Oh dear, I hate to admit it but I'm running a parallel path at the moment:

--Classic banjo picking

--Robert Johnson-style blues banjo

Both fascinate me, and both seems to work well on my old Stewart.

Please feel to either commiserate with me, or rail against this ridiculous rail I'm balancing on. Oh, I'm also learning old time music on a banjo mandolin. 

This feels vaguely like a confession. Perhaps Ian will write me and ask me to confine all future remarks of mine to Banjo Hangout. :-)

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Tony, contrary to one of your opening remarks about the Johnson book ("It has absolutely no reference to the most commercially recorded African American banjoist in history,  Gus Cannon"), there's an extensive discussion about Gus Cannon. I'd suggest picking up a copy before giving such a strong critique.

I wasn't referring to the Johnson book but to the Solokow book.    

I also quite agree that Johnson music is pretty easy to play on a five string banjo tuned in G.  I remember the first evening I took home my first banjo, having tried Johnson stuff on the guitar since I was 14 (I was 54 when I think I got my first banjo) that I could play Johnson tunes and even slide on that banjo before I could play the banjo decently.  

The problem is given the research I have done on other things, is that the results on te banjo are great for us as players, and us a people who see playing blues as listening music,  would be pretty much what woudnt work if you were trying to make a living as a blues player  working for dancers--the predominant environment of blues playing for African American palyers--or not what we know Johnson did when he was working in that environment as opposed to recording.  

Revivalists tend to forcus on people who were of limited popularity among African Americans during the heyday of the blues, because of a different focus than African Americans wanted or that the performance environment required.   

Johnson never sold more than 10k recordings and his records were not even sold outside of Mississippi and many of the recordings people yourself and I might have known for decades were never issued.   Most revivalist seem unaware of the blues performers who were actually popular among Black people in Mississippi including with Johnson.  Elijah Wald's book on this issue is a good correction of this.

Again my primary concern is not learning things that I have known for decades, like how to play Johnson music on the banjo, but trying to straighten out the history  of both the blues and the banjo against misconceptions,   Another issue involved is the type of banjos people actually had, particularly Blacks in Mississippi etc and the type of banjos I have and are available,  something I have done work on.

Thanks for the Major Blast of Info, Tony. One jewel, be it deliberate or a typo , is "intermingingled", at the bottom of your second reply in this thread.  That  has got to be the best original word I've seen since I came upon "intertwangled", maybe 30 years ago, in A Thinker's Notebook, —  a collection of writings taken from the papers of the Buddhist Monk Bhikkhu Nanamoli (Osgood Moore).

Hi Tony!

Yes, thank you.  As I really don't know much about blues (and I've been looking in to it as it is a natural progression-- early banjo- ragtime- jazz- blues, mix and match as needed) this is of interest.

I also find your observation fascinating about revivalists focusing on the exception and not the rule.  Popularity dominates music and with the banjo for some reason historians love to grasp on to the rare for dear life (especially to the so called mountain banjo).

Forever a defender of SSS, I'd like to point out that I strongly believe that his shots at banjo contests were tongue in cheek.  He himself produced/promoted contests.  We (you and I) also discussed my theory that the banjo contest actually let banjoists just be musicians for a change.  A device to transition from minstrelsy to straight instrument specific musicians. 

Anyway, I'll continue to read your posts with excitement.

Have to admit I'm not terribly concerned with what "revivalists" and others have done, and who they've elevated or spotlighted. It's now a huge world and virtually anyone who ever recorded is available (unlike 20-30 yrs ago). Popularity runs in cycles and it's rarely worth railing at the contemporary paradigms. They'll pass and something new will become important. Musicians will continue to select what they find relevant. And we are no longer dependant on historians to wander through back lands to research who recorded what. Perhaps it's important to burn time correcting errors of emphasis, and pulling up forgotten players. And Tony, that sort of effort is good. But as noted earlier, it's railing against the current tide, which I assure you will retreat to be replaced by some new emphasis. 

No the needs of revivalists are different from the needs of the community that created the music that they seek to revive, different in social, cultural, economic, educational, and historical distance.  These needs create taste.  My essay on why Black People gave up the banjo which I assume you have read Joel (if you don't have the book email me and I will send you the essay), talks about how the dynamics of revivalism are part of white American culture, but not at all part of African American culture, and why

Moreover, especially the "folk" revival and its offspring (granted the parent to the wonderful musical lives all of have as much as we shake it off) often tend to impose rather conscious ideological and political beliefs about musical activity, and the music seems to be fitted into uses and performance practices that stem from those ideas, as opposed to how the music evolved fitting into the social and economic needs of the folk who originated it. 

