Tony Trischka from the American Banjo Museum talks about Classic Banjo.

How nice it is to hear this un-rushed playing and with steel strings and fingerpicks the "Classic Style" music shines through.

Something that I never thought that I would hear my self saying: 

"I am thinking of setting up a banjo with steel strings and buying myself some fingerpicks" !!!

Thank you Tony.

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For those who enjoy Tony's playing, I interviewed him a few days ago for BMG and the interview should appear in the Winter edition of the magazine.  I first interviewed Tony 40 years ago in New York and it felt like time we did it again!

I think it is human nature to want to play like "X". Usually X is playing at a high level and that is what your brain keys on. Nobody wants to play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" for more than the time it takes to get your fingers moving in the right direction...and so many of those easy pieces fall into that category. I have lots of 'em if anyone is interested. I stopped Tabbing them out because they're almost universally insipid.

The banjo vanished because only a very, very few people actually cared about the details. A banjo is a banjo is a banjo. Round thing with a popsicle stick for a neck. 4-strings vs 5-strings? Pffft. Historical accuracy in movies? LOLOLOL.


Joel Hooks said:

Marc, while I agree that fingerstyle can be as challenging as one wants it to be, the vast majority of American publications before say, 1895, were well within the reach of the average banjoist.  We tend to focus on the more difficult solos (I have found that often people will try and start at the top running only to fail) and forget about the huge stacks of easy to play, one key, pieces that made up the bulk of popular banjo music before 1900.

And yet there is still a very active group of people playing the "early banjo" stuff stroke style which I would put in the class with all the single page stuff published from 1879 to after 1890 (including many of the very same pieces).

Judging from the volume of extent copies of music as well as announcements of concerts where the pieces were played, I'd say people actually were playing that stuff.

While "easy" they can be very musical.  A dozen or so of those pieces, done tastefully, make for a nice program.

That's a little apples and oranges, I think. However, the same theory applies to Stroke Style as it does Classic. People heard the CD "Minstrel Banjo" and they wanted strongly to emulate it. Tim Twiss' videos fill the same "guitar hero" spot.

Heck, many of the medleys on the Minstrel Banjo album are still played note for note. Don't confuse 'short' with 'easy'...there's some tough little pieces in there. I tend to put Stroke in the same class as Clawhammer. Lots of tuneful, moderately easy stuff which attracts a lot of players. Many great players like Adam Hurt, etc. to provide that carrot on a stick of "how the big dogs play". Classic simply doesn't have a similar class of tunes (my opinion, of course). "Sunflower Dance" is absurdly popular...but I get complaints from intermediate level BG players that it is too hard...primarily, I think, because it requires note-for-note learning and tends to fall apart if you attack it from a chord/roll perspective.

I agree that we see a lot of survivor music in the "easy" category. Mostly from tutors, I would guess. I have lots of single-sheet "very easy" stuff but almost all of it appears to have never been actually opened up (old unsold stock from music stores, probably). The worn-out, played-until-the-dots-fall-off-the-page stuff I own are the obvious chestnuts: "On The Mill Dam", "Whistling Rufus", various clog dances (like "Lancashire Clogs"), "Darkey's Dream/Awakening", "Koonville Koonlets", etc., etc. I have dozens of Morley pieces...but they're in almost untouched shape. I think that is just human nature...popular music vs 'interesting music'. 


Joel Hooks said:

And yet there is still a very active group of people playing the "early banjo" stuff stroke style which I would put in the class with all the single page stuff published from 1879 to after 1890 (including many of the very same pieces).

Judging from the volume of extent copies of music as well as announcements of concerts where the pieces were played, I'd say people actually were playing that stuff.

While "easy" they can be very musical.  A dozen or so of those pieces, done tastefully, make for a nice program.

Yeah, jumping in with Sunflower Dance is like learning to ride a bike without training wheels and expecting to be able to ride a century.  I would not expect to be able to play FMB with no previous bluegrass experience after someone shows me one afternoon.  I should be able to after learning the basics of bluegrass rolls, picks and wire stings.

What we call "classic banjo" IS difficult if one is well versed in the bluegrass pattern and feels like they can jump right in with none of the basic right hand training for classic banjo.  They are bound to fail.

That said, if the level of expectation was realistic and those interested were willing to work through the most basic of exercises following alternate fingering and left hand economy of movement, etc., then SD becomes an easy solo when one gets to that level.

I still don't buy the "too difficult" explanation.  Plectrum banjo before the Shakey's Pizza style was just as "difficult" but it prospered.   Sunflower Dance is no more difficult (and some might say much easier) than most beginning piano pieces.  Or any other instrument for that matter.

A high level of skill among finger style guitarists is not uncommon.

I know 8 professional bluegrass banjo players and two semi-pros who jumped right in and learned some good sounding classic banjo pieces because of the appeal of the music. It  sounded good to them. Maybe the most remarkable was (former member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys ) Bob Black who learned Ves Ossman's Chicken Chowder in one evening and then went and learned an A flat Van Eps piece (I can't recall which) which used the open C string. He thought it was In G so he tuned his bass string to B natural! None of these players had the slightest trouble understanding what was required of them,. None assumed they would use familiar rolls, perhaps because good bluegrass banjo players don't warp the melody the fit their rolls, they create new rolls to accommodate the melody.  

Then I know another bunch of pro bluegrass banjo players who have rejected classic banjo not because of the required effort but because the music they heard seemed too "nice and polite" (that's a quote) to engage their interest. In other words they didn't think the music was worth the effort.  It wasn't effort per se that they rejected.  Playing them recordings of some of the more "gnarly" classic pieces does nothing to alter their prejudice. I have tried.  Don't Confuse Me With The Facts is what it boils down to.  It's the same as the prejudice against bluegrass banjo in the classic banjo world. Overwhelming empirical evidence that most  professional and competent semi-pro bluegrass banjo is neither fast nor loud has no effect. 

Not one of these players from either camp had the slightest interest in Sunflower Dance. 

As I think I have mentioned before I just don't get the appeal of that banjo solo. It always sounds like elephants dancing, not sunflowers. I have heard it played well but I don't understand why anyone would want to play it at all. 

Joel Hooks said:

Yeah, jumping in with Sunflower Dance is like learning to ride a bike without training wheels and expecting to be able to ride a century.  I would not expect to be able to play FMB with no previous bluegrass experience after someone shows me one afternoon.  I should be able to after learning the basics of bluegrass rolls, picks and wire stings.

What we call "classic banjo" IS difficult if one is well versed in the bluegrass pattern and feels like they can jump right in with none of the basic right hand training for classic banjo.  They are bound to fail.

That said, if the level of expectation was realistic and those interested were willing to work through the most basic of exercises following alternate fingering and left hand economy of movement, etc., then SD becomes an easy solo when one gets to that level.

I still don't buy the "too difficult" explanation.  Plectrum banjo before the Shakey's Pizza style was just as "difficult" but it prospered.   Sunflower Dance is no more difficult (and some might say much easier) than most beginning piano pieces.  Or any other instrument for that matter.

A high level of skill among finger style guitarists is not uncommon.

Marc referred to intermediate players. There is no doubt that professional level banjoists can play whatever they want.  At the end of the day amateurs at intermediate level are the ones with the cash that drive an industry.

Selling to hobbyist musicians is where the money is. Looking at other instruments that prosper or even just limp along, there are plenty of hobbyists that play much more difficult music than much of the early classic banjo repertoire.


I am with you, Jody, SD or the original title "With The Tide Schottishce," is not a great solo. But it is one that people play and has been part of the "group numbers" for the ABF since such things were discussed.  It is nice to have a list of "standards" that more than one person knows in the rather isolated world of classic banjo.  I am not big on a lot of the "standards" but I sure do have fun when I get together with a room full of people and play them together (like we will do next weekend at the rally).

