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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Totally agree with Dr. H (sorry, I did not know his name). I came to this page thanks to the efforts and videos of Rob Mckillop, and right now all you are my banjo heroes. I really enjoy your enthusiasm and constance with this kind of style. Music is about sharing experiences and life; lets continue doing all us, no matter circunstances and society could be against us.


Steve Harrison said:

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.

=======

Oh, make no mistake -- we love our box-ticks and quick-fixes in the US, too.

 
But the US is a BIG place and there are a lot of cultural influences jammed together here.  For example, I have been fortunate enough at various times to be able to study sitar with a native of Madras, highland pipes with a Scott from Inverness, charango with a Bolivian teacher  -- all without leaving the US.  (Not to mention  banjo with a guy who grew up in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. )
 
Kids want to do what all their friends are doing so they can "fit in".  But once they realize that they do fit in -- usually about college age -- they start looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the crowd.  I live in a relatively small city in a mostly rural state, yet right here in town is a store in which one could purchase anything from  Chinese pipa to a Turkish cumbus -- not to mention umpteen varieties of guitars, banjos, and mandolins.  He does a brisk business, mostly to college students.
 
A friend of mine and I have kicked around the idea of organizing a "banjo christmas" here, like the "tuba Christmas" my other friend organized years ago.   Hell, if 200+ people in Oregon had tubas in their closets, imagine how many might have a banjo tucked under the bed? ;)
 

It occurs to me that ragtime is a case in point.  By the 1920s most people thought that ragtime music was dead, replaced by jazz and other things.  A few old-timers continued to write (mostly novelty) rags for a few years, but the style was about to drop out of sight.

And yet...  Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag has never been out of print, since it was first published in 1899.  The younger stride and boogie pianists -- and even some of the jazzers -- continued to throw a couple of rags into their performances, and even into their recordings now and then.  In the 1950s a nostalgic craze for "honky tonk" piano quickly developed into a full-blown ragtime revival --  Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis wrote a retrospective on the Ragtime era and rediscovered Joe Lamb -- one of the big three ragtime composers -- and got him to write a series of new rags in the late 50s. 

That fad died down, only to be rekindled in the 1970s with the use of Joplin's music in the movie "The Sting", touching off another ragtime revival in the 70s, including Joshua Rifkin's now-considered-classic recordings of 17 Joplin rags.  Younger composers started writing rags again (Bolcolm, Albright, Jasen, et al).

I became thoroughly infatuated with ragtime in the late 90s, and started cranking out my own rags regularly.  I had done a few earlier, but these days I average at least five new rags a year.  About 5 years ago I made internet contact with an Australian gentleman who had set himself the task of compiling a database of every rag ever written, complete with publication data and MIDI examples where possible.  Prior to that time, had you asked me how many rags had been written -- ever -- I would have guessed maybe two or three thousand, including modern rags.  Imagine my surprise when he sent me a database of nearly 15,000 rags!  Over half of these had been written in the last 30-40 years -- a half-century and more after ragtime had supposedly "died".  Pretty active genre for a corpse.

If you check the dates above, you'll see a pattern:  1920's, 1950's, 1970's, 1990's -- there's been a significant revival of interest in ragtime music in roughly every generation since the supposed end of the ragtime era.

I can see classic banjo in something of the same light.  It's never really gone away entirely, and I can see it having a major revival any time.  As someone pointed out, have a classic banjo piece make it into the soundtrack of one major motion picture, and the music stores won't be able to stock nylon banjo strings fast enough. 

Also, I think the genre speaks somewhat to the "instant gratification" impulse of a lot of people.  When you say "banjo", at least in the US, the first thing most people think is "bluegrass".  I may be going out on a limb by saying this but, there really is no such thing as "easy" bluegrass banjo.  It takes a huge amount of work just to be able to play some of the most basic tunes. Speaking as someone who came to banjo after a dozen years of guitar study, it was as if I had never taken a lesson; I had to restart pretty much from scratch.

OTOH, with classic banjo, there are all levels of material available, from simple song forms that a beginner could master in a reasonable amount of time, to some stuff as intricate as any classical guitar music I've seen (if the Vess Ossman tune I've been looking at is any indication).  The point is, though, that people can start sounding good to themselves relatively quickly with this style, which is an incentive to stick with it and take it further.

Your comment is spot-on, Dr H. Some people think Classic Banjo is a big, scary difficult genre, but I always tell them it's only as difficult as you want it to be! Sure, the flashy showpieces are intimidating, but you can start out playing stuff that sounds a thousand times more musical than my first attempts at Earl Scrugg's version of "Cripple Creek".

