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Man playing a banjo
Photo by John Ramspott
Yes, at some point I referred to the Bluegrass banjo as the “hillbilly continuo.” I could think of no better way of explaining the spray of notes that rolls off the musician’s hands, propelling the music rapidly, but steadily, forward. Indeed, the comparison to the role of the basso continuo in Baroque music would seem to hold. My own prejudices about mountain culture perhaps deserved more scrutiny.

Give Me The Banjo, the documentary that just aired nationally on PBS and can be viewed online, provides more perspective. The banjo is at the middle of a nation’s long struggle to understand both its genius and its divisions. The product of The Banjo Project, a nine-year oral history, the documentary could not come at a more appropriate time, just as the instrument is enjoying a renaissance. Pricier and heavier than the ukulele, the other instrument of the moment, the banjo rings authenticity for a new cosmopolitan generation. It is genuine. It is restless. And as narrator Steve Martin has “banjoked” in the past, it is the sound of happiness.

The documentary begins, luckily for me, with the banjo’s role as a symbol of African-American culture. Giving only a casual explanation of the instrument’s genesis and its refinement by slaves, Sweeney‘s black-faced minstrel sets off a wider discussion about how the banjo was a caricature of African-Americans. No other part of the film better attempts to connect the instrument to social changes and a broader public consumed with understanding its identity. Indeed, the efforts of enthusiasts and scholars to balance the story of racism with the genius of American music makes the beginning sections somewhat explosive.

Sections on Gus Cannon, Charlie Poole, and Pete Seeger connect the banjo to the mobility of Americans in the early 20th century. Gus Cannon’s story is interwoven with interviews with the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons, who helps to make cannon’s jug band blues sound vibrant. This is the film at its most irresistible, feeling both erudite and homespun at the same time. By the time “Walk Right In” becomes a revival hit in the 1960s, it’s hard to see Cannon as anything other than a genius who wrested the black image from the minstrels.

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The aim of this regular column is to highlight the classical CDs that have been getting great reviews in the major English-language review magazines – Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, International Record Review, American Record Guide, and Fanfare. Given the relative sizes of the five magazines, I’ll be treating the two big bimonthlies ARG and Fanfare separately, and the three monthly UK publications together.

The reviews below appear in the order in which they appear in the print edition of Fanfare.

Alessandro Scarlatti: Nisi Dominus; Salve Regina; etc. soloists; Concerto de’ Cavalieri, Marcello di Lisa. CPO 777 476

“All of these works demonstrate that Scarlatti was a master of vocal music, knowing when to unleash the often tortuous melismatic coloratura and when to hold it back for simplicity” – Bertil van Boer

Bach: Cello suites, played on viola. Helen Callus (va). Analekta 2 9968-9

“Callus’s playing should be considered Exhibit A for anyone with remaining doubts about the viola’s ability to stand alongside the other strings as a viable solo instrument. … This is among the very best of recordings of the suites on any instrument” – Michael Cameron

To The Point – music by Higdon, Rudin, Schuller, Cascarino and Reise. Orchestra 2001, James Freeman and Gunther Schuller. Innova 745

“it is a joy to become acquainted with these new pieces via an ensemble of the quality of Orchestra 2001. … Go buy this CD now. You’ll thank me after you hear it” – David DeBoor Canfield

Marx: Lieder. Angelika Kirchschlager (mez); Anthony Spiri (p). CPO 777 466

“If you have even the slightest interest in late-Romantic vocal music, snap this up. … both singer and pianist seem deeply in love with the music, and both bring it vividly to life” – Henry Fogel

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