Ian makes a very good point in the What Is Classic Banjo section, a point which is said over and over in different ways. And that is that the banjo as a cultural artifact is less significant than the banjo as a musical instrument. The banjo is as viable *now* as it was *then*. No one ever asks why we should eat "outdated" food such fruit, vegetables, or meat. 

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I cannot claim any credit for the "What is Classic Banjo" section as it was written by Mike Moss with additions by Tony Thomas.

The page has been on the site for quite a while, but may have been under the title F.A.Qs

Too busy at the moment to chat, as the website update is still underway and this involves a considerable amount of programming. Jody may notice that the font has changed  during the course of the upgrade.

:-)

May I suggest to Mike then, that he keep that point and all the other good points in there but perhaps edit the caricature of "the general stereotype" of what classic banjo is since it represents nothing but the imaginary views of an imaginary opposition. 

I seem to have a poor memory for fonts but I am now finding the site to be easier on the eyes than it was yesterday.

The Banjo DJ is great!  Thank you for the downloadable tutors. Etc Etc Etc. wow. very impressive stuff and very useful too.


thereallyniceman said:

I cannot claim any credit for the "What is Classic Banjo" section as it was written by Mike Moss with additions by Tony Thomas.

The page has been on the site for quite a while, but may have been under the title F.A.Qs

Too busy at the moment to chat, as the website update is still underway and this involves a considerable amount of programming. Jody may notice that the font has changed  during the course of the upgrade.

:-)

Hi Jody,

Ian asked me to write that a while ago, and he is, of course, free to edit/publish/remove it as he sees fit. If anyone wants to have a go at writing it or any other content for the site, he is free to do so.

In what concerns me, however, I'll stand by what I wrote. I would edit out the "imaginary" bits, if only books and documentaries such as "Echoes of America: A History of the 5-string banjo", which reflect such attitudes, would indeed become "imaginary". In the above example, for instance, and unless my memory fails me, the narrator sums up the classic banjo style in such disparaging terms as an "unhappy marriage of the banjo with classical (sic) music", or that "it doesn't sound like a banjo" after playing a clip of the late Mary Koons playing some music.

As you undoubtedly know, most banjo players know very little about this style, and what little information they do get usually comes from such popular and accessible sources. You'd be surprised at how prevalent these views are among those who only know a little about classic style.

I know exactly the comment you refer to. It was particularly disappointing because the playing of Mary Koons is very beautiful in that clip. Those are the views of the narrator only, not of a large group of people. You are summing up his views well here in this discussion but are distorting it and mocking it on the official web page where you have characterized the views of one man as a "general stereotype" and in which literally everything you have written (in that one paragraph  –the rest of it is good —)  is an unfair and untrue characterization of both the views of Appalachian banjo partisans and of the general public.

The general opinion of SS Stewart is "who"?

The general opinion of classic banjo is "what's that?".

I have been around banjo players of all sorts for nearly 60 years in both the USA and the UK and have never heard the opinion that classic banjo people were greedy, or snobs, and especially, that all the banjos belonging to  Appalachian people were confiscated and then later returned to them several decades later. That's absurd,  and it sets a belligerent tone which does no favors for the cause of Classic Banjo. As I've said before on this forum, ascribing false negative characteristics to perceived rivals and then claiming to be free of these characteristics is not the way forward for classic banjo.

The truth of the matter is that there *was* an attempt by Stewart et al to "elevate" the *image* of the banjo, but not from a hillbilly image, but from a blackface minstrel image. The purpose of this attempt was commercial. The aim was to sell more banjos and more expensive banjos by targeting a new demographic, and opening a new market: people with money to buy a better banjo.

Here is the passage to which I'm referring:

"the general stereotype goes something like this:
 
Back in the late 1800s, the banjo – an essentially rural instrument – was ripped from the hands of poor, illiterate hillbillies by evil, greedy snobs such as Samuel Swaim Stewart, who proceeded to try and make the banjo a high-class, classical instrument by re-spelling its name to “banjeau” and other such dastardly shenanigans. Of course, this unhappy marriage of the banjo and classical music did not last, and by the 1920’s the banjo was once again free to roam in the Appalachians, where honest, illiterate folks could get back to transmitting ancient, oral banjo traditions."