I've discovered lots of good ragtime music which has lain dead and buried in the archives for at least 100 years. One of the reasons I've arranged them for banjo is to hopefully to get them played again. As one of the prime influences for ragtime, the banjo is an ideal instrument. Every time I do a search, I can usually find something worth trying. I haven't counted recently but there must be nearly 100 in the library at present.....Steve.
Dr H said:

It occurs to me that ragtime is a case in point.  By the 1920s most people thought that ragtime music was dead, replaced by jazz and other things.  A few old-timers continued to write (mostly novelty) rags for a few years, but the style was about to drop out of sight.

And yet...  Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag has never been out of print, since it was first published in 1899.  The younger stride and boogie pianists -- and even some of the jazzers -- continued to throw a couple of rags into their performances, and even into their recordings now and then.  In the 1950s a nostalgic craze for "honky tonk" piano quickly developed into a full-blown ragtime revival --  Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis wrote a retrospective on the Ragtime era and rediscovered Joe Lamb -- one of the big three ragtime composers -- and got him to write a series of new rags in the late 50s. 

That fad died down, only to be rekindled in the 1970s with the use of Joplin's music in the movie "The Sting", touching off another ragtime revival in the 70s, including Joshua Rifkin's now-considered-classic recordings of 17 Joplin rags.  Younger composers started writing rags again (Bolcolm, Albright, Jasen, et al).

I became thoroughly infatuated with ragtime in the late 90s, and started cranking out my own rags regularly.  I had done a few earlier, but these days I average at least five new rags a year.  About 5 years ago I made internet contact with an Australian gentleman who had set himself the task of compiling a database of every rag ever written, complete with publication data and MIDI examples where possible.  Prior to that time, had you asked me how many rags had been written -- ever -- I would have guessed maybe two or three thousand, including modern rags.  Imagine my surprise when he sent me a database of nearly 15,000 rags!  Over half of these had been written in the last 30-40 years -- a half-century and more after ragtime had supposedly "died".  Pretty active genre for a corpse.

If you check the dates above, you'll see a pattern:  1920's, 1950's, 1970's, 1990's -- there's been a significant revival of interest in ragtime music in roughly every generation since the supposed end of the ragtime era.

I can see classic banjo in something of the same light.  It's never really gone away entirely, and I can see it having a major revival any time.  As someone pointed out, have a classic banjo piece make it into the soundtrack of one major motion picture, and the music stores won't be able to stock nylon banjo strings fast enough. 

Also, I think the genre speaks somewhat to the "instant gratification" impulse of a lot of people.  When you say "banjo", at least in the US, the first thing most people think is "bluegrass".  I may be going out on a limb by saying this but, there really is no such thing as "easy" bluegrass banjo.  It takes a huge amount of work just to be able to play some of the most basic tunes. Speaking as someone who came to banjo after a dozen years of guitar study, it was as if I had never taken a lesson; I had to restart pretty much from scratch.

OTOH, with classic banjo, there are all levels of material available, from simple song forms that a beginner could master in a reasonable amount of time, to some stuff as intricate as any classical guitar music I've seen (if the Vess Ossman tune I've been looking at is any indication).  The point is, though, that people can start sounding good to themselves relatively quickly with this style, which is an incentive to stick with it and take it further.

Steve.....I for one really appreciate your efforts in arranging these ragtime compositions for banjo.  Have a couple of them as learning projects right now........John

Here's one of my favorite modern rags. I've tried to arrange it for banjo but never got it "right":

Ted Tjaden has a great site for getting copies of a wide variety of rags: http://www.ragtimepiano.ca/


Thanks for your comments John, which tunes are you looking at?...Steve.
John Field said:

Steve.....I for one really appreciate your efforts in arranging these ragtime compositions for banjo.  Have a couple of them as learning projects right now........John

Steve....."Dixie Twilight" and "Missouri Mule March".  They are going to take some practice!...John

Hi John, Dixie Twilight was one of my earlier tunes I had to have a quick look and listen to remind me how it went. I'd like to bet that you and I are probably the first ones to play Missouri Mule March since it was written. It's a great march that celebrates the breeding of mules in Missouri. Apparently Missouri is at the start of the OregonTrail which was taken by the wagon trains heading west and the mules were the preferred animals to pull the wagons......Steve.


Steve, as a composer and arranger myself, I can appreciate the tremendous amount of work that went into those arrangements you've done -- especially the James Scott stuff.  Just going to banjo from piano is a workout in itself, and Scott's stuff adds a whole level of "tricky" on top of that.  Excellent work, boss.


 Many thanks for your kind comments, it's good to get a bit of feedback once in a while. I enjoy the challenge of discovering and arranging the less well known tunes and it keeps my 65 years old brain in good order. It also gives me some time to myself, away from she who must be obeyed and my two grandkids!....Steve.


Dr H said:


Steve, as a composer and arranger myself, I can appreciate the tremendous amount of work that went into those arrangements you've done -- especially the James Scott stuff.  Just going to banjo from piano is a workout in itself, and Scott's stuff adds a whole level of "tricky" on top of that.  Excellent work, boss.

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