STOP PRESS:     CLASSIC BANJO IS DOOMED

I have been talking to Julian Vincent who, for those who don’t already know, is a great banjo player and edited and published “The Banjoists Broadsheet” from 1973 to 2012, here in the UK.

 

The Broadsheet was a simply produced, hand typed and stapled monthly magazine that was produced more for the love of the instrument than any financial gain. The  BB, as Julian referred to it, published news of classic banjo gatherings such as the Blackwell Banjo Rally and the Reading Banjo Festival, carried notices of the goings-on  from the Midlands Fretted Orchestra, printed elaborate music by the likes of Joe Morley, printed great photos of British musicians. At the time there was no Internet so discussion took place in the form of letters sent to the Editor, and a month later the replies!  All a far cry from the instantaneous Q & A that we have nowadays.

Julian tells me that it was increasing postal costs and the spontaneity of the Net that finally finished off the BB.

 

Julian has given me permission to post his comment on a “letter to the editor” in BB 77 of September 1983…yes, 32 years ago about impending demise of Classic Banjo playing.  I also have posted the replies.  Check out the one by Bill Ball.  :-)

 

 

 

REPLIES:

 

 

Due to personal circumstances I have not been able to be around much on site recently, but notice that despite almost 5000 site hits and 20000 page views a month we still have comparatively few discussion posts.  If we don’t get involved, encourage beginners and contribute to discussions, maybe we will be in the same position as they were 32 years ago… expecting the Classic Banjo to imminently fade away into obscurity?

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I'm going to put in my two pennies worth.

Encouraging beginners and get involved are all good things. But I think that the greatest problem is that a lot of people don't even know this style exists. The banjo as an instrument is popular enough. But it's mostly in the bluegrass and old-time music scene.

So if there's one thing we can do. I believe is get out and play. I've got terrible stage-fright but I played at a friends garden party last summer and everyone there liked it. They all told me that they never heard that style before. The only assocation they had with a banjo was of it being played bluegrass style. 

It's the same with the mandolin how many people nowadays ever get to hear a piece written by

Raffaele Calace or Giovanni Gioviale.

(Never mind mandolin orchestra's that just never was a good idea ;) 

The word Classic might also not be too helpfull because of the link that most people will make with classical music. There are a lot of people who don't care for classical music it's complicated, difficult boring etc. But if you ask them if they like Strauss they will say yes. 

I agree with Jean-Marie.  "Classic" is a better name than "classical" but it's still not very descriptive and it is true here in the USA as well that people are not attracted to  finding out about a style called "Classic Banjo". They automatically think "that's not for me" and they close their minds. They don't close their ears however. If they actually get to *hear* what we call classic banjo music they usually like it. I think the best remedy is to have classic banjo music prominently heard in a popular successful film. Meanwhile a new and better name might help.

I rather like that quote from the Bristol Evening Post in April 1972......"earthy and plebeian" sums up some of my banjo playing rather well...

Frankly, you cannot please everyone…nor can you force them to like anything in particular. The best you can do is to make them aware and let them make their own decisions.

You want to make CB popular? Go get an A-list movie star to play CB in the movies or TV. Makes no difference if they actually play it or overdub it…just that it gets played. “Downton Abbey” would be a great venue…they just need a CB playing character. Wouldn’t it be great if one of the characters started taking lessons from Joe Morley?

Ah, I was writing at the same time as Jody I see…



Trapdoor2 said:

“Downton Abbey” would be a great venue…they just need a CB playing character. Wouldn’t it be great if one of the characters started taking lessons from Joe Morley?

Step 1. Rename "Darktown Dandies" to "Downton Dandies"

Step 2. Make it the main theme for the show.

SUCCESS!

FWIW I just read three different discussions on the BHO where it was suggested that people should check out "Classical" banjo expounding that it is from the 19th century or 1900s.

So here is what I think.

A. Nobody but 20 people care what it is really called… Classical/Classic all the same darn thing.

or

B. Folks continue to call it "classical" knowing that in a tandem discussion there are 20 miffed banjoists demanding that it be called "classic."

or

C. See A. but reduce it to 15 people.

Yet here we are, after all these years of it on the verge of doom...

I have a theory as to why there is not a lot of talk over here.  Classic(al) banjo is so difficult to play (and notation is so hard to read) that all we do is practice (and study).  No time left to talk.

