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Play an MP3 clip of 'If the Creek Don't Rise' as arranged for banjo.

Click to go to home page.Whatever Happened to the Banjo? - Marginalization of an American Icon

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't RiseTM
and School Of The RockTM

Time to betray my age again. When I was in high school, my hero was not John Lennon or Keith Richards - it was folk-singer, activist, and banjo-player Pete Seeger, whose career was still going strong, once the McCarthy-era blacklists died of natural causes. As a member of the Weavers (and the Almanac singers before that), Pete had made 5-string banjo synonymous with Folk music. In fact, when Folk Revival became mainstream, so did the banjo, thanks in a very large part to Pete Seeger's ability to make it fit almost any kind of song.

Pete played banjo on songs in minor keys, on songs by J.S. Bach, on Latino songs, on blues, even on songs that had broken the charts as Rock and Roll numbers, and he delivered a credible performance on every song.

Indeed it's hard to find a folk ensemble from before, say 1965, that did not feature a banjo in all fast songs and many slow ones. And why shouldn't they? Like the electric guitar, the banjo (in all of its present forms) is a purely American invention, that, by my musically "formative years" was ubiquitous.

When the British Invasion and subsequent happenings in the top-forty steered many folk-singers into Folk-Rock and eventually Country-Rock, quite a few artists took their banjos along with them. Poco, Orleans, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Eagles, Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Wilco, REM, and even Aerosmith occasionally featured banjos (usually fingerpicked Seeger or Scruggs-style) right along with electric guitar, keyboard, bass and drums.

And then the banjo died. I'm not sure why. Obviously, punk rock and disco weren't necessarily great fits for the banjo, but other kinds of music were still being recorded, and the banjo disappeared from those genres as well.

I noticed the change in my own concerts. In the early 1970s, I played in Rock bands and then in "Jesus Music" settings. I would often trade off on guitar, banjo, and - if the "house" had one in tune - a piano. A number of professional folk artists and Jesus musicians did as well, including Livingston Taylor and John Michael Talbot. In the early 1970s, I felt that the banjo was just as well received - even by teenagers - as any other instrument I played. But by 1980 or so, I started to see kids and even adults rolling their eyes when I set down the guitar and picked up the banjo. No, it wasn't because I wasn't very good - they rolled their eyes even before I hit the first note.

In other words, somewhere between 1970 and 1980, the banjo became, not only less popular, but "uncool" among folks who liked to consider themselves "hip."

Yes, the 5-string banjo is going VERY strong in bluegrass, and I understand that the 6-string banjo is making a "comeback" among teenager-oriented C&W acts. But somewhere between 1970 and 1980, the general public's perception of the banjo changed.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Before Bluegrass music hit mainstream culture (through movies like Bonnie and Clyde and TV shows like Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw), the banjo was not strictly associated with a particular culture. Sadly, at the same time I was enjoying the rich layers of musical texture that groups like Flatt and Scruggs brought to their songs (through the fiddle, Dobro, and flatpicked jumbo guitar, as well as the banjo), many folks who were not musicians were beginning to associate the banjo with drawls, nasal singing, and Hee-Haw-style) humor.

  • And if that didn't do enough to marginalize the banjo, the 1972 movie Deliverance used a cheerful banjo tune to prefigure a sort of "descent into backwoods hell." The ambiguous image of the bald child picking banjo on the porch roof was a brilliant device - it had a disquieting effect on the audience. But quite a few folks came out of that movie feeling the same way about banjos as Psycho viewers felt about shower curtains.

I have to admit, the banjo brings a distinct "ethnic edge" to any song, however it is played. And sadly, lots of folks don't know how to use that edge without changing the overall effect of the song, and - in the worse case - reminding the average listener of Jed Clampett. But it can be done.

Jokingly acceding to the general consensus that the banjo now seems to be of limited use, there is even a folksinger comedy routine called "Five Songs You Shouldn't Play on the Banjo." And they all sound pretty funny, especially "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." That said, I know for a fact that Pete Seeger could have sung "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" quite convincingly with his banjo, if he thought that the song was worth singing, that is.

In the last decade, banjos have been seen in a positive light in a few cases. The gut-stringed resonator-less banjo featured in the Cold Mountain sound track reminded at least some viewers that the banjo has a life outside of a pure Bluegrass application. Steve Martin's recent "Crow" project has brought a unique vision of Bluegrass-influenced banjo to many fresh ears. In fact, Steve Martin has rescinded his old assertion that "You can't play sad songs on a banjo" by reminding audiences that the quote comes from his comedy act. Nowadays, Martin is proving that yes, you can definitely play sad songs on the banjo.