 



Mike Moss said:

Hi Jody,

Ian asked me to write that a while ago, and he is, of course, free to edit/publish/remove it as he sees fit. If anyone wants to have a go at writing it or any other content for the site, he is free to do so.

In what concerns me, however, I'll stand by what I wrote. I would edit out the "imaginary" bits, if only books and documentaries such as "Echoes of America: A History of the 5-string banjo", which reflect such attitudes, would indeed become "imaginary". In the above example, for instance, and unless my memory fails me, the narrator sums up the classic banjo style in such disparaging terms as an "unhappy marriage of the banjo with classical (sic) music", or that "it doesn't sound like a banjo" after playing a clip of the late Mary Koons playing some music.

As you undoubtedly know, most banjo players know very little about this style, and what little information they do get usually comes from such popular and accessible sources. You'd be surprised at how prevalent these views are among those who only know a little about classic style.




Hi Jody,

where there's smoke, there's fire. The narrator's opinions have both trickled down to him (from the "academics" and, in particular, the high priestess of that school of thought, Karen Lynn) and, also, trickled down from him to the general banjo-playing public. I just quoted this example because it was probably the most jarring and shocking one in the mainstream, though by no means the only one. Though not all are as vitriolic and unfair as the narrator of "Echoes of America...", they all carry some of the sneering undertones I outlined and parodied in that paragraph. They crop up all over the place, mostly in brief, popular "histories of the banjo".

Here's another doozy: (quoted from http://www.drhorsehair.com/history.html)

As a result of the finger-picking guitar style of playing, the banjo in the cities and outside the Appalachian Mountain region started moving away from the "crass" minstrel music to the more sophisticated classical style of music. [...] As finger-picking became more sophisticated in the 1880s, there was a definite effort to "legitimize" the banjo and make it a classical instrument like the violin of Europe. The feeling was that the banjo was a "feeble instrument", not able to be used in all keys and capable of only one, or at the most, two scales of music. As the banjo started to move in this direction, outside the mountains, it moved into high society and more ladies started to play. [...] Alfred A. Farland, Fred Van Eps, Vess Ossman, and Fred Bacon. Imagine a lone banjoist in concert on a stage playing a banjo with a calfskin head and gut strings with no resonator and no amplification to an audience of 200 to 500 people. Some of these virtuosos performed concertos by Beethoven, Paganini, and Mendelssohn and would use piano accompaniment. Attempting this class of music for the student only exposed the limitations of the banjo and was discouraging. The flood of new popular music written for piano was in C notation and the lack of the banjo's technical characteristics helped this style of banjo playing suffer decline.

Breathe in the tragic aura, the all-pervading feeling of futility. Here's a translation: "Poor, stupid classic banjo players. They were doomed from the start. Point and laugh at those dinosaurs who dared to defy the natural order of things. Silly, silly classic banjo players." The above text is not only riddled with factual inaccuracies; it's also ridiculously disparaging (why does classic banjo press the berserk button in so many would-be banjo historians? Who knows...)

I have seen such attitudes reflected among many banjo players who only had a superficial knowledge of classic banjo -- perhaps they had heard of it in a documentary or just read a brief "history" in a book or on a website. But the stereotype is out there, all right. You are free to disagree, of course.

Secondly, even though you are right insofar as most people know nothing about Stewart or classic banjo, that does not mean that the stereotype does not exist. Stereotypes exist precisely due to a lack of knowledge, as they are a series of tropes, assumptions and generalisations adopted in the absence thereof. I am mostly concerned about those people whose only contact with classic banjo has been a negative image that may predispose them to dislike it, and about debunking those stereotypes with a bit of honest information.

As the poet Pope put it:

A little knowledge is a dang'rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

I don't see the venom in that quote that you are apparently perceiving. I see a poorly constructed paragraph that seems to be wanting to say that the works of Beethoven et al were playable by a virtuoso such as Bacon but that for a student such music was difficult to play. 

Is that a silly idea? Of course. Classical music is difficult to play on the piano and violin as well.  But what I see is a lack of knowledge, nothing more. 

By taking a sarcastic tone I think you are at best puzzling the newcomer to classic banjo who has no idea what you are responding too,  and at worst offending people who have no malice at all toward classic banjo. You are not debunking the stereotypes by mocking them and making them grotesque. It would be much better to simply say what the stereotypes are as you have been doing …a bit… in this conversation. And then provide the facts.

