in the last half-century these songs might have done all three. Of course, musically speaking, 1952 wasn’t so long ago. And the story of how these recordings came to be is central to understanding the document itself.

In 1952, Charles McNutt was a young anthropology student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was also a student of the banjo, and he developed an interest in the instrument’s African (and African-American) roots. Influenced by the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax, McNutt set out to locate and record an African-American banjo player near his home of Memphis, Tennessee. His journey led him to Will Slayden, a sharecropper in his 60s who had given up the instrument when he became a Christian some two decades prior. McNutt rented a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, loaned Slayden an $8 banjo, and captured an afternoon of history using a hand-held microphone.

Slayden’s style seems distinct from other banjo players. His banjo is tuned from a half-step to a full step below open G, and his drop-thumb or “drag-thumb” technique is largely percussive. Slayden consistently emphasizes the low strings, and he rarely plays up the neck or moves into higher registers. His sound bears little in common with the clawhammer style of old-time players throughout Kentucky, Virginia and the Carolinas.

This music was obviously a product of the Delta region. (To put Slayden’s life and music in greater context, one should note that he was born more than a decade before Robert Johnson.) His repertoire included a mix of folk songs, spirituals and blues. Religious numbers such as “When The Saints Go Marching In”, “God Can Use You”, “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and “So Glad” are only slightly more prevalent than the more worldly “Spoonful”, “Ain’t Had None In A Long Time” and “Good Thing I Got More Than One”. Also included are such standards as “John Henry” and “The Old Hen Cackled”.

This disc contains twenty selections with fully transcribed lyrics, plus comprehensive liner notes by McNutt and musicologist David Evans. Ultimately, there are very few recordings of black banjo players from any time period. That fact alone makes this collection valuable.

How to play the 5 string banjo

July 15, 2014


edited from Michael Eck (

In the 1940s, Pete Seeger did have a unique perspective on the banjo.  Ever since hearing Samantha Bumgarner frailing on a five-string at the 1936 Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, Seeger had become an avid student of the banjo, soaking up its history, its styles and the peculiarities of players like Pete Steele, Rufus Crisp, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Uncle Dave Macon.

When Seeger self-published the first edition of “How to Play the Five String Banjo” in 1948, it was a compendium of information, with tidbits about the instrument’s evolution from “a possum hide stretched across a gourd” to its contemporary incarnation; advice on tuning and tablature; and a selection of picking patterns and samples of folk songs (including the tune that inspired Seeger’s first longneck, “Viva La Quince Brigada”).

“It was 41 pages and it sold for $1.59,” Seeger says, “and I sold 100 copies in four years.” In the burnished manner of a man with an oft-told tale, he continues. “Then I ran off the mimeograph stencils again–or rather, somebody ran them off for me. I printed 500 copies, and they sold within four years. Then I got ambitious and I rewrote the book a bit and I rented an IBM typewriter and printed it by photolithography and ran off 2,000 copies, and that sold in four years. That was ’54, I think.

“In 1962, I got my family to help, my children and my wife, and I pasted up 72 pages. The 1962 edition has now sold 100,000 copies; it’s my best seller. No other book I ever wrote sold 100,000 copies.” In a lesson recorded in 1991 for Homespun Tapes, also called How to Play the 5-String Banjo, Seeger says proudly of the book, “It put my kids through school.”

By the time it expanded to 72 pages, Seeger’s book had already been massively influential, with revisions covering trends like the pioneering three-finger, bluegrass wail of Earl Scruggs (which, according to Neil V. Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, Seeger first heard around 1950) and the similar but less aggressive style of Ralph Stanley and his forward rolls. Seeger’s half-brother, Mike, is credited in the book with “assistance in preparing this [bluegrass] chapter,” but the younger Seeger humbly says that his contribution was essentially one night’s work.

(In his book When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, music historian Robert Cantwell notes how Seeger distilled the famous “Basic Strum” from elements he’d learned from the rough-hewn Rufus Crisp. “By nestling a resonant chord between two precise notes,” Cantwell wrote, “a melody note and a chiming note on the fifth string, Seeger gentrified the more percussive frailing style, with its vigorous hammering of the forearm and its percussive rapping of the fingernail on the banjo head.”)

Eric Weissberg says, “It was the only thing like it at the time, as far as I know.  Before that, most of the knowledge was handed down from person to person, and not much of that was happening up in the North. That was mostly a down-South thing, so as far as the urban development of banjo players, it was vital.”