Just for fun, here is the original publication of SD...

https://archive.org/details/209WithTheTideSchottischeRowland/page/n0

There was an issue of the 5-Stringer that attempted to cover the story of this piece and printed many different pieces that were similar. I am not sure where the "Sunflower Dance" name came from, perhaps Ossman?

Good points, all of them, Joel. And Marc, thank you for using the carrot/stick metaphor correctly.  As you obviously know, it has nothing to do with threats vs rewards. The stick is not there to beat the animal.  It is to have something from which to dangle the carrot to get the beast to hurry forward to catch it.  

Joel Hooks said:

Marc referred to intermediate players. There is no doubt that professional level banjoists can play whatever they want.  At the end of the day amateurs at intermediate level are the ones with the cash that drive an industry.

Selling to hobbyist musicians is where the money is. Looking at other instruments that prosper or even just limp along, there are plenty of hobbyists that play much more difficult music than much of the early classic banjo repertoire.


I am with you, Jody, SD or the original title "With The Tide Schottishce," is not a great solo. But it is one that people play and has been part of the "group numbers" for the ABF since such things were discussed.  It is nice to have a list of "standards" that more than one person knows in the rather isolated world of classic banjo.  I am not big on a lot of the "standards" but I sure do have fun when I get together with a room full of people and play them together (like we will do next weekend at the rally).

Just for fun, here is the original publication of SD...

https://archive.org/details/209WithTheTideSchottischeRowland/page/n0

There was an issue of the 5-Stringer that attempted to cover the story of this piece and printed many different pieces that were similar. I am not sure where the "Sunflower Dance" name came from, perhaps Ossman?

With reference to the 'Sunflower Dance', there was popular song, probably from the 1900-1920 period, called 'I'm a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch' which used the melody of the first strain of the SD, it's probably still available on Youtube but I've not heard it since I was a boy a long time ago.



Joel Hooks said:

Yeah, jumping in with Sunflower Dance is like learning to ride a bike without training wheels and expecting to be able to ride a century.  I would not expect to be able to play FMB with no previous bluegrass experience after someone shows me one afternoon.  I should be able to after learning the basics of bluegrass rolls, picks and wire stings.

What we call "classic banjo" IS difficult if one is well versed in the bluegrass pattern and feels like they can jump right in with none of the basic right hand training for classic banjo.  They are bound to fail.

That said, if the level of expectation was realistic and those interested were willing to work through the most basic of exercises following alternate fingering and left hand economy of movement, etc., then SD becomes an easy solo when one gets to that level.

I still don't buy the "too difficult" explanation.  Plectrum banjo before the Shakey's Pizza style was just as "difficult" but it prospered.   Sunflower Dance is no more difficult (and some might say much easier) than most beginning piano pieces.  Or any other instrument for that matter.

A high level of skill among finger style guitarists is not uncommon.

Here's one of many version of 'Lonely Little Petunia': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1g9bzcBME_I

Speaking of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bK9h12Qdvs

"Sunflower Dance", as I heard it, is a non-PC euphemism for cotton pickers. There is an old 1930's cartoon (probably by Harmon-Ising, who specialized in such stuff) where the all the sunflowers in a field are anthropomorphically transformed into "blackface" dancers...

SD was simply one of the first Classic tunes I learned (I think I tabbed out "Tyro Mazurka" and "SD"). I think it is very accessible to those of us with Bluegrass training and was easy to memorize.

In my experience, SD is a pretty tune that some banjoists find attractive and it doesn't look too hard. Not too fast, no crazy fingering, I've played lots of various Classic tunes for folks, SD almost always gets a request for tab (and I always keep some in the banjo case to hand out). Interest in anything Classic is so low to be almost nothing...so if I get one request, I feel like a hero. ;-)

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