Archive for the ‘Eli Smith’ Category

paleo-acoustic folk music

April 10, 2015

Eli Smith


edited excerpts from Scott Borchert (

“I kind of hate the word traditional,” Eli Smith says. “But I like down home music.” Indeed, he named his sporadic podcast (a “hardcore, unreconstructed, paleo-acoustic folk music program”) the Down Home Radio Show. “That’s a term that really has been used by country people and rural working class people to describe their own music. Like, down home, that’s back where I come from.”

Smith is putting together a traveling roadshow for the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress. On top of that, he’s working on his first book, The Oral History of Folk Music in New York City, 1935-1975, recording a new Down Hill Strugglers album, and producing two new CD collections.

One is a compilation of field recordings made by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax commemorating Lomax’s 100th birthday; the other is an “inverted” version of the famous Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith in 1952, containing all the B-sides of the 78s that Smith used for his anthology.

Smith’s band, the Down Hill Strugglers, insist on giving the music a raw, unpolished quality, the way it might have sounded drifting through some Appalachian hollow or the back room of a trading post. The effect is truly uncanny, in the sense that the music is strange but strangely familiar, as if it were bubbling up from the deeper recesses of American culture.

Even among folk music enthusiasts, The Down Hill Strugglers’ anachronistic approach is not always welcome. “Our booking agent was recently told by the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival upstate that they have a policy of not booking old-time music,” Eli tells me. “I mean, what? You’re a folk festival and… that’s insane!”

“I’m a revolutionary socialist anarchist,” he tells me. “I would probably be characterized as an extremist.” His parents are longtime radicals and former members of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group. When Eli was six, they brought him to a Pete Seeger concert. “I remember Pete actually chopped wood on stage, which I was impressed by,” Eli remembers.

“He, like, brought his own log and sang a work song and chopped wood. That was cool.” Eventually, Eli embraced an approach not unlike Seeger’s, one that married enthusiasm for folk music with radical politics. While he learned banjo and dug old 78s out of crates, he also read Marx and Trotsky and hung around with activist groups.

“By promoting and perpetuating the music of America’s rural working class, black and white, you bring honor to them, to the memory of all the people who actually built the country,” he says.

Banjo Toss

February 23, 2015



The Gowanus Canal is polluted with heavy metals — but for one day only it’s going acoustic.

The fourth-ever Banjo Toss contest is capping-off this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, giving attendees of the weekend-long hootenanny of American roots music a chance to strum the rustic instrument before taking turns throwing one in the waterway.

The Banjo Toss, along with the festival, is the brainchild of musician Eli Smith, who said the idea for the competition came out of his love-hate relationship with the instrument he’s played for 15 years.

“Sometimes I just want to throw my banjo across the room,” said Smith. “And I thought, that might be a pretty fun idea for a contest.”

To avoid destroying numerous banjos, Smith decided to have contestants pitch one instrument repeatedly into a body of water.  A rope tied to the sacrificial banjo will act as a watermark to determine who throws it the farthest, as well as a life-line to draw the instrument back on to land.

Smith added that he will provide contestants with gloves to protect them from the toxins, oil, human waste, and gonorrhea floating in the Venice of Brooklyn. The winner will receive a free banjo, which they can either learn to play or — since they’ve had enough practice already — sling into the canal.

Smith said competitors are free to try any track-and-field technique they want in the banjo toss.

“It’s really freestyle,” said Smith, who personally favors a shot put approach. “If you have an idea how to throw it, go for it.”


Eli Smith

April 22, 2014
The Down Hill Strugglers with John Cohen at the Brooklyn Folk Festival (Down Home Radio)

The Down Hill Strugglers with John Cohen at the Brooklyn Folk Festival (Down Home Radio)


It seems like 31-year-old banjo player Eli Smith was destined to play old-time folk music. He grew up in Greenwich Village–the epicenter of the 1960s folk revival boom. His parents–who are left-wing political activists–exposed him to the folk sounds of giants like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But it wasn’t until he listened to music by the likes of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt and The New Lost City Ramblers, an old-time string band,  as a teenager that he started to seek the sources behind that old-time roots sound.

“It was the first music that really spoke to me,” he says. “I never heard any folk music on the radio and never saw it on TV. But when I started to finally find it for myself and hear the authentic sound of the vanished rural American music, that was the sound that really spoke to me, the feeling that I was looking for. That was the music that I loved.”

Smith is one of the members of the Brooklyn old-time string group, the Down Hill Strugglers, along with fellow multi-instrumentalists Walker Shepard and Jackson Lynch. Formerly known as the Dust Busters, the Down Hill Strugglers perform traditional authentic roots music. Their latest album, Show Me the Way To Go Home, was released in October; and their performance of the traditional folk tune, “The Roving Gambler,” appears on the soundtrack of the new Joel and Ethan Coen film, Inside Llewyn Davis.“I’m personally hoping to reform the notion of folk music,” says Smith. “I think it’s become very corrupt where people think folk music is just singer-songwriters or somebody idly strumming on a guitar. So what I want to bring people [is] some culture that really has deep roots and is very rich and diverse.”

If the music on Show Me the Way to Go Home sounds authentically rustic as if it was coming from a 78 RPM record, it was intended that way. The album was produced in a field recording style at Red Hook’s Jalopy Theater. “We’re big fans of field recordings,” says Smith. “It’s what folklorists do when they go out into the country and locate musicians in their homes or wherever they may be and just record them there. That’s the sound we were going for. I think we got some really good old-time music there.”

Smith and Shepard met each other through Peter Stampfel, a member of the 1960s New York City folk group the Holy Modal Rounders; it was also through Stampfel that they met John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers. “He’s somebody that I had admired since I was in high school,” Smith says of Cohen, “so it was amazing finally to get to meet him and really learn from him in a personal way. I’d never thought that would happen and it’s been a real honor.”

The Down Hill Strugglers considered their bid to appear on the soundtrack of Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that was inspired by the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene to be a long shot. Both the band and Cohen collaborated on “The Roving Gambler,” a song the Strugglers first recorded on their previous album as the Dust Busters.

“We sent in a demo and didn’t expect anything to come of it,” recalls Smith. “But then we got a call from [producer] T Bone Burnett’s office telling us to come to this recording studio. We recorded songs for possible inclusion on the soundtrack. We did the session and didn’t hear anything for quite a while. We figured, ‘Well, that was fun but nothing’s gonna happen.’ But then we got a phone call saying that in fact one of our songs was going to be used on the soundtrack. We were very pleased about that.”

In addition to playing with band, Smith is the host of the Down Home Radio Show and a banjo instructor at the Jalopy Theater. He is also founder of the annual Brooklyn Folk Festival and the Washington Square Festival. Through his band and his projects, Smith seems like he’s on a mission to bring back this old-time music for this generation and beyond.

“We’re trying to find our own voice within the realm of the old rural America,” he says, “which is a society that is pretty much vanished now but left this great legacy of sound and this great aesthetic that was created by rural working-class Americans over hundreds of years. We don’t want to see that sound go away. The music has a lot of meaning…the lyrics have a lot of history and they’re really laden with meaning. To us it’s very powerful music.”