By the way what is your problem with Karen Linn's ideas? She seems to lack musicality and does not respond well to musical sound as far as I can tell. But as a social history her book seemed well researched to me. Mocking her by calling her a High Priestess is, in my opinion, not productive. She reports on disagreements between the view of Van Eps, which she represents as believing that there is such a thing as characteristic banjo music and the view of Farland, which regarded all repertoire as viable. How is reporting on that equivalent to agreeing with Van Eps?  


Mike Moss said:

Hi Jody,

where there's smoke, there's fire. The narrator's opinions have both trickled down to him (from the "academics" and, in particular, the high priestess of that school of thought, Karen Lynn) and, also, trickled down from him to the general banjo-playing public. I just quoted this example because it was probably the most jarring and shocking one in the mainstream, though by no means the only one. Though not all are as vitriolic and unfair as the narrator of "Echoes of America...", they all carry some of the sneering undertones I outlined and parodied in that paragraph. They crop up all over the place, mostly in brief, popular "histories of the banjo".

Here's another doozy: (quoted from http://www.drhorsehair.com/history.html)

As a result of the finger-picking guitar style of playing, the banjo in the cities and outside the Appalachian Mountain region started moving away from the "crass" minstrel music to the more sophisticated classical style of music. [...] As finger-picking became more sophisticated in the 1880s, there was a definite effort to "legitimize" the banjo and make it a classical instrument like the violin of Europe. The feeling was that the banjo was a "feeble instrument", not able to be used in all keys and capable of only one, or at the most, two scales of music. As the banjo started to move in this direction, outside the mountains, it moved into high society and more ladies started to play. [...] Alfred A. Farland, Fred Van Eps, Vess Ossman, and Fred Bacon. Imagine a lone banjoist in concert on a stage playing a banjo with a calfskin head and gut strings with no resonator and no amplification to an audience of 200 to 500 people. Some of these virtuosos performed concertos by Beethoven, Paganini, and Mendelssohn and would use piano accompaniment. Attempting this class of music for the student only exposed the limitations of the banjo and was discouraging. The flood of new popular music written for piano was in C notation and the lack of the banjo's technical characteristics helped this style of banjo playing suffer decline.

Breathe in the tragic aura, the all-pervading feeling of futility. Here's a translation: "Poor, stupid classic banjo players. They were doomed from the start. Point and laugh at those dinosaurs who dared to defy the natural order of things. Silly, silly classic banjo players." The above text is not only riddled with factual inaccuracies; it's also ridiculously disparaging (why does classic banjo press the berserk button in so many would-be banjo historians? Who knows...)

I have seen such attitudes reflected among many banjo players who only had a superficial knowledge of classic banjo -- perhaps they had heard of it in a documentary or just read a brief "history" in a book or on a website. But the stereotype is out there, all right. You are free to disagree, of course.

Secondly, even though you are right insofar as most people know nothing about Stewart or classic banjo, that does not mean that the stereotype does not exist. Stereotypes exist precisely due to a lack of knowledge, as they are a series of tropes, assumptions and generalisations adopted in the absence thereof. I am mostly concerned about those people whose only contact with classic banjo has been a negative image that may predispose them to dislike it, and about debunking those stereotypes with a bit of honest information.

As the poet Pope put it:

A little knowledge is a dang'rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.



Jody Stecher said:

I don't see the venom in that quote that you are apparently perceiving. I see a poorly constructed paragraph that seems to be wanting to say that the works of Beethoven et al were playable by a virtuoso such as Bacon but that for a student such music was difficult to play. 

Is that a silly idea? Of course. Classical music is difficult to play on the piano and violin as well.  But what I see is a lack of knowledge, nothing more. 

It's insulting because the author deliberately goes out of his way to construct a strawman and knock it down. The general flow of ideas in the piece is as follows:

1. Banjo leaves Appalachians for city;

2. This change entails that people start playing classical (sic) music on it;

3. Classical music, however, is too difficult;

4. People are put off from the banjo because of this and as a consequence the style becomes extinct.

The ultimate premise of the text is that the classic style of banjo playing ultimately consisted in absurd and self-defeating attempts at playing classical music. The overall conclusion of the text is a fundamentally negative one. Ask almost anyone with only a passing acquaintance with classic banjo, and they too will often claim that people back then played "classical music" and that the style was very difficult.

