Banjo Harmonies

The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,

is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.

Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING.  It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.”  Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.

The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind.  We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South.  We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now.   And that’s too bad.  The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white.  It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.

Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music.  The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed.  The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.  From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,”  the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.

A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently.  One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED

Steve Martin is a lifelong devotee to the banjo

BY Steve Martin on PBS.  You can watch it online here CLICK  It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its  complex history and cultural settings.  It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.

Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless.  Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.

Picture http://www.jamati.com/online/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/bela-africa.jpg

Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.”  A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent.  Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:

The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar

Bela Fleck with new friends

trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.

Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes.  Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along.  The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.

Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative.  Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music.  The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all.  Those terrible truths existed and still do.  But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music.  There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.

This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things.  I just love sounds—any and every.  I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos.  I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.

And playing it is not a political event to me at all.  It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life.  When I sit alone and play, I am not alone.  I connect to the ages and to all things.  While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording.    LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”

In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison.  So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us.  In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again.  A good jam is

a great start.

Wade Mainer, Uncle Vance and This Old Guitar

Wade Mainer

Wade Mainer died this week at the age of 104.  A mountain banjo player who came out of the mountains of Weaverville, NC, Wade and his brother J. E. were part of my life even though I never met either one of them.  They split up and had separate careers after 1936, and were a big part of the foundation of what Bill Monroe fused into “bluegrass” music.  Wade became the more famous of the two, playing the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt.

Uncle Vance Furr, my Daddy’s oldest brother, died at the age of 74.  He lived, all of the time I knew him, within several miles of the house where I first lived after I was born.  He and his brothers, including my Dad, were all carpenters and brickmasons, men of the earth and builders.  They worked with their hands.  Dad built that first house we lived in himself.

Uncle Vance lived on a main road, on a corner with a long drive going to his garage and shop.  If you turned and went on down the road, there were houses where moonshine could be had if they knew you.  Uncle Vance loved to fish and he loved music, among other things.  My brothers, Mike and Greg and I had nicknames he gave us–I was “Big Mully,” and Greg and Mike were “Middle Mully” and “Little Mully.”  I think that was short for “mullet,” as in the fish.  In those days, there were no mullet haircuts, and he didn’t mean we were stupid.  It was affectionate.  We were like three little fish.

Uncle Vance, right. J. E. Mainer playing the banjo in "The Mountaineers"

Vance, Dad and all the six brothers played music.  They lived near J. E. Mainer, who came to Concord to work in Cannon Textile Mill, so he could have a steadier living than music.  Vance played in a lot of bands around Concord, and played with J. E. Mainer some, according to Dad, including on the radio.  J. E. would come around and say, “Any you boys want to go to Charlotte with me and play?”  That was the music business then.

My cousin, Vance Jr., shared Uncle Vance’s old guitar, a 1949 Gibson J45, with my Dad so he can play it and enjoy it as the last surviving brother.  He played that guitar in a band he was in, “J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers.”  We took it to Nashville to Cotton Music, where the fine craftsman there put it back into stellar shape again.  He insisted we leave the scratches on the guitar, where apparently the fellow he bought it from had his initials scratched onto the body and Vance scratched them off.  Those are hallowed marks, he said, you leave ‘em.

It smells good and looks good–a guitar with a lifetime etched into its scars.  They are meant to be played, banged, nicked and strummed and sung with.  Remembering is important.  Someone is alive as long as they are remembered.  The Bible says that God remembers us–and that means everything about us, good bad and ugly.  But that remembering is life.  As long as we are remembered,  inseparable from the love of God, we are still around.

Uncle Vance was never famous, never moved from where he lived during my life.  He never got elected to anything, so far as I know.  But he had a story.  Some of it I know–an early marriage that ended with an early and untimely death of his wife during childbirth.  Years of work and some hard-drinking and music and fishing.  A journey back to the Bible in his later years and, I surmise, peace with God.

And then there are stories I will never know–his thoughts during the journey of grief, coming through the Depression and World War II, sitting alone with his guitar and deedling.  It doesn’t matter.  Somehow when I hold this guitar, I know those stories and those notes are nearby.

Neil Young has a song called, “This Old Guitar.”  I love it.  The lyric says, in part,

This old guitar ain’t mine to keep
Just taking care of it now
It’s been around for years and years
Just waiting in its old case
It’s been up and down the country roads
It’s brought a tear and a smile
It’s seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went ou
t of style
The more I play it, the better it sounds
It cries when I leave it alone
Silently it waits for me
Or someone else I suppose

This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar    (Listen to the song)

Old-time, folk, country, blues, bluegrass, jazz all share a reverence for the heritage that helped them be born.  Somebody had the guitar before you.  Somebody played those songs their own way and gave you some ideas.  Before you change it and make it your own, tip your hat and honor your ancestors.