Joel, my idea about a better name, half-baked and vague though it is, is not for the sake of the players. It's to create a viable audience. When there is an audience of non-players, there is a certain kind of innocent listening that has a different energy from what happens when the audience is all players. Both are worthwhile.

Joel. I'm agreeing whit both Jody and yourself on this.  I don't care what it is called. I know what kind of repertoire is associated with the term classic banjo as does everyone here.

But if you're an "outsider" you might get the wrong idea if you ever happen to hear or read the term "Classic banjo". That was all that I was trying to say.

Of course a soundtrack to a movie or television series would help a lot.

It would also help if Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber started playing classic style banjo in public. But I'm afraid (or glad) it isn't going to happen very soon.

The incentive for any young person to make the effort to learn to play any musical instrument has diminished with the advent of instant electronic 'music?' created with the push of a few buttons and some simple computer gizmos. It plays well with 'instant gratification with little effort' mentality that seems to prevail with many of them. 

In the USA you would not believe how many young people are taking up acoustic string instruments. Thousands of em. And many are banjo players or banjo students anyway. They are about 2/3 bluegrass and 1/3 old time. This is because they have heard those musics in concerts and at festivals and at family gatherings and at square dances. 

The instant gratification phenomenon works in another way. A few years ago I gave a lecture demo on american traditional (folk) music at a nearby university. When I played historical recordings the eyes of the students glazed over. They simply could not relate to Low Fi. But when I played my instruments their eyes got wide and bright. They thought I was a wizard. They had never heard music that did not come out of a box containing a speaker cone. The incontrovertible fact that I was right there in the room with them making music with no microphone or wires was as astonishing to them as if I had pulled out a pan of frozen snowballs from a hot oven. No more bored yawning. They wanted more and more.

Steve Harrison said:

The incentive for any young person to make the effort to learn to play any musical instrument has diminished with the advent of instant electronic 'music?' created with the push of a few buttons and some simple computer gizmos. It plays well with 'instant gratification with little effort' mentality that seems to prevail with many of them. 

Hmm... it's interesting how often history seems to repeat itself.

I read a book written in the late 1940s by a flamenco guitarist and luthier, in which he laments the immanent demise of flamenco.  The old players were dying off, and younger players were more interested in modern styles.  A few years later, along came Carlos Montoya, who released album after album in the 1950s, and brought flamenco to such prominence outside of Spain, that Japan now produces more flamenco guitars and flamenco guitarists than Andalusia did at its peak.

 

In the 1970s there was great lamenting in the guitar wolrd that the classical guitar was about to die out, replaced and overwhelmed by the electric guitar and the explosion of interest in steel string instruments following the folk revival of the 60's[1].  When I was in college in the late 80's most music departments didn't recognize guitar as a valid performance area at all, and the few that did only allowed it as a secondray supporting instrument, not as a major.

Today, there are more classical guitarists alive than ever before in history, you can get a degree in guitar performance at dozens of universities (including prestigious schools like Eastman), and you can do guitar graduate work up to a Ph.D. in several of them.

 

In the 70s musicians were already worried that synthesizers would replace them with automation, and by  the digital synthesizer revolution in the 80s they were sure of it.  Instead, musicians learned to play synthesizers and work with electronics and today we have more multiinstruments than ever before as a result.

 

In grad school, a tuba playing friend of mine was a tireless promoter of his instrument, forming ensembles, tuba quartets, playing tuba in rock and jazz bands, etc.  One year, he decided to organize a "Tuba Christmas" for which he produced a book of four-part carols arranged for tubas, and sent out a general invitation over various media (this was before "smart" phones and social media).  I figured he'd get maybe a dozen takers -- if the weather was good.  After all, we live in a mostly rural state with a total state population  less than that of Chicago.

More than 200 tuba players showed up (I could't believe there were that many instruments in the state!), and most of them showed up every year for the dozen or so years the event ran.

 

People are constantly discovering and rediscovering instruments and styles.  Musicians wanting to stand out from their contemporaries will often incorporate an older, lesser known instrument or style into their performance, triggering revivals.  I started on a quest a dozen years ago to learn as many fretted instruments as I could, with the immediate aim of gathering more resources for my guitar playing.  In the process I became infatuated with the concert zither -- wildly popular in the 1890s, the 1950s, and not much since.  Hell, here I am taking a fresh look at classic banjo, after dabbling with banjo on an off for more than 30 years.

