My compatriots have done an excellent job highlighting music that restores the seriousness of Christmas. As a Jew (a Reconstructionist, the lit-crit version of Judaism), I don’t feel like I have a stake in this game. Outside of a few songs, there aren’t any great Hanukkah albums. My holiday music tends be Klezmer, which can be played any time of the year.
There are a handful of Christmas songs I do enjoy. Wassails and winter songs aren’t necessarily Christmas songs: they are seasonal, coinciding with the Holidays. Indeed, “Jingle Bells” was written for Thanksgiving. There are carols that are based on excellent folk tunes that can get me moving (I will play “We Three Kings” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” as jigs). What tends to bother me about some Christmas songs is the repeated use of the same chord progressions, composed of I-ii-Vs and IV-iii-ii-I turnarounds (see “Jingle Bell Rock”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”). Popular Christmas tunes tend to sound alike, which in my opinion reflects the composers’ laziness.
Among my favorite Christmas songs is The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” which could either be seen as deep and dark or over-the-top, the alternative version of It’s a Wonderful Life or the Christmas version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. From the production standpoint, the song is impeccable: soaring strings, perfectly timed transitions, even a big dropout to give power to “the bells were ringing out on Christmas day.” From a more cynical standpoint, the song is a crass attempt at a big commercial hit: the duet with Kirsty MacColl could be construed to be a gimmick, and the New York theme and the stadium sound are things a band might employ to try to crack the American market. It’s everything to be expected and dreaded from a Christmas song.
Bluegrass has been known for its virtuosity as much as its conservatism. As much as it can be thrilling with its rapid improvisations, audiences expect musicians to sound like the men who created the genre. Nonetheless, a few people have come along over the last decade who have tried to update the genre, incorporating the ethics of Alternative without abandoning Bluegrass’ sound. For the banjo, this means honoring the Scruggs sound.
Noam Pikelny would never be mistaken for an acolyte of Earl Scruggs. He did not come to the banjo from Bluegrass, through listening to the classics of Bill Monroe and his collaborators; rather it was the other way around. He learned from players of his native Chicago and listened to the “Newgrass” records of the 1970s, particularly Bela Fleck. Playing the banjo has instead brought him to the edges of Bluegrass, developing an intuitive approach to the instrument that has made him a rising star on the “Progressive Acoustic” scene as part of Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers.
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.