To an old fan of Seeger, of course, this is hardly news.

Now here's another irony - back in the 1960s, I learned several styles of banjo picking, not just one. Although I can play certain Bluegrass tunes, there are several differences between Bluegrass and other styles, in such areas as how much strumming versus picking happens, how many notes are played, and how fast they're played. To modern ears, acclimated to hearing Bluegrass picking when they hear banjo at all, I play the thing "wrong." (Weavers fans don't mind, however.) So, the same cultural shift that has caused many folks to associate banjo with Roy Clark also caused folks who aren't used to non-Bluegrass styles of banjo to give me a funny look when I play. Well, some of them give me funny looks anyway, but it's worse when I play banjo.

Well, as the Psalmist says, I was young, and now I am old. Once I cared more than I should about other folks' opinion of my music. Nowadays only about twelve people ever listen to me no matter what or where I play, so I might as well play what I want.

In 2012, ago I picked up a 6-string banjo to play on a Dixieland project that was actually written for 6-string banjo - long story. And it was fun to play. Then I picked up a Deering "Good-time" 5-string banjo in a music store and IT was fun to play. More than fun. Ooops. I was hooked again, and have gone through several banjos since, as well as starting a 5-string banjo tab and tutorial section on this web site.

Bad Vibes in Banjoland - I also discovered that, while I was not particularly involved in the banjo "subculture," a sort of "uncivil war" has been brewing between folks who pick a certain way and folks who strum a certain way. Both camps include folks who will vilify pickers or strummers (respectively) who use a different technique to pick or strum than they do. They fail to recognize that during the peak of the banjo's popularity between 1890 and 1925, most accomplished 5-string players used techniques that were quite different than those being argued over today. For the "my way or the highway" enthusiasts, the banjo is a sort of museum piece that must remain forever frozen at a specific point in time, unlike every other musical instrument in the world.

Get over it doofuses - there is a world of young musicians who are just rediscovering the tonality of the banjo, no thanks to you, and your sectarianism is just going to drive them away again.

It is possible to play several styles on the banjo, as the song or setting demands, and it is also possible to appreciate banjo players who don't use exactly the same technique you do. That's one reason my tutorial emphasizes the left hand and gives alternatives for right-hand techniques. I don't think you should get locked into one specific technique until you've had a chance to figure out all the things the banjo is good for.

Good News from the UK - The banjo got a recent boost on the world stage, from Mumford & Sons, who had been putting Irish-style banjo picking on several charts since 2010, but really "broke out" with their 2012 album Babel. That album spawned scores of imitators, many of which also include banjo pickers.

Now, Irish-style banjo is one style I have never really played - flatpicking melodies and arpeggios at blistering speeds, usually on a 4-string. But I can imitate it on a five-string or six-string banjo of necessary, so I've been asked to get my banjo out of the house more often recently. And my guitar-playing friends have been asking lots of questions about the banjo. And I've been answering those questions in person and online.

Here's an exercise, banjo players. Pick any song you like, even a song that "should never work" with the banjo, and make it work. Frankly, I think that any song worth singing is worth singing with a banjo. (The inverse of the converse is true, too - if it's not worth singing with a banjo, it's not worth singing. Which brings us back to Evita, but never mind..)

Enough of you "too-cool-for-the-room" hipsters with your ear buds and knit caps. "Real" cool is going to strike again, and it's going to have five strings when it does.

Best of luck, all, enjoy your music, and support the arts.

Paul Race

Reader Response

No sooner had I published this article than I got a response from a non-banjo-playing retired music teacher who was singing in a community chorus in the greater Detroit area. The chorus had taken on "The World Beloved/A Bluegrass Mass" an ambitious, solemn, and complex number based on Appalachian pentatonic and modal melodies. The piece also has a very complex banjo part.

So, as soon as director announced his choice, at least two of the chorus members started saying "Yee-Haw" and snickering as though being in the same room with a banjo - no matter how serious the music they were performing - was automatically falling-down funny.

I asked my contact if the chorus members would have reponded the same way if the piece drew, say, on Hindi culture instead of Appalachian - would they have thought that was falling-down funny, too?

As it turned out, the banjo part for the mass is notorious among banjo players; it was written by a non-banjo player who never took time to learn how the banjo actually works. Many pickers who can sight-read almost anything either give up or wind up rewriting it to make it playable. The term "Faux Bluegrass" keeps coming up. In this case, the banjo player gave up.