As far as the instant gratification of making painless computer music, that tends to be pretty shallow.  I've ended up teaching guitar to a lot of kids who started our pushing buttons, and then saw me pick up a guitar and play something and said "How do you DO that?  I wanna do that!"  It's a lot more fulfilling to be moving those air molecules around for yourself, instead of letting the computer do it -- which anybody can do.

I wouldn't worry too much.  As long as someone maintains an interest in the instrument or the style, others will come along and be intrigued by that interest.

Learn; play; teach; they will come.

 

[1] That folk music revival of the 60s was itself responsible for fostering a decades long interest in music which the average mainstream American thought -- if they thought about it at all -- had been long since laid to rest in the Library of Congress archives by Alan Lomax and his like.

 

 

Very well said, it may be that the education system that has evolved in the UK over the past decade or so has fostered the quick fix mentality. It may well be different in the USA. Our kids' education is driven by constant box ticking, Ofsted inspections, performance indicators and inter school league tables where the end results appear to be more important than how they arrived there.

Dr H said:

Hmm... it's interesting how often history seems to repeat itself.

I read a book written in the late 1940s by a flamenco guitarist and luthier, in which he laments the immanent demise of flamenco.  The old players were dying off, and younger players were more interested in modern styles.  A few years later, along came Carlos Montoya, who released album after album in the 1950s, and brought flamenco to such prominence outside of Spain, that Japan now produces more flamenco guitars and flamenco guitarists than Andalusia did at its peak.

 

In the 1970s there was great lamenting in the guitar wolrd that the classical guitar was about to die out, replaced and overwhelmed by the electric guitar and the explosion of interest in steel string instruments following the folk revival of the 60's[1].  When I was in college in the late 80's most music departments didn't recognize guitar as a valid performance area at all, and the few that did only allowed it as a secondray supporting instrument, not as a major.

Today, there are more classical guitarists alive than ever before in history, you can get a degree in guitar performance at dozens of universities (including prestigious schools like Eastman), and you can do guitar graduate work up to a Ph.D. in several of them.

 

In the 70s musicians were already worried that synthesizers would replace them with automation, and by  the digital synthesizer revolution in the 80s they were sure of it.  Instead, musicians learned to play synthesizers and work with electronics and today we have more multiinstruments than ever before as a result.

 

In grad school, a tuba playing friend of mine was a tireless promoter of his instrument, forming ensembles, tuba quartets, playing tuba in rock and jazz bands, etc.  One year, he decided to organize a "Tuba Christmas" for which he produced a book of four-part carols arranged for tubas, and sent out a general invitation over various media (this was before "smart" phones and social media).  I figured he'd get maybe a dozen takers -- if the weather was good.  After all, we live in a mostly rural state with a total state population  less than that of Chicago.

More than 200 tuba players showed up (I could't believe there were that many instruments in the state!), and most of them showed up every year for the dozen or so years the event ran.

 

People are constantly discovering and rediscovering instruments and styles.  Musicians wanting to stand out from their contemporaries will often incorporate an older, lesser known instrument or style into their performance, triggering revivals.  I started on a quest a dozen years ago to learn as many fretted instruments as I could, with the immediate aim of gathering more resources for my guitar playing.  In the process I became infatuated with the concert zither -- wildly popular in the 1890s, the 1950s, and not much since.  Hell, here I am taking a fresh look at classic banjo, after dabbling with banjo on an off for more than 30 years.

As far as the instant gratification of making painless computer music, that tends to be pretty shallow.  I've ended up teaching guitar to a lot of kids who started our pushing buttons, and then saw me pick up a guitar and play something and said "How do you DO that?  I wanna do that!"  It's a lot more fulfilling to be moving those air molecules around for yourself, instead of letting the computer do it -- which anybody can do.

I wouldn't worry too much.  As long as someone maintains an interest in the instrument or the style, others will come along and be intrigued by that interest.

Learn; play; teach; they will come.

 

[1] That folk music revival of the 60s was itself responsible for fostering a decades long interest in music which the average mainstream American thought -- if they thought about it at all -- had been long since laid to rest in the Library of Congress archives by Alan Lomax and his like.

 

 

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