A condensed version of the book appeared within the sleeve of the 1954 Folkways LP The Five-String Banjo Instructor with Pete Seeger, a recording that, like the book, has long been supplanted by an entire shelf of hot-shot instruction manuals with attached CDs. But it was Seeger’s book–which coined the terms “hammering on” and “pulling off,” among others, in its landmark pages–that returned the instrument to American music.


Music of Williamsburg

July 8, 2014


by Shlomo Pestcoe, Banjo Roots Research Initiatives

Music of Williamsburg” (DVD dir. by Alan Lomax, 1960,
, was an educational period docufiction ‘short’ produced by Colonial Williamsburg to present, through costumed historical reenactment, the various different kinds of music and music instruments that might have been heard on a single day in 1768 in Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Appropriately enough, a recreation of the early gourd banjo would appear in the film along with other early African American folk instruments – the cane fife, the  jawbone, and the ‘goombay’ drum – to provide the music for a dance gathering of the portrayed enslaved blacks.

The idea of recreating a slavery-era gourd banjo for use in Music of Williamsburg was the brainchild of trailblazing folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002). He had been brought on board to program music for the film[2] appropriate to the African Americans  of Williamsburg (mostly enslaved, though there were some free black families), who “probably constituted about one-half” of the population of Virginia’s capital during the colonial period. [3] In this capacity, Lomax would assemble “a remarkable cast of talented folk musicians representing early Southern music, including the Sea Island singers [Bessie Jones, John Davis, Henry Morrison, Alberta Ramsay, and Emma Ramsay]; Bahamian drummer Nat Rahmings, who had come up from Miami; Mississippi hill country fife player Ed Young; Virginia Tidewater jawbone player Prince Ellis; and Virginia mountain multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith.”

The talents of all of these tradition-bearers would be showcased in a major scene in the film showing the portrayed enslaved blacks coming together after dark for an informal social dance gathering, traditionally referred to in African American folklore as a ‘frolic’. As Bessie Smith Jones (1902-1984), the Sea Islanders’ lead singer, would put it in her reminiscences about growing up in rural Georgia during the early 1900s: “In those days we didn’t have parties – so-called parties – we had frolics.”

For the film’s suppositious recreation of an 18th century slave frolic, Lomax chose Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rolling Under, a song that he had uncovered in his research that he posited as being “the oldest published black dance song from Virginia.”  He taught it to the performers, who embraced and ‘folk-processed’ the song, thereby making it their own:

“The Sea Islanders sang with slavery-era accompaniment; the [cane] fife, the one-headed drum, and a replica of the four-string, fretless banjo. Hobart Smith picked the bowl-shaped ‘slave’ banjo with abandon, Ed Young blew thrilling litany phrases on his cane fife, and Nat Rahmings played a drum of a type once used in St. Simons [the second largest of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the home of the Georgia Sea Island Singers] and still played in the Bahamas. I cannot swear to the authenticity of this reconstructed music, but the musically conservative Sea Island singers gave it their enthusiastic approval.” (more…)


July 6, 2014

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This website is a work-in-progress by Laurent Dubois, David Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold of Duke University. Our goal is to showcase our research on the history of the banjo in the Afro-Atlantic world, including historical documents, visual materials, material objects, and musical transcription and analysis. We focus particularly on Haiti and Louisiana, but also provide information from other areas along with the transcriptions of a wide range of banjo music.

Populist Banjo

June 14, 2014

R.D. Eno of Cabot, VT

Clawhammer Becoming the ‘Populist’ Banjo,

There’s a new banjo sound emanating from the Green Mountains that is catching on with players and audiences. While the ripping-fast percussive sound of a banjo in bluegrass music is familiar to most, the more melodic, somewhat slower paced clawhammer style is gaining with local listeners.

At open sessions in Montpelier, VT at Bagito’s or the Skinny Pancake, old time music has caught on and an integral part of that style comes from the clawhammer banjo style.

Eno, a keen observer of traditional musical styles, says clawhammer banjo has become popular because “it’s archival. It preserves in the music and execution a style and sensibility of the past.”

“Clawhammer repertoire provides a window into the mid-19th century intermingling of African and white Celtic  sensibilities,” he explains.

Eno also sees in the music that clawhammer exemplifies a tradition that has come down through the years.

