December 5, 2013

So Many Instruments

I have always been amazed by the amount of music out there (who hasn’t, I guess?) There is no way that I will ever hear it all, ever be able to find all the bands and artists that I enjoy, so I do the best that I can.  There are also so many instruments in the world, and I have a tendency to want to learn to play all of them, unrealistically.  The only instrument that I have actually kept up with is the guitar, even my bass playing which used to be my main instrument and which I loved has fallen by the wayside while I’m at college.

The banjo was my latest attempted conquest, my first in a while.

Instruments That I Have Tried to Learn (and pretty much haven’t)





I have some basic knowledge of these (I own a harmonica, a ukulele, and a keyboard- which kind of count, maybe)

All of these fell through because I didn’t practice, or I didn’t have time to.  I always want instant instrument gratification, and I need to realize that this is the farthest thing from reality.  I haven’t given up hope on all of them yet however.

I still want to learn:


Ravi Shankar



-Tuba (kind of)


Rick Danko with Fiddle

And, I mean, I’m pretty much open to other instruments as well.

The sitar is my dream, I’m pretty sure it takes like a lifetime to be really good- but who know… maybe someday!

While on this quest to learn banjo I realized that it will be difficult for me to ever learn any of these instruments without extensive practice.  I, of course practiced guitar and bass- but somehow it was different.  I move fast, I am always in a hurry, which sometimes makes it difficult for me to learn new things that take a long time to pick up on.

My mom has begun learning ukulele in my absence from home, and I can see so much how practicing every day has helped her improve tremendously.  Although she still feels as though she can’t play very well- I think she has a remarkable grasp on the instrument for only playing for about two months.

So- you’re like- this is NOT about banjos, where are the banjos?!

I’m kind of getting there, maybe.  Basically what I have realized through this blog, through this semester is that owning the instrument doesn’t mean you know how to play it.  Of course, I always knew this but it seems to have really hit me with this latest venture.  When I headed to college in the summer I was sure that I would come home for winter break pickin’ like a pro.  But, as break rapidly approaches I realize that this is not the case.

And that’s okay.

I’ve learned so much about the instrument, have a newfound appreciation for all of those that play it, and I haven’t given up hope that someday I will live up to my name of “Banjo Lil” and when people ask me to play them a song on the banjo I will quickly pull out my banjo and play a rollicking rendition of “This Land is Your Land” OF COURSE.

November 29, 2013

Shady Grove

One of my favorite venues is a folk cafe called Caffe Lena.  A book and CD were recently released chronicling the cafe since its start in 1960.  I was listening to the CD  and heard some songs that had some banjo (which of course I was excited about).  Before I started this blog I didn’t pay a ton of attention to banjo, and so since beginning this I have heard so much more banjo than I ever would have expected.

One of the songs that stuck with me from the CD was Shady Grove played by Hedy West.  Listen here.  It’s awesome playing (in my opinion at least) and I think he voice is really distinctive. It’s amazing that all of these live recordings from the 1960s and 70s are in such great shape and have been released for everyone to hear.

Here’s kind of a summary of the collection with some more samples of songs to listen to at the bottom.  If you’re a folk fan it’s totally worth a listen!!

Caffe Lena CD


Caffe Lena is filled with banjos from contemporary bands, to the old days.  They also hold a “Banjo Masters in the Round” event on a pretty much yearly basis which brings a bunch of players together, with performances and workshops.  I’m not sure if one will be happening this year, but if there is one I hope to be able to experience at least a little bit of it as I have never attended before.


November 26, 2013

Banjo Thoughts

I’ve been immersed in the world of banjos for almost the past three months, and I’ve certainly learned a lot.  Although I will definitely be banjo blogging until December, I feel like I need to look back at my banjo experience so far to remember some of the reasons that I have been blogging and social networking for this one instrument.  Since I’ve started this blog I’ve been able to attend the NY Banjo Tour (and meet a lot of the current banjo talents of the day).  I’ve also been slowly learning some of the instrument that I have been talking about.  I started this blog hoping that it would encourage me not to give up on my goal to learn the instrument- and I’m not entirely sure that it worked as well as I hoped that it would.  Although I know a lot about banjos, and I pay more attention to anyone that plays the banjo- I am nowhere close to being a real banjo player.  I am still a novice.  Despite the fact that the name “Banjo Lil” has stuck with me, and I feel like on some level I am spreading the banjo to my friends, family, and maybe to some people that I’ve never even met- I think it is about time I really settled in and learned a few more songs.  A lot of the fun for me in learning a new instrument, is just playing around on it- figuring out a familiar tune or creating your own tune that has never been played before.

NY Banjo Tour

There is something special about being known for something- but it is something that I am not even close to being an expert on.  I came in at time that the banjo was chugging and almost rocketing to stardom- some kind of folk relic that has been reincarnated.  Once an instrument for playing the music of everyday people, to an integral part of the protest and folk revival of the 1940s/50s/60s (with Pete Seeger carrying it into popularity), and now it has become either a quirky thing to pick up (maybe that’s part of the reason why I decided that it would be my latest musical venture…), and also a part of the rollicking folk-rock of the present day (not particularly my favorite genre).  I sought to connect to this instrument and I think that for the most part I have, I feel as though the banjo is such a big part of my life- despite the fact that I play the guitar more often.

I think that my opportunity to actually learn how to play is over my winter break, when I might have more free time than I do now to learn new songs, and reinforce the few that I already know, and also to perhaps collaborate with musical members of my family.  Then, hopefully when I return to school I will be able to play along with my talented & musical school friends and- who knows- perhaps I’ll be in the next famous folk band.

November 20, 2013

Taj Mahal

I’ve been finding the banjo in places that I wouldn’t expect.

This weekend, I was listening to CDs in the car and I decided to listen to Taj Mahal. I’ve been a fan since I was young enough to know what a fan was, he’s always been a part of my family’s musical history.  My sister was named after a Taj Mahal song, so clearly he has been influential on my family. Somehow, I never connected Taj to banjo because I have tried to play some of his songs, but always on guitar or bass. 

While riding along I heard some serious banjo playing, and realized I had left a HUGE gap in my blogging about banjo players that influence me/ I find amazing.  Taj Mahal is a pretty cool artist.  He brings his music alive, and I always want to find out what is going to happen next in all his songs, that are usually stories.

Taj Mahal

A few of my favorites are Fishin’ Blues, Frankie and Albert, Cakewalk, and recently Shady Grove (with a whole lot of banjo!)  I had never heard Shady Grove before and I immediately appreciated the banjo as well as the lyrics (always a big thing for me) “Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall”.  

Once again, I am day by day surprised by the amount of banjo music and banjo facts, and people that are intrigued by the banjo (I guess kind of in the same way that I am). It seems just as I start grasping for something to blog about someone wants to play my banjo, hear me play the banjo, