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New York Banjo Story

posted in: 2012, Banjo Newsletter 0

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Banjo Newsletter, and is also available as an easy-to-print PDF.

I am excited and honored to be part of an unprecedented tour this fall—the New York Banjo Summit. Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg, Richie Stearns, and myself (and on selected dates, Noam Pikelny and Mac Benford) will visit ten northeastern cities from Albany to Washington DC, October 25 to November 4—in classy concert halls with an all-star back-up band including Russ Barenberg. The tour’s web site, nybanjo.org, offers a wonderful slide show and a capsule history I put together about New York banjo. The following is adapted from that article:

It’s well-known that the “sweet sunny south” is where the banjo first appeared in America, in the hands of African- American slaves. After years as a dance and “minstrel” instrument, by the early 1900s it had spread nationwide and become a mainstay in the folk, jazz, and parlor music of the day. In the south it grew from a primarily rhythm and “comedy” instrument to the sparkplug lead instrument in bluegrass, thanks in large part to North Carolinian Earl Scruggs.

Not many would have predicted that in the mid-to-late 20th century—and into the 21st—many of the innovations and innovators of the 5-string would find a new center in…New York State.

It was Pete Seeger with his long-necked banjo who inspired a generation to take up the instrument—and showed them how, with his 1948 classic book “How to Play the Five-String Banjo.” Born in New York City, Pete first heard and learned to play 5-string in Asheville, NC in 1938. National radio audiences around 1940 heard him on New York-based broadcasts with Woody Guthrie and later with The Weavers, whose Goodnight Irene and Tzena Tzena were hits around 1950-1. Check out The Weavers’ TV clips, with bluegrassy rhythm and picking. (Search for “Weavers 1951 Youtube”). Pete was shredding it back then!

When the ‘blacklist’ of the 50s and 60s crippled his career, Pete took low-paying gigs in New York schools and summer camps, thus sowing seeds of the “folk boom” to follow—including tutoring the young Eric Weissberg. While Pete’s banjo technique was impressive, its main role was to accompany a wide range of songs from lullabies to union songs, and to help get people singing. Artfully-penned on his banjo head: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

By the late ‘50s, New York City had become the hub of a burgeoning interest in folk music. Groups including Seeger-inspired banjoists enjoyed national popularity. Sing Out! magazine and Folkways Records flourished. The seminal old-time band The New Lost City Ramblers with New Yorkers Tom Paley and John Cohen sharing (mostly clawhammer) banjo duties with Mike Seeger, recorded many Folkways LPs.

During the same period, The Greenbriar Boys, one of the first urban bluegrass bands, came together at jams in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, with Bob Yellin on banjo. The group’s wide exposure on Vanguard Records (sometimes with Joan Baez) helped bring bluegrass attention as a “folk” style.

Washington Square is where many of us New Yorkers did our first bluegrass jamming. Thanks to folkies’ winning the “right to jam” in the early 60s, the park was open for picking Sundays from 2-6pm. So…as a teenager I’d faithfully tote my banjo for an hour by subway from the north Bronx to West 4th St., walk a few blocks, and enter “New York Bluegrass Heaven,” featuring David Grisman, Jody Stecher and other world-class talents. At 6pm, police would amiably shut down the picking till next Sunday.

Eric Weissberg, an early Greenbriar Boy, added his banjo to the folk group The Tarriers in 1959. In 1963 he and bandmate Marshall Brickman made an influential album of explorations, “New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass” (cover photo: the two with banjos in Central Park). In 1967 he trailblazed new territory in Earl Robinson’s Concerto for Five-string Banjo and in 1972-3 made more banjo history with his #1 hit record of Dueling Banjos. The 1963 “New Dimensions” album, marketed as the soundtrack of the movie Deliverance, also hit #1, earning a gold record and a Grammy.

As early as the late 40s, Washington Square saw eclectic banjo pickers Roger Sprung and Billy Faier holding forth. In the 60s, bluegrass aces Winnie Winston and Steve Arkin sparked The New York Ramblers and The Down State Rebels. Winston, who died in 2005, won major banjo contests around the region and at the famed Union Grove, NC Fiddlers Convention in 1964. That same year, Arkin joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys—replacing Bill Keith. Keith and Arkin were the only northeastern (“Yankee” to many) banjo players ever to have sideman jobs with Monroe. Keith, originally from eastern Massachusetts, developed the revolutionary melodic banjo style that became a platform for progressive players to launch their own innovations. His chordal style enhanced folkie favorites the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Bill settled in Woodstock in 1970, where he continues to perform, teach, and manage the Beacon Banjo Company, selling his “Keith” banjo tuners worldwide.

As for yours truly, I played in New York City bands and deejayed a bluegrass radio show in the 60s. In Ithaca in 1970 I recruited Syracuse banjo whiz Tony Trischka to form Country Cooking, our harmony banjos and original tunes highlighting three of Rounder Records’ earliest albums. Later relocating to Colorado, I have tried to contribute creatively to tradition-based bluegrass and Scruggs style, with Hot Rize since 1978 and hosting bluegrass music camps since 1980.

We New York banjoists have been eager to share our music and our knowledge with others. Big Apple record and publishing companies such as Folkways, Oak, Peer International, Music Minus One, Elektra, and upstate operations Rounder and Homespun Tapes have released dozens of banjo records, instruction books and videos. The first books, by Seeger, Art Rosenbaum, Keith, John Burke, Wernick, and Trischka, “cracked the code” of bluegrass and clawhammer styles and helped develop banjo skills, worldwide.

Trischka moved to the City in 1973 to form the daringly eclectic band Breakfast Special, and also performed in Broadway theater productions, but it was his series of solo albums—including “Bluegrass Light,” “Banjoland,” and “World Turning”—in which his experimental approach reached full flower. Touring and recording with Skyline and Territory, banjo teaching and diverse projects are highlights of his wide-ranging career.

Back in central New York, Mac Benford arrived in 1972 and formed The Highwoods Stringband, a “reckless abandon” old-time group who made three influential albums. Mac’s banjo stayed at the forefront of the music in the Backwoods Band and Woodshed All Stars. Walt Koken, Howie Bursen, and Ken Perlman—all in Ithaca in the 70s— also helped elevate central New York as a fertile ground for old-time styles. Perlman and Koken continue as central figures in old-time music and instruction.

The Ithaca area also produced The Horseflies in the 70s—who fused old- time with art/alt rock influences and world music, blending percussion and keyboards with traditional string band instruments. Their banjoist, Richie Stearns, continued to advance the improvisational approach with the roots- rock band Donna the Buffalo—as one of the first banjo players in the jam band movement.

In the early 70s, a quiet kid at a Manhattan music high school switched from French horn to banjo and quickly progressed with Tony Trischka as his teacher. Reaching new heights of technique, Béla Fleck’s music with the New Grass Revival, the Flecktones and myriad recording and performing projects—from Grammy-winning modern jazz and African explorations to classical and Indian music…and beyond—continues to inspire players worldwide and reveal the limitless possibilities of the 5-string.

NYC banjo innovators Marc Horowitz and Marty Cutler, most active as pickers in the 70s and 80s, continue their contributions, with Horowitz marketing instruments at Mandolin Brothers, and Cutler pioneering electronic and MIDI applications for stringed instruments.

Setting the pace for the next generation of modern banjo artists is Noam Pikelny—who after three years with Colorado’s “polyethnic Slamgrass” favorites Leftover Salmon, moved to Brooklyn as a member of The Punch Brothers, the most virtuosic and inventive of all of today’s acoustic string bands. Noam was honored in 2010 with a national TV performance as the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

In 2002, Albany’s Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Center presented an historic 5-hour “New York Banjo” concert. The event’s success inspired a 10th anniversary reunion planned for 2012. Invitations from other venues followed, resulting in this 10-city New York Banjo Summit tour. The tour has spawned the wonderful www.nybanjo.org site replete with slide show and fascinating video links.

See Part 2 of this story.

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