November 12, 2011

The Hillbilly Continuo

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.

Like Cannon, Charlie Poole is the perfect archetype of the rambler caught up in modern labor migrations. The banjo holds together the narrative of drunkenness and moral lapse.  It is the sound of the daily struggle and sense of fate in the 20s and 30s. Pete Seeger‘s banjo is the tool to bring culture and politics to the people. His strumming style gave urgency to folk songs that were becoming part of the broader American consciousness. Moreover, his instructional materials made all instruments, not just the banjo, more accessible.

The film loses steam when it reaches Earl Scruggs. Although the film portrays it coming into its prowess, it seems as if the banjo lost its cultural importance. It’s merely playing a role in Bluegrass, completing it, but no longer reflecting broader social trends. Yet Bluegrass is the expression of Appalachian culture coping with modernity, something which is completely lost to the film. Perhaps the interviewees were unwilling to examine their own assumptions about the relationship between Bluegrass and tradition. However, I was left wondering why Scruggs’ third finger, which created that rolling, unceasing pointillism, was more important than Cannon’s slide or Seeger’s hammer-ons and pull-offs. How does the banjo move the “high and lonesome”? Did the instrument of the people lose out to the virtuoso?

After Mike Seeger (RIP) explains how the banjo is a conduit to rediscovering America’s rural traditions, the rest of the film focuses on those who bring greater musicianship and technique to the instrument. Of course, the film ends by reminding us that the banjo never goes away, that it is always a vehicle for communities to gather, share and celebrate. The film never takes on the air of a Ken Burns’ documentary.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to note what’s left out. The banjo-ukes, mandolin banjos, guitar banjos appear almost entirely in archival footage. The tenor banjo, a staple of Celtic music, receives only brief mention. These inventive hybrids of the banjo were important to early acoustic and electric recording as engineers struggled to find instruments that could project adequately. The sound of the Jazz Age record was the sound of the banjo. This is a film about the five-string banjo and, arguably, its place in Bluegrass. There is little of Bourbon Street.

Nonetheless, Give Me The Banjo is a loving portrait that might encourage someone to drop some bills on some of Cannon’s Jug Stompers, maybe the Bluegrass Boys, or 50s and 60s folk. It may even inspire more extravagant purchases. If anything, Give Me The Banjo should encourage a wider audience to see the banjo not as a product of America’s backwaters, but the meeting place of rural and modern America. OK, give me the banjo, just get someone else to play it.

Watch Give Me The Banjo

Preview of Give Me The Banjo

Filed under Bluegrass, Blues, Folk, Instruments, Musicians, Television