Sunday, February 23, 2014

Encouraging respect for the banjo

It’s hard to imagine top 40 radio playing songs featuring banjo and fiddle music in these days of electronic wall-of-sound overload, but it happened when I was young, and two movies made major hits of bluegrass banjo pieces. “Bonnie and Clyde” brought Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to the airwaves, and “Deliverance” spawned the wildly popular “Dueling Banjos,” which was one of the best and one of the worst things to happen to the banjo.
It was good because the movie put bluegrass banjo on the radio, and people who would otherwise never go near a banjo recording listened to the irresistible duet between banjo and guitar. Sheet music was issued, and an album of bluegrass instrumental numbers called “New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass” was repackaged with “Dueling Banjos” added to boost sales. It certainly influenced me; I bought the sheet music and learned to play both parts on guitar, and with money from my first job I bought a beginner’s banjo.

That movie was bad for the banjo because the five-string’s reputation as an inferior instrument played by people with one tooth didn’t get any help from being featured in a movie about backwoods sodomites. Further, these movies pegged the banjo more solidly as a bluegrass instrument, and its rich history has nearly been forgotten.
With my first banjo I bought “The Mel Bay Banjo Method” by Frank Bradbury, published in 1967, which approaches the five-string banjo as does any other beginning instrument primer, taking the student through notes on the strings, chords and progressively difficult tunes. Bradbury played in a manner similar to that of the classical guitarist, with bare fingers on nylon strings, and his books offers tunes that hint at a class of music that definitely was not bluegrass.
These are some excerpts from Bradbury’s biography on Amazon: After high school, he formed The Venetian Trio and toured the United States on the Chautauqua circuit, and he played banjo and mandolin on the Eastern Lyceum circuit. The Bradbury Banjo Quintette comprised five finger-style banjoists and a guitar banjo. Bradbury led the Hartford Plectral Club, a large group of his students that gave concerts in the Hartford area. He played regularly on the radio as a soloist and conductor of the Crescent Serenaders. His first method book was published in 1926. He was one of the original members of the American Banjo Fraternity when it was formed in the late 1940s, and for this group he organized the Bradbury Quintet. Bradbury was made honorary president of the American Banjo Fraternity in 1968 and is considered one of the greatest five-string soloists, performers and teachers of all time.
The American Banjo Fraternity practices the style of playing that Bradbury taught, termed “classic banjo.” It’s not classical music; it’s a mix of traditional dance tunes and the popular music of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and I assume the term “classic” is used to denote the style of playing and distinguish it from Appalachian and bluegrass banjo playing. The ABF website, banjofraternity.org, says, “The classic banjo developed from the banjos used on the minstrel stage. ... Banjos became very popular so banjo bands were organized to play for concerts and dances. As the music and players developed greater artistry, they looked for something more than just a 1st and 2nd banjo. The banjo orchestra developed to expand the range of music. The ‘standard’ 5 string banjo plays the 1st and 2nd banjos. A cello or bass banjo is tuned an octave lower. It establishes a bass rhythm for the orchestra. A banjeaurine, a smaller banjo tuned a fourth higher ... provides a higher pitched melody instrument. A piccolo banjo, tuned an octave higher than the standard instrument, plays an obbligato.”
The American Banjo Fraternity holds a spring rally each year, when its members gather to play tunes from late 19th-century method books. It continues the original mission of elevating the banjo above the public’s image of an instrument suitable only for the dregs of society, but the banjo still suffers in the popular mind. It shouldn’t, though. Earlier this week I played Bach-style minor arpeggios on my banjo, and I’ve heard classical music played on it. But I’m afraid many will always view it as did Grandpa Jones’ pap in “Don’t Bring Your Banjo Home” — “Don’t bring yer banjer home, son/Leave the five in town, boy/Don’t bring that banjer home!”

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