“It’s a sense of intimacy that partly accounts for the folk music revival itself,” he said. “Old time music invites participation. It’s easy to pick up the style but difficult to master – but you don’t have to be a master to participate.”

Eno says the banjo is a fairly uncomplicated instrument, which appeals to many potential players today.

“Everything about the banjo is visible,” he said. “There is nothing arcane about it. There is no special glue, bracing, carving like in violin or guitar making; the banjo is very simple, a drum with a broom stick.”

If you want to hear traditional old-time music or join in there are two sessions in Montpelier: 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sundays at the Skinny Pancake; and a monthly session at Bagitos 6 to 8 p.m. each third Tuesday.

Richie Stearns

May 25, 2014


Richie Stearns: From the time I was ten, as a child growing up in the early 1970s here in Ithaca, New York, I went to an alternative elementary school. I became friends there with a bunch of kids whose families had roots in Tennessee, and a lot of old-time music in their heritage. I was eleven when they took me to my first old-time festival in 1971 in Union Grove, North Carolina. I just happened to go along with them. I had no intention of doing anything with music beyond that. Once there I saw people who had come to the Fiddlers’ Convention from my own town; Ithaca had an old-time scene going on even then. Some people from my school were there as well and they had even put together a band for one of the competitions. Back home after the festival I started to think I might want to do something in a bigger way with music. I had already built a banjo in fifth grade with my wood shop teacher. Another teacher at my school had been part of the band that had formed for the Fiddlers’ Convention competition, so I asked him to be my music teacher in 1974.

I started to follow and spend time with the local bands. There were two old-time bands in Ithaca: the Correctone String Band and the Highwoods String Band. They began hosting social events. I would go to hang out. There was a lot of music going on. The place was kind of a hippie alternative community even then. We were all kids but there was something about those bands that drew us to them. They were open to showing us how to get started, and they took us under their wings. The Highwoods had these big parties that would go on for a week. We would go camp out and listen and try to play along. We ended up going to Mount Airy [NC] and Galax [VA] for the old-time festivals there every year. Besides listening to the local groups and other old-time musicians we would listen to the Rolling Stones; Lou Reid; Bob Marley, when he came along; the Talking Heads, when they came along. All this music helped inform how we were developing our own music.

At the beginning we had a band called Bubba George, which has played for years in various incarnations at the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival. Then around 1979 came the Tompkins County Horse Flies, as we called the band then. Some of these bands I played with were very open to playing things in a different way—including rock and other influences. We didn’t have any feeling that we had to keep the old-time music pure, although I think we were able to do that when we wanted to. When we would do, say, the conventions at Galax or Mount Airy and play with older fiddlers, I would try to play just what they were doing and not be disrespectful. What they did was so interesting to me. But when we were making up our own stuff and goofing around the other influences crept in very naturally. So I was able to experiment when I was very young without feeling like I was doing something wrong to the music.

The Librarian and the Banjo – DVD – Dena Epstein, the famous music librarian

May 18, 2014

Now available on DVD! DVD coverDVD Cover

DVD insertDVD insert


The Librarian and The Banjo

We are saddened to report that Dena Epstein, the famous music librarian who opened our eyes to African American musical culture, died Nov. 13 in Chicago. She would have turned 97 on Nov. 30.

In the 1970s, after 25 years of research on her own, Dena published a series of papers and her monumental book, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folks Music to the Civil War, which shattered myths that African slaves arrived in the Americas “culturally naked.” She documented a musical culture among Africans and African-Americans that was rich with song, dance and instrumentation.

I was fortunate to have interviewed Dena in 2009, and produced a film about her life and legacy.

The 56-minute film tells the story of Dena Epstein, a music librarian, now 96 years old, whose trailblazing scholarship was the first to take on the old myths about the banjo and prove its African-American origins and West African roots. Her work shattered myths about the roots of American music, and has been described as “monumental.”

The film features interviews with Dena (as everyone calls her), academics, banjo historians and musicians including the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka and Eric Weissberg. The soundtrack, from dozens of banjo players, includes music on gourd akontings, minstrel instruments and bluegrass banjos. Among featured artists are Stephen Wade, Sule Greg Wilson and Pura Fe.

Among music historians interviewed in the film are: Bill Ferris (former NEH chairman), Bob Winans, Tony Thomas, Greg Adams, Laurent Dubois, Bobby Fulcher and Daniel Jatta.

