Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 28, 2023 at 18:35

I've brought these two pieces here for two reasons:

1. I was reflecting on the conversation we had recently which touched upon "What is Classic Banjo?". Joel (if my memory serves me well) mentioned Frank Converse, and how this music would be known to Converse as 'Guitar Style', meaning plucking instead of stroking. So, is it Classic Banjo style too?

2. To me, this is not only Classic Banjo style in both technique and repertoire, but it is already far more mature, shall we say, than much of what generally passes for Classic Banjo, up there with the best of the compositions by Cammeyer, Morley and that ilk. 

These two points might be food for discussion?

One other point, is that I enjoyed playing this banjo. The pot is by Parsley, and the neck by Temlett. Parsley's grandson now owns it, as part of his Parsley-Banjo Collection. The second piece really took me out to the edge of my technique, and looking back nine years, I'm quite pleased with the performance. I certainly don't think I'm up to it today...which gets me down, I must admit. It's all downhill from here!

Comment by Jody Stecher on April 28, 2023 at 19:50

Parsley? Are you sure?  I'm aware of Parslow banjos but Parsley is a new banjo name for me.

 I would say Yes this is classic banjo music. For decades the "5-stringer", the periodical issued by the American Banjo Fraternity has included pieces such as these.  Who would say it isn't, and why?

Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 28, 2023 at 20:03

LOL. Parsley. Well, it was from my salad days. 

I don’t know anyone who says it isn’t, but as genres get more defined there is often a narrowing of focus. I’m just wanting to make sure that Converse is included, as Ian has attempted to define a technique for Classic Banjo, which is not what Converse would have recognised. I’m not sure technique is the best method for defining the genre. But I’m equally not sure what exactly Classic Banjo is, where it begins and where it ends, and does it need to be defined at all. 

Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 28, 2023 at 22:01

Yes, Mike, ‘mature’ is a curious adjective, even without the comparative ‘more’. I must be more careful, and that’s a good thing. I think we would agree that it is harmonically and rhythmically more complex than much banjo music of the time, without assigning comparative and subjective worth: a delightful hornpipe is just as worthy as a composition of more complexity.

Converse himself was a complex man, equally at home in an upper-class New York parlour as on an Indian reservation. His father being a music professor might have had some influence on Converse’s seeming desire to ‘elevate’ certain aspects of banjo composition, while continuing to enjoy the more (can I say?) folk-inspired music from Black and Irish banjoists.

I’ve often seen the word ‘elevate’ used when describing the rush to make the banjo more acceptable to middle-class and upper-class households, but most composers for it were ill-equipped to take the banjo into a more classical arena. So we have lots of light-classical mazurkas and gavottes - as mentioned - mostly taking advantage of the new-fangled ‘guitar technique’. Yet in these recorded pieces I hear Converse going further than most in passing beyond the popular faire. But this doesn’t qualify it for ‘Classic Banjo’ status, as much of the classic-banjo repertoire remained (remains?) populist. 

So I’m left thinking that Classic-Banjo style is not defined by its technique or its wide-ranging repertoire. There must be something else at play. But, Mike, I’m no academic, so I’d be happy to read what you think the classic banjo is…or anyone else here. 

Comment by Jody Stecher on April 28, 2023 at 22:14

Rob, you are right. A technique does not define a musical genre. I have been saying for decades that "flat picking" is not a genre, it is a guitar technique.  Bluegrass lead guitarists make the same down and up strokes made by guitarists in other genres. 

And the technique(s) of classic banjo are all used in Bluegrass music but that is a different genre. So as a step towards an accurate  definition of Classic Banjo how 'bout all the attributes of technique usually mentioned as applied to the popular music of a certain time period in which the banjo is a solo instrument  (?)