By taking a sarcastic tone I think you are at best puzzling the newcomer to classic banjo who has no idea what you are responding too,  and at worst offending people who have no malice at all toward classic banjo. You are not debunking the stereotypes by mocking them and making them grotesque. It would be much better to simply say what the stereotypes are as you have been doing …a bit… in this conversation. And then provide the facts.

If you really care that much, rather than taking me to task over a text I wrote two years ago (and which still sums up my views on the matter), why not write a new one or ask Ian to take this one down? I really don't have time for this.

By the way what is your problem with Karen Linn's ideas? She seems to lack musicality and does not respond well to musical sound as far as I can tell. But as a social history her book seemed well researched to me. Mocking her by calling her a High Priestess is, in my opinion, not productive. She reports on disagreements between the view of Van Eps, which she represents as believing that there is such a thing as characteristic banjo music and the view of Farland, which regarded all repertoire as viable. How is reporting on that equivalent to agreeing with Van Eps?  

It's not meant to be productive. This is a tiny forum with near zero impact on the greater banjo world, so it's not like my opinion on anything really matters. If you want to know what I dislike about her works, it is essentially the following:

- Kickstarting the whole modern fixation with "elevation" in banjo scholarship. Was there a certain "elevation"? Undoubtedly. But it has been blown out of proportion, with normal behaviours for the time (dressing up for a show, reading music) being systematically labelled as attempts to "legitimise" or "elevate" the banjo. Also, for exhibiting a good amount of confirmation bias in doing so.

- Trying to fit square pegs in round holes when her theory doesn't hold up. To wit: when she creates two entirely arbitrary (and inaccurate) categories to describe a "ragtime style" and what she terms an "elevated style" as if there were some imaginary border between the two, whereas most big players from the era played a bit of both repertoires in varying proportions. There were no two separate styles, just individual fingerstyle players who catered to the tastes of their audiences. But, of course, that would mean having to give up on the entire "elevated classical banjo" apparatus she constructed by conceding that those so-called "elevated banjoists" were actually more concerned with playing music than "elevating" anything.

Mike, I'm a bit stunned by your response. Not meant to be productive? On a FAQ page? Well now I understand.  I wasn't aware that this was written 2 years ago.  I encountered it for the first time just now and mistakenly assumed it was part of the new features of the website.  Dr Horsehair by the way does not say that the banjo progressed from Appalachia to the city. Instead he draws a direct line from minstrelsy to classic banjo. It's explicit. 

On this side of the atlantic minstrel banjo was played in dives, saloons, army camps, gold prospecting camps, medicine shows and circuses. The "guitar style" of banjo was played in concert halls. You think that is not social elevation? 

I don't see how any one can read a random copy of SS Stewart's publications and not perceive a deliberate campaign to make the banjo seem respectable and to disparage the earlier forms of banjo and banjo music.


Mike Moss said:



Jody Stecher said:

I don't see the venom in that quote that you are apparently perceiving. I see a poorly constructed paragraph that seems to be wanting to say that the works of Beethoven et al were playable by a virtuoso such as Bacon but that for a student such music was difficult to play. 

Is that a silly idea? Of course. Classical music is difficult to play on the piano and violin as well.  But what I see is a lack of knowledge, nothing more. 

It's insulting because the author deliberately goes out of his way to construct a strawman and knock it down. The general flow of ideas in the piece is as follows:

1. Banjo leaves Appalachians for city;

2. This change entails that people start playing classical (sic) music on it;

3. Classical music, however, is too difficult;

4. People are put off from the banjo because of this and as a consequence the style becomes extinct.

The ultimate premise of the text is that the classic style of banjo playing ultimately consisted in absurd and self-defeating attempts at playing classical music. The overall conclusion of the text is a fundamentally negative one. Ask almost anyone with only a passing acquaintance with classic banjo, and they too will often claim that people back then played "classical music" and that the style was very difficult.

By taking a sarcastic tone I think you are at best puzzling the newcomer to classic banjo who has no idea what you are responding too,  and at worst offending people who have no malice at all toward classic banjo. You are not debunking the stereotypes by mocking them and making them grotesque. It would be much better to simply say what the stereotypes are as you have been doing …a bit… in this conversation. And then provide the facts.