The DVD also includes bonus material on the minstrel banjo with Bob Winans; gourd banjo making with Pete Ross, Clarke Buehling and the late Scott Didlake; and Angela Wellman’s music school in Oakland, California where the banjo is being introduced to a new generation of children of color. In a bonus chapter I call “The Cutting Room” floor I have two great stories – the story of “Dixie,” and the Senagambian legend that the Devil likes akonting music — because akonting players were kidnapped by slave traders, told by Daniel Jatta.

The film also includes a pan of a huge (4-foot long) photo of the famous Tennessee Banjo Institute, held in 1992, at which Dena Epstein lectured. She recalls being one of the few people without a banjo in their hands. Here is a photo closeup of her behind John Hartford.

Dena’s work inspired the TBI, which brought together the whole world of banjoists, including, for the first time, African plucked lute players, minstrel historians and the hottest bluegrass pickers from Nashville. Many credit TBI with finally breaking the long-held American myth that the banjo was strictly a southern, white instrument.
To purchase a DVD for personal or institutional use, click here.

America’s Instrument

August 9, 2013
America's Instrument

America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century, by Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman

336 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 97 color and 156 b&w illus., notes, bibl., index


This handsome illustrated history traces the transformation of the banjo from primitive folk instrument to sophisticated musical machine and, in the process, offers a unique view of the music business in nineteenth-century America.

Philip Gura and James Bollman chart the evolution of “America’s instrument,” the five-stringed banjo, from its origins in the gourd instruments of enslaved Africans brought to the New World in the seventeenth century through its rise to the very pinnacle of American popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout, they look at how banjo craftsmen and manufacturers developed, built, and marketed their products to an American public immersed in the production and consumption of popular music.

With over 250 illustrations–including rare period photographs, minstrel broadsides, sheet music covers, and banjo tutors and tune books–America’s Instrument brings to life a fascinating aspect of American cultural history.

About the Author

Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is an old-time music enthusiast. James F. Bollman is co-owner and manager of the Music Emporium in Lexington, Massachusetts. He plays clawhammer banjo and has been collecting and researching banjos and banjo-related ephemera for more than thirty years.


America’s Instrument is a fascinating, eye-opening read. . . . That this handsome book belongs in the library of every banjo enthusiast barely needs stating, but it is also a gem for anyone interested in folk music, in American studies, and in the development of American popular culture.”
Missouri Folklore Society Journal

America’s Instrument reviews extant banjo history firmly, without antagonism. [The authors] prune from their own new research all but the banjo’s technical progress. They watch the banjo change from an African gourd with a neck attached to a twentieth-century machine-made tool able to bounce its yawp off the back of the largest halls. . . . They have written an obsessive book for banjo fanatics, rich in living banjo culture. . . . America’s Instrument lavishly details the banjo from the pegface to tailpiece hanger bolt.”
Journal of American History

American’s Instrument is now one of those ‘must have’ items for ‘banjo people.’ However, this is a very enjoyable book to look through for anyone, largely because so many incredible photos are of people, not just banjos, staring off the page at us from a century and a half ago. . . . Gura and Bollman have contributed an incredible document to the history of the banjo, and I for one deeply appreciate their effort.”
–Béla Fleck, for Mississippi Quarterly

That Half-Barbaric Twang

August 1, 2013


Cover for LINN: That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture. Click for larger image


That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture, by Karen Linn (University of Illinois)


Long a symbol of American culture, the banjo actually originated in Africa and was later adopted by European-Americans. In this book Karen Linn shows how the banjo – despite design innovations and several modernizing agendas – has failed to escape its image as a “half-barbaric” instrument symbolic of antimodernism and sentimentalism.

Caught in the morass of American racial attitudes and often used to express ambivalence toward modern industrial society, the banjo stood in opposition to the “official” values of rationalism, modernism, and belief in the beneficence of material progress. Linn uses popular literature, visual arts, advertisements, film, performance practices, instrument construction and decoration, and song lyrics to illustrate how notions about the banjo have changed.

Her text traces the instrument from its African origins through the 1980s, alternating between themes of urban modernization and rural nostalgia. She examines the banjo fad of bourgeois Northerners during the late nineteenth century, African-American banjo tradition and the commercially popular cultural image of the southern black banjo player, the banjo in ragtime and early jazz, and the white Southerner and mountaineer as banjo player.

