Article: Essential Listening

My last post focused on a new generation of banjo players, and how the banjo has found a place in the 21st century, but however much I dig what people are doing now, I have overwhelming admiration for the players who brought the banjo to our attention in the first place.

In my opinion it is essential to listen to music as close to its source as you possibly can, for example, if you want to listen to Rock ‘n’ Roll, you should listen to the Elvis Sun recordings, if you want to listen to the Blues, then check out some Jimmy Reed and Leadbelly... and if you want to accomplish anything on banjo, then listening to some pivotal players from this genre will pay dividends as you develop your own style.

For some, then names I am just about to mention will be obvious, but my articles have always been aimed at Me 3 years ago, when I had no idea where to start, and in my opinion, there’s no better place to start than Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger is unarguably a fantastic player and performer, who in his youth had witnessed many of banjo players who appeared on the earliest recorded music. In the 1940s Pete worked for Alan Lomax, finding and documenting the best of American Folk music, and has played with the likes of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly & Bob Dylan. You could easily write a book on this guy, he's done so much, but the important thing about Pete Seeger is that he learnt from real old timers, and he had the brain, enthusiasm and technical ability to retain this music and then bring it to a whole new audience. Pete Seeger also re-recorded many old standards, which are easier on the ear than some of those early 20s recordings, as well as some songs of his own. I started out with the Pete Seeger “How To Play The 5-String Banjo” DVD, which teaches you a handful of old styles, and it’s also inspiring to watch and listen to the guy. Pete even had a TV show in the 60s called “Rainbow Quest”, which features some amazing live footage of traditional American folk music, which can be easily found on youtube.

I’m pretty sure I’ve worked out the tuning for Doc Watson’s version of “In The Pines”, which is “Ab E Ab B E”, and once you have this the melody comes real easy...

My number 1 favorite old time banjo tune is Doc Watson’s version of “In The Pines”. It’s just one of those songs that really moves me. Doc is actually better known for his guitar work, but occasionally he plays the banjo, and when he does it’s fantastic. I’m pretty sure I’ve worked out the tuning for Doc Watson’s version of “In The Pines”, which is “Ab E Ab B E”, and once you have this the melody comes real easy.

I love using alternate tunings on the banjo, and to me none is more satisfying than mountain modal, often associated with clawhammer technique. A key player of this style is Clarence Ashly, who is probably most well-known for his recording of "The Coo Coo Bird". To the untrained ear, this song could sound like it was from another planet, to play it is heaven, to sing it, well that’s another story. His version of “The House Carpenter” is also very cool. Other favorite songs from this era include “Sugar Baby” and “Pretty Polly” as recorded by Dock Boggs, and instrumentals such as “Darling Corey” as recorded by B. F. Shelton and “Leather Britches”, traditionally a fiddle tune, and brilliantly performed on banjo by Pete Seeger.

Charlie Poole certainly deserves a mention, as his style paved the road to modern bluegrass music. However, this music is not bluegrass, it’s something that happened along the way. Apparently Charlie Poole’s three fingered style developed as a result of a baseball injury. His music has a very commercial edge, and I’ve had so much fun jamming songs such as “Sweet Sunny South”, “Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” and “He Rambled” with my mate Tom, who has nailed the the acoustic bass runs, which add so much to Charlie Poole’s recordings.

You really hear the music is evolving into something that sounds like modern bluegrass...

Moving slightly forward in time we have The Stanley Brothers, whose sound blends preacher style vocals and a mixture of clawhammer and picked banjo. You really hear the music is evolving into something that sounds like modern bluegrass. Have a listen to with “Little Maggie”, “Little Birdie” and “Man Of Constant Sorrow”.

Possibly the most influential figure in modern bluegrass would be the prodigy Earl Scruggs (noted for perfecting and popularizing a three-finger banjo-picking style played by Charlie Poole), who played alongside Bill Monroe. In their music the banjo takes center stage, it’s sharper and much more technical sounding than before, check out “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, in fact buy a whole album :)

If bluegrass isn’t your thing, then check out the beautiful, melodic playing of Tony Ellis. I particularly like “Cherry Blossom Waltz” and his rendition of “The Wild Fox”, which I could listen to for hours. His playing style is closer to Irish music than America, and can be very moving.

I really could write for days about this subject, but I have to stop somewhere! Look at this as a taster, and that this music will easily lead you to other artists, which in my case were people like Obray Ramsey, Karen Dalton, Rev. Gary Davis and Uncle Dave Macon.

Lastly, if really old time music is your thing check out Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music (you can listen to it for free on Spotify).

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About Me

I have been playing guitar for over 20 years, at first playing in indie bands, followed by a long stint playing rockabilly on the streets of Oxford, a short excursion into dance music, followed by looking at early blues styles. Now after a few years of listening to Dylan, Guthrie, and early Americana I find myself in possession of a banjo, and I'm addicted! Currently I play Banjo and Guitar in an Oxford based group called Swindlestock, you can hear our music our myspace page.

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