One person complained that banjo players can't read music anyway, so why did they bother even trying to get one involved? But another person pointed out that 17 out of 19 of the banjo players she had contacted about the piece had either bachelor's or master's degrees in - you guessed it - music!

Back to the Mass. I've heard parts of the mass in question, and I much admire the sublime tribute to the Celtic roots of the Appalachian melodies and harmonies, as well as the devout way in which the religious content (taken from and/or inspired by the Roman Catholic liturgy) was handled. So I was sad to learn that the demeaning attitude toward anything remotely Appalachian continued right up to the night of the performance. (I've cut out another incident of ill-informed insensitivity for brevity.) But during the performance itself, several of the performers stuck straw in their hair for that part of the concert!

I can't understand why anyone older than six would consider it appropriate to laugh and joke their way through a performance of music they were obviously too ignorant to understand, and too lazy to learn about. To do so through a devoutly-composed religious piece - sung in a church of all places - sets a new standard for thoughtless, bigoted, ignorant behavior.

As I told my friend, when the "Yee-Haws" and snickers started, there were ignoramuses in the room, but the banjo player wasn't one of them.

P.S. to this note: If you are one of the chorus members who wore straw in your hair for the performance, and you find this article offensive, here's how you can prove to me that it was appropriate and "all in good fun." All you have to do is drive anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, then attend service at any church, synagogue, or mosque, with straw in your hair. Be sure to yell "Yee-Haw" throughout the service, and see if anyone there thinks it's as funny as you obviously do. Oh, and be sure to park your car so they can see your Michigan license plates as you leave the building, and see if that helps.

Apologies for my tone in the above section. Right up until the "reader response" line I was holding the line on my own frustration about the kind of musical bigotry I just described. But when people whose ignorance is entirely self-imposed publicly belittle another culture just because it's a different culture, it gets my Irish, er, my dander up.

Flash back forty-plus years, to a late night television interview with Johnny Cash. (I won't name the host, because he still has fans who might break my legs - but it wasn't Carson.) By then Cash had released several huge crossover hits, but his most recent one, and apparently the only one the host knew about was "A Boy Named Sue" - a gag song that was actually very well written, if you took the time to listen to it critically. I wasn't a huge Cash fan at the time - I used to watch his show mostly to hear the Carter women harmonize - but I was embarrassed for both men as the "interview" proceeded. The host, usually a polite and well-informed interviewer, had apparently learned everything he knew about Country and Western music from Homer and Jethro. He was obviously under the impression that all Country music was a joke, that all you had to do was throw any sort of stupid lines down on a page to have a chart-breaking hit, because - as he saw it - Country fans were so stupid they'd swallow anything. The host voiced his exponentially patronizing questions with a sort of "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" tone to let Cash know that he was "in on the joke."

As far as I could tell, the host was hoping that he would get Cash to admit that, yes, his songs, his career, and his industry were all a big joke and Cash was really a sort of musical con-man laughing all the way to the bank. The irony is that - unlike the "Yee-haws" and the straw in the examples above - nothing the host said or did was really mean-spirited; it was just inexcusably ignorant and misinformed.

For his part, Cash answered the host's questions honestly and laughed politely at the host's jokes at Cash's expense. But mostly he just looked confused, as he tried to get through the "interview" with as much grace as possible. I got the impression at the time that Cash had trouble realizing that anyone could be as completely ignorant, patronizing, and insulting of Cash's whole culture as this otherwise well-informed individual seemed to be.

Well, thank goodness, the country's got beyond that kind of idiotic response to all things Appalachian. Or have we? Well apparently, not everyone has.

By now, I'm sure that most of the ignorant, mean-spirited people that this section addresses have already stopped reading, so I have no "takeaway" for them, except my "travel tip" above.

If you've read this far, chances are you take music seriously and don't mind hearing great music from or inspired by other cultures. If so, keep up the good work, and keep "pushing the envelope."

In addition, If you specialize in some instrument - banjo, ukelele, accordion, mandolin, oud, sitar, zither, etc - that other people don't take seriously, remember that the people denigrating your music, if not your entire culture, are really saying a whole lot more about themselves than they are about you, your music, or your people. Hone your craft, make the best music you can, and prove them wrong - graciously, of course.

If you have something you'd like to add, just contact us, and if it's printable, we'll put it right here.

Have a blessed day!


Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

And please stay in touch!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to visit the Creek Don't Rise discussion forum. Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.

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