“Well written and well researched; Linn has amassed an impressive amount of data, and she uses it effectively. . . . This is an excellent book that should be of interest to not only historians, folklorists, and musicologists but also the banjo player and the general reader.”–Charlie Seemann, Journal of Southern History

“An absolute must read for anyone interested in the banjo.”–Five Stringer

“Concise, well-supported, and provocative. . . . The clearest voice of revelation regarding American’s most misunderstood instrument.”–Bob Fulcher, Journal of Country Music

“An intriguing analysis of the role of the banjo in recent American culture and society. . . . Highly recommended.”–R. D. Cohen, Choice

“Uses everything from sentimental novels and escaped slave posters to Felix the Cat cartoons and magazine advertisements to create impressive cultural history of what the author calls the ‘idea of the banjo.’ . . . Linn’s wonderful book is scholarly without being jargoned, serious without being tedious. . . . A book for dipping into, underlining, reading aloud in snatches, and opening repeatedly.”–Rachel Rubin, Banjo Newsletter

Karen Linn is an archivist in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. She has published articles in North Carolina Folklore Journal and American Music.

The Difference Between a Banjo and a South American Macaw

June 28, 2013

huge banjo

from Darrell Reich:

A Rabbi and a banjo player are traveling through the country with their friend from India when their car gets stuck in a ditch. Stranded, they walk to the nearest farmhouse and knock on the door. A farmer and his beautiful daughter answer the door. The farmer says he’ll be glad to put ’em up for the night and they can go for help in the morning. However, there is only room for two in the house, one of them will have to sleep in the barn.
The Rabbi volunteers and goes off to the barn. A few minutes later, there is a knock at the door, it’s the Rabbi, “I cannot sleep with pig, it’s sacrilege.”
Then the Hindu volunteers to sleep with the pig and goes off to the barn. A few minutes later, there is another knock on the door, “I cannot sleep with cow, sacrilege.”
So, now the banjo player takes his banjo and goes off to sleep in the barn. A few minutes later, there is a knock on the door–it’s the cow and the pig!!!

What’s the difference between a banjo and a

1. South American Macaw: one is loud, obnoxious, and noisy; and the other is a bird.

2. Harley Davidson Motorcycle: you can tune a Harley.

3. Onion: no one cries when you cut up a banjo.

4. Trampoline: you take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

5. Uzi: an uzi only repeats forty times.

See 271 banjo jokes here.

County 701

June 18, 2013


from “Making Round Peak Music,” by James Randolph Ruchala:

“Clawhammer Banjo,” County 701, opened with Wade Ward’s “June Apple” and “John Lover’s Gone,” two Virginia favorites. Then, a bold contrast, comes Kyle Creed’s “Darlin’ Nellie Grey,” a banjo solo based on a popular song written by one Benjamin Hanby in 1856. Wade Ward’s banjo performances are driving, rhythmic powerhouses, with a twangy, echoing timbre.  Ward plays the main notes of his melody, and brushes across multiple strings to play chords in between the melodic phrases.

Creed’s performance displayed all the hallmarks of his style—melodic more than rhythmic, with a frequent use of the fifth string as both a drone and a melody string, many slides and open strings, very few chords. Creed brushes across multiple strings, too, but does so more slowly than Ward, creating the effect not of a chord, but of a melodic grace note.

But what really stands out after Wade Ward is Kyle Creed’s mellow timbre, reminiscent, perhaps of a xylophone or some other percussion instrument. This full and round timbre was what he called “plunky” and it would come to be an influence on players and builders of banjos, as will be shown in chapter six.

“Darlin’ Nellie Gray” is followed by “Ducks on the Millpond,” an old dance tune popular in Virginia and North Carolina, and Kyle uses it to demonstrate the lick that would come to be known, inaccurately, as the “Galax lick.” This move involves brushing across the long strings of the banjo before plucking the fifth string squarely on the beat to play a melody note, usually the high A.

Three tracks of Fred Cockerham’s wild fretless banjo playing follow Kyle. “Pretty Little Miss,” “Long Steel Rail,” and “Little Maggie” show Fred’s bag of inventive tricks: bluesy slides, wild intonation, very low drone strings for some tunings, strange noises and “clucks” that defy notation, and Fred’s low-pitched and expressive singing. If Kyle was the precise and
plunky side of what would come to be called Round Peak banjo, Fred was the bluesy and inventive side.

“Get Your Banjo in the Right Tune”

February 7, 2013
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by Art Rosenbaum

“Get Your Banjo in the Right Tune (Tuning)!”: Video by Art Rosenbaum

by Art Rosenbaum, from

This is a compilation of most of the banjo tunings I know and use. Almost all come from traditional sources. In the few instances where I have come up with a tuning without a clear traditional origin (although it sounds appropriately traditional to me), I designate it with an asterisk. I have avoided modern or newly invented tunings. The tunings are grouped in “families” or keys, to make moving from one related tuning to another easier. Although many, many tunings will be given, from the most common to some unusual ones, this compendium is not definitive or complete. It is intended to be useful to the banjo player and is not a scholarly compendium; frequently but not in every case source players will be named.

Gradually expanding the tunings you are know and use will give breadth and depth to your playing, “atmosphere”, as Wade Ward told John Cohen. Some tunings are sprightly and cheerful, others mournful, others suggest moods not easily expressed in words. I should say here that if most of your old-time playing is with other instruments, with a fiddle or in string bands, you will probably want to stick to a few tunings: open G (or two frets higher, A), standard or double C (or D if two frets higher); and sometimes the sawmill tuning. Maybe open D. Other musicians may be impatient with you while you twist your banjo into unusual tunings, and the character of these tunings generally comes through better in song accompaniments or banjo solo pieces. (more…)

New Time

February 3, 2013


Respectfully submitted by an intrepid OTP reporter:

The following MP3 seems to be a performance including a frailed banjo, a fiddle,  and an unidentifiable reed and stringed instrument. Our researchers have narrowed down its possible origins this far:

1.  Pat Conte, Frank Basile, Kim Basile, and Mike Hoffman around the campfire at Lake Genero, PA

2.  The New Apocalypsonians  at the Round House in Colrain, MA

3.  Anthony Pasquarosa and friends at the Flywheel open mic in Easthampton, MA

4.  Taj Mahal jamming with the  Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar

5.   Bela Fleck and others, somewhere in The Gambia,  in an out-take from the film, “Throw Down Your Heart”

Please weigh in with your best judgement, so this issue can be laid to rest:

The recording:

Kentucky Old-Time Banjo

January 18, 2013

Cover picture

Kentucky Old-Time Banjo (Rounder CD 0394)

Reviewed by Jim Nelson:

This collection, assembled by Mark Wilson and John Harrod, captures a sampling of old-time banjo performances styles found in the eastern Bluegrass and mountain regions of Kentucky.  Although all the musicians here live in a fairly narrowly defined geographical area, there is a great deal of variance in technique and repertoire.  Wilson points out in the liner notes that it would be difficult to isolate any common denominator that clearly defines ‘Kentucky old-time banjo.’

While this is true, the music represented on this CD is quite distinct from that of what one hear in, say, North Carolina.  In general, the feel is gentler, more subdued and less syncopated than Fred Cockerham from North Carolina or Wade Ward from Virginia.  The predominant approach throughout this album is one based upon the style generally referred to today as ‘clawhammer’ or ‘frailing,’ though in Kentucky it is often called ‘rapping’ or ‘knocking.’

When utilizing this style, the player strikes the melody notes downward with the back of a finger (usually the index finger) and uses the thumb to sound a drone on the fifth string.  In a more complex variation of this style, called ‘drop thumbing,’ the thumb will sometimes play some of the melody notes on one of the other strings.  This style is generally agreed upon as being African in origin and has been documented as far back as the early nineteenth century. (more…)

Banjo Classics

January 13, 2013



   OLD BLUE CD-710
Various Artists


This is the second release of recordings from County Records and Old Blue Records, which contains – as much as possible – selections that have never been released before.  For the first time, two of the tracks pre-date all of the County and Old Blue recordings. Those two were recorded in 1958.  The 22 County recordings were made in the mid-60s to 1971, about a generation and a half after the first country 78 recording was released.  By chance, the eight Old Blue recordings were made about a generation and a half after the County recordings.

There are 32 tracks, but only 23 different tunes.  The repeated tunes are because of different approaches, techniques or tunings. All the recordings have never been released before.

This anthology has several purposes. One is to document the range of versions that exist in the tradition using side-by-side comparisons of the same and similar tunes. The second is to make the listener aware of some of the many artists working in the old time genre. The third is to reveal how the tradition persists and grows through the years. As with any art, the beauty of these pieces takes on more clarity with continued listening.

For the budding musician there is exposure to a level of performance that sets a bar for future goals of performance. For those who love old time music this is an opportunity to hear more great music from a wide range of musicians. As with all great art, continued listening exposes more of the subtleties of this music, revealing the depth of riches contained in these performances.

Happy New Year from Jinja

January 1, 2013

Ruth Akello, her band, and Bela Fleck, in Jinja, Uganda.  (Excerpt from the
documentary “Throw Down Your Heart.”)

Hope this helps you start the year with a smile.

“When I started to play with them, I used to fear. But now I don’t fear again.  I’m free.”

More here,  filmed in the same village as the clip above.

Daniel Jatta

December 26, 2012
Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta plays the akonting, an African instrument that may be a precursor to the banjo.

Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta plays the akonting, an African instrument that may be a precursor to the banjo.
from (August 23, 2011):

“My father was born with this instrument,” Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta says. “This is part of our history.”

Jatta, 55, is from Gambia, a member of the Jola people. He’s holding an akonting: a three-stringed instrument with a long neck and a body made from a calabash gourd with a goat skin stretched over it.

Jatta’s father and cousins played the instrument, but he didn’t think much about it himself until 1974, when he was visiting the U.S. from Gambia, attending a junior college in South Carolina. He recalls watching a football game on TV with some of the other students.

“When the football ended, there was this music program from Tennessee, and they called it country music,” Jatta says. “I watched the program and saw the modern banjo being used. And the sound just sounded like my father’s akonting.”

That experience put Jatta on a journey to explore the banjo’s connections with the instrument he grew up with.

The banjo came to America with the slaves, and musicologists have long looked in West Africa for its predecessors. Much of the speculation has centered on the ngoni and the xalam, two hide-covered stringed instruments from West Africa that bear some resemblance to the banjo. But they’re just two of more than 60 similar plucked stringed instruments found in the region.

Over the next two decades, while he pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in the U.S., Jatta learned everything he could about the origins of the banjo. Eventually, he reached a conclusion.

“Among all the instruments ever mentioned as a prototype of the banjo from the African region,” he says, “the akonting to me has more similarities, more objective similarities than any other that has ever been mentioned.”

For one thing, the akonting looks like a banjo. It has a long neck that, like those of early banjos, extends through the instrument’s gourd body. It has a movable wooden bridge that, as in banjos, holds the strings over the skin head.

But for Jatta and other banjo scholars, most convincing is how the akonting is played. Players use the index finger to strike down on one of the long strings, and the thumb sounds the akonting’s short string as the hand moves back upward. When Jatta looked at early banjo instruction books from the mid-1800s, he found that they described an almost identical playing style.

“What struck me was when they mentioned the ball of the thumb and the nail of the index or middle finger, I knew straight away my father was using this same style,” Jatta says. “This was never a surprise to me, because I have seen this since I was 5 years old.” (more…)

Jamaican Banjo

September 30, 2012

Nelson Chambers


Banjo plays a primary role in Jamaica’s national folk music known as mento – an indigenous fusion of the island’s African and European folk dance traditions.  Other forms of music, such as Cuban rumba and Trinidadian calypso, have also been and continue to be absorbed into the mento style – and vice versa.

Mento has a characteristic 3:3:2 rhythm in quadruple time with an emphasis on 4th beat in a bar of 4.  The songs are usually in major keys and key changes are not common.  Mento songs are secular and usually non-political in nature, however the lyrics are often humorous and surprisingly bawdy.  These are sung in both standard English and Jamaican patois.

4-string banjo is the main instrument in mento.  Usually this is a tenor banjo tuned in some kind of fifths tuning, although not always to concert pitch.  If a tenor is not available, musicians will use a 5-string banjo and take off the 5th string – either capoed up or tuned in a “uke” tuning (essentially making it a plectrum banjo).  The most common mento instruments used to accompany a banjo include guitar, maracas and a rhumba box (also known as a marimbula).

Due to its volume and sharp tone, the banjo’s role in mento is both rhythm and lead.  Banjo players are given “breaks” between verses to improvise arpeggio-based solos that harmonize with the primary chords and suggest the rhythm.  These lead melodies often vary between eighth notes and quarter-note triplets creating a polyrhythmic banjo phrasing over the choppy upstroke of the guitar strum.