Robert Johnson is prized by blues revivalists precisely because it was the first major blues musician who was strongly oriented to creating compositions that worked well and recorded well on 3 minute 78 records, and synthesized the contributions of great recording artists whom he never met or heard especiall the great Lonnie Johnson.

Elijah Wald's great book Escaping the Delta which belongs in every home, traces the distance between the ideas about Johnson and the blues that Elijah initially began with as a fairly advanced musician and musical thinker in the blues revival, the distance between that and the realities of history about Robert Johnson and the blues.  He doesn't denigrate Johnson,  but he puts him in the real place that he was relative to the real world he lived in, not the construction that European American and European blues revivalists have created.

A better example was Skip James, one of my favorite musicians whose work does very well in a Dock Boggs style D modal on the banjo, as his work was done on the equivalent in the guitar.   James never worried about making money or being hired on the juke joint circuit because he ran a juke joint and major bootlegging operations for a plantation owner.  Consequently, he developed a particular blues style that focused more on elaboration and less on swing, and even less on sounding great and was a remarkable finger style guitarist.  Frankly if you listen to his original recordings they make Robert Johnson's records sound like easy listening music in their sober, morose anger.    James would have gotten nowhere in the real environment of the blues as a living music for black people in the south because the function of the music was mainly to play for dancers, to excite dancers, and to keep a juke joint filled with happy people buying booze, drugs, food, and each other.  

I should say there is an entire academic discourse of study of revivalism, although the best work has been done on it in Europe.

The typing  can be blamed on the problems of being a power clawhammer player who plays medium gauge strings on his biggest loudest banjo and has acrylic nails on three fingers to do  it and has been quite busy preparing a presentation on African American banjo playing to give at a university next week and cannot get to the nail salon for a touch up and trim! 
 
Jody Stecher said:

Thanks for the Major Blast of Info, Tony. One jewel, be it deliberate or a typo , is "intermingingled", at the bottom of your second reply in this thread.  That  has got to be the best original word I've seen since I came upon "intertwangled", maybe 30 years ago, in A Thinker's Notebook, —  a collection of writings taken from the papers of the Buddhist Monk Bhikkhu Nanamoli (Osgood Moore).

Tony, I'm interested in reading your essay as well. Please include me, if possible. If you need my direct email, let me know.

Pat

I'd like to read that too.

The essay was published last year in the Duke University Press Book, Hidden in the Mix.   I am contractually restrained from saying I can disseminate it otherwise.  

However, I can discuss that issue if someone writes me at my email BlackbanjoTony@hotmail.com.

Well,  as a music historian particularly about the history of the banjo and African American history of the banjo in particular, it would be impossible for me to do a competent job without considering the issue of revivalism, and observing the attitudes that seem to issue from it, because most concern with the banjo and its history and what some call "folk" music stem from revivalist sources.  Even though Bluegrass is not actually a revivalist music, very huge portions of it especially its founding figures like Monroe and Scruggs and Stanley,  try to drape it with that pretense even though it is essentially a modernist progressive music.  The rest of the banjo world really flows out of the folk and old time and to a lesser extent blues revival.  Even the contemporary  "Classic Banjo" movement is really an example of revivalism.

So it would be pretty irresponsible for someone who claims to be concerned with the history of the banjo and the discourses about it, not to be conscious of what is revivalism, how it may reflect distorted visions and how revivalst practice is different from other practice, especially if you are concerned with the social, economic, historical, and ideological aspects of music history and its discussion.

I would say in my case as someone who came out of the folk and then old time and blues revivalists of the 60s, confronting the difference between the mystified ideas popular in those revivalists and objective understanding of the music history of the banjo was a task I needed to make in my own thinking to do useful work.  Unfortunately, so much of the discussion that we have to make doing objective research about the banjo often confronts such distortions.
 
Patrick Garner said:

Have to admit I'm not terribly concerned with what "revivalists" and others have done, and who they've elevated or spotlighted. It's now a huge world and virtually anyone who ever recorded is available (unlike 20-30 yrs ago). Popularity runs in cycles and it's rarely worth railing at the contemporary paradigms. They'll pass and something new will become important. Musicians will continue to select what they find relevant. And we are no longer dependant on historians to wander through back lands to research who recorded what. Perhaps it's important to burn time correcting errors of emphasis, and pulling up forgotten players. And Tony, that sort of effort is good. But as noted earlier, it's railing against the current tide, which I assure you will retreat to be replaced by some new emphasis. 

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