If you really care that much, rather than taking me to task over a text I wrote two years ago (and which still sums up my views on the matter), why not write a new one or ask Ian to take this one down? I really don't have time for this.

By the way what is your problem with Karen Linn's ideas? She seems to lack musicality and does not respond well to musical sound as far as I can tell. But as a social history her book seemed well researched to me. Mocking her by calling her a High Priestess is, in my opinion, not productive. She reports on disagreements between the view of Van Eps, which she represents as believing that there is such a thing as characteristic banjo music and the view of Farland, which regarded all repertoire as viable. How is reporting on that equivalent to agreeing with Van Eps?  

It's not meant to be productive. This is a tiny forum with near zero impact on the greater banjo world, so it's not like my opinion on anything really matters. If you want to know what I dislike about her works, it is essentially the following:

- Kickstarting the whole modern fixation with "elevation" in banjo scholarship. Was there a certain "elevation"? Undoubtedly. But it has been blown out of proportion, with normal behaviours for the time (dressing up for a show, reading music) being systematically labelled as attempts to "legitimise" or "elevate" the banjo. Also, for exhibiting a good amount of confirmation bias in doing so.

- Trying to fit square pegs in round holes when her theory doesn't hold up. To wit: when she creates two entirely arbitrary (and inaccurate) categories to describe a "ragtime style" and what she terms an "elevated style" as if there were some imaginary border between the two, whereas most big players from the era played a bit of both repertoires in varying proportions. There were no two separate styles, just individual fingerstyle players who catered to the tastes of their audiences. But, of course, that would mean having to give up on the entire "elevated classical banjo" apparatus she constructed by conceding that those so-called "elevated banjoists" were actually more concerned with playing music than "elevating" anything.



Jody Stecher said:

Mike, I'm a bit stunned by your response. Not meant to be productive? On a FAQ page?

Now you're just trolling. I was talking about my "high priestess" comment in this thread which you described as not being productive, not the FAQ.

Well now I understand.  I wasn't aware that this was written 2 years ago.  I encountered it for the first time just now and mistakenly assumed it was part of the new features of the website.  Dr Horsehair by the way does not say that the banjo progressed from Appalachia to the city. Instead he draws a direct line from minstrelsy to classic banjo. It's explicit. 

On this side of the atlantic minstrel banjo was played in dives, saloons, army camps, gold prospecting camps, medicine shows and circuses. The "guitar style" of banjo was played in concert halls. You think that is not social elevation? 

Yes. But was there an explicit agenda as such?

I don't see how any one can read a random copy of SS Stewart's publications and not perceive a deliberate campaign to make the banjo seem respectable and to disparage the earlier forms of banjo and banjo music.

It's easy to commit the mistake of taking Stewart's words at face value. His deeds speak louder than his words. The vast majority of the music he published was not "elevated" at all and was comparable to the stuff found in many earlier tutor books -- plantation songs, some dance music, maybe something a little more ambitious now and then. Not the big revolution in the banjo world some people depict him as.

Oh, and by the way, I'm all the more surprised about you getting all worked up about this right now considering this is what you had to say about it two years ago:

Mike, I am nearly 70 years old, and have no idea what trolling is but I can tell when I am being insulted. OK, I looked it up and no I am not trolling. When I mentioned not being productive I did attach that to the High Priestess idea. That was clumsy of me. I meant to apply it to the sarcasm to which I first objected. I bundled it all together. The more concrete explicit information you give, such as can be found in each of your responses, the more likely it is that your points will be understood. I now have a fair idea of why you are up in arms. I don't agree that classic banjo is being disparaged. But if you don't want it to be disparaged I think it would be more effective to not create a "straw man" (as you have described the perceived enemy as having done) and knock it down. If you are going to counteract a perceived slur on classic banjo,  misrepresenting the views of the "other side" is not a winning strategy. I've now said as much at least 3 times. 

I guess it didn't bother me then and now it does.

I started this thread with a compliment. I like the repeated idea that the banjo is a musical instrument. I think the small part I don't like distracts from this good idea and the other good ideas in the FAQ. 

Mike Moss said:

Oh, and by the way, I'm all the more surprised about you getting all worked up about this right now considering this is what you had to say about it two years ago:

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