One of the best and most influential mento banjo players was Moses Deans – an original member of The Jolly Boys, mento’s best known group.  Moses Deans can be heard on the Jolly Boys’ excellent late 80’s to early 90’s albums Pop ‘N’ Mento, Sunshine ‘N’ Water, and Beer Joint & Tailoring.  These recordings feature Allan Swymmer on lead vocals & bongo and a have a rustic, natural feel.  Moses Deans passed away around 1998.

Another notable mento banjoist was Nelson Chambers (October 10, 1944-November 14, 2010), co-founder of The Blue Glaze Mento Band.  Nelson Chambers’ Caribbean banjo licks can be heard on Stanley Beckford’s two essential mento albums – Plays Mento and Reggaemento from 2002 and 2004.  Nelson Chambers also performs on Blue Glaze’s outstanding new studio release “We Will Wait,” one of the best albums to come out in 2011 and the last recordings he would make before his death.

Short History of the Banjo

June 24, 2012

by Steve Arkin (excerpted from “Old Time Clawhammer Workshop 2005”)

1) African gourd instruments (especially the Akonting from the Senegambian region of West Africa)—any number of strings.
2) Plantation late 18th century (gourd instruments—“banjar,” “merrywang”)
3) Minstrel Shows: 1843 (Dan Emmett, Joel Walker Sweeney, etc.)

a) The “Minstrel line” consisted of a fiddle, banjo, bones, and a tambourine
b) Banjo played Stroke Style – large rim, fretless, thick neck, gut strings, few brackets, often tuned low      (famous makers: Boucher, Ashborn, and Teed).
c) Blackfaced white people (NY, Philadelphia, etc.) copying traditional black music and dance

d) By the late 1840s black people also performed in minstrel shows (route to stardom for Bessie               Smith, WC Handy, Bert Williams, etc.)

4) 1870ʼs–Converse introduces the “classical” 3-finger style
5) 1880ʼs–SS. Stewart campaigns for “respectability”—banjo becomes a white personʼs parlor instrument
6) 1885-1915–Major makers during golden age (Fairbanks, Cole, Stewart, Washburn, Dobson, Bacon, etc.)
7) Survival of banjo in the south—esp. the mountains
a) In the mountains–stroke style to frailing, (aka dropthumb, clawhammer)
b) 2 and 3-finger styles (up-picking, double-thumbing) in Piedmont
c) Charlie Poole, Snuffy Jenkins, etc.—early three finger players
d) Earl Scruggs and bluegrass banjo- -1945
e) Melodic Bluegrass banjo—1960ʼs (Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson, Bela Fleck)
f) Melodic clawhammer—late ʻ60ʼs (Ken Perlmann, John Burke, Alan Feldman, early Bob Carlin, Reed Martin)
g) Emergence of dynamically complex rhythmic style—late ʻ60ʼs (the current “festival” style) (Al Tharpe, Richie Stearns, Stefan Senders, John Herrmann, Gordie Hinners, Mark Olitsky).

Fremeaux’s Banjo Anthology

January 15, 2012

Fremeaux and Associates, from France, has an outstanding catalogue of music from the southern U.S.  It’s refreshing to see southern old time music presented from the European perspective as one of the planet’s many fascinating ethnic music genres.  See also their “FOLKSONGS:  OLD TIME COUNTRY MUSIC 1926 – 1944

Check out the recordings their musicologists have selected for the banjo anthology below.

The view from France:

For over a century, the Banjo has always been a vital part of the musical history of North America. Its early history is represented in this 40 tracks boxset by banjo specialist Gérard de Smaele. These titles reflect the adventure of the United States of America in an outstanding anthropological topic, detailed in a 36 pages booklet with both French and English notes. From its African and European origins until the roots of the “Folk Revival”, a decisive entry into American culture and identity.
–Patrick Frémeaux

“Banjo: An American Five String History 1901-1956,” Fremeaux FA5179   Available here.


County Records 701: Original Liner Notes to Clawhammer Banjo Volume 1

January 5, 2012

Thanks to Paul Mitchel for posting this on his site.  Read the extensive and informative liner notes to this groundbreaking 1964 LP there.

Read an interview with co-producer  Charles Faurot here.