Comment by Jody Stecher on April 29, 2023 at 1:11

In this context "solo" does not mean without accompaniment by one or more instruments. "Solo" here means that no other instrument has a principal part. A given specimen of Classic Banjo music is typically refereed to as a "Banjo Solo". They are even announced as such on recordings. "BANJO SOLO by Vess L Ossman !!! "  A lot of the printed banjo music will say "Banjo Solo" below the title.  This is contrast to the use of the banjo in Appalachia in the late 19th and early 20th century where it's principal role was as an accompaniment to the player's own singing and sometimes as a partner or accompanist to a fiddler playing for dancing,  in contrast to the banjo in a minstrel band where it was often played by the leader of a band of a number of instruments, and different again  to its later use in a bluegrass band where its principal role was multi-faceted,  with its timbre adding a texture to an ensemble of string instruments each with a different timbre, sometimes taking solos, but often playing extemporaneous support to other lead instruments and vocalists and the banjoist often singing a part (usually baritone, below the melody) in trio singing on the chorus of songs.   In classic banjo music its role is much simpler. The banjo plays what is written or something similar, the accompanist(s) play(s) what is written or something similar and there is very little spontaneous or creative interaction. 

Comment by Karen Smith on April 29, 2023 at 2:25

Well stated, Jody! The creative part is left to the interpretive realm, at which Mr. MacKillop performs so appealingly in this recording. Upon first seeing this video, I attempted to learn the schottische, but as it's beyond my abilities as a beginner, I stuttered and erred with the TAB before giving it a rest.

Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 29, 2023 at 8:50

At the end of the day, so to speak, I don't really care for a restrictive definition. I think Joel, as High Honcho of the ABF, needs some form of definition, if only to ward off bluegrass and Irish tenor players from wanting to jam along. When I had my own ragtime ensemble, period instruments and techniques were a requirement, and I had to locate instruments and teach the musicians how to play them. But that was a studied 'early music' approach. 

My first encounter with historical banjo playing was the US Minstrel style, but I very quickly found Converse's 'guitar style', and embraced that. Only later did the immense English style of banjo playing become known to me, and oddly perhaps it seemed more alien. In some ways it still does. But I do recognise it has its own very English flavour, and has made a huge contribution to world banjo music, though this is not often appreciated outside of these shores. Yes, there is a banjo heritage from within Scotland, but not to the extent it is in England.

So, focussing briefly on comparing US and English classic-banjo music, to my ear they seem very different things. Therefore finding an acceptable definition for where the boundaries are of the classic banjo, seems a near-impossible task. 

Sorry, I'm all over the place here. My argument lacks clarity, precisely because it is not an argument or stance. I just don't know what we are really dealing with, and my place in it, what on Earth I'm doing here. LOL. It is all interesting, though.

Whatever the definition, I would insist (not that I have the power to do so!) that it leaves room for contemporary music, that it leaves the door open to future development, as opposed to restricting it to a fixed era. 

Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 29, 2023 at 8:54

Karen, you were right to give it a rest. The worst thing a student can do is jump to the advanced repertoire. Take your time, step by step. There's a lot of good, enjoyable music to play while developing your technique and musicianship, as I think you now understand. 

Comment by Jody Stecher on April 29, 2023 at 14:50

Mike, my point is not that "solo" banjo playing was caused by printed music.  I am saying that the printed sheet music reflected the reality.  All of what we call Classic banjo was played in a way that did not interact with other musicians. The pianists, orchestras, and other banjos (including banjo orchestras) played pre-composed parts. The principal banjoist in the Classic Banjo genre typically does not alter what is played or how it played in a way that responds to the other musicians or in response to audience reaction.  In the case of professional players the music is directed at an audience. Amateurs played for their own enjoyment and perhaps for friends and family.  This is in contrast to the in-the-moment  type of playing that happens in other musical genres in which 5-string banjo has a role. 

As Karen has pointed out, there is still room for creativity and expression. Consider the many recordings that Olly Oakley made of "Sweet Jasmine".  Each is different.  Each is a delight. Yet the notes are the same (except for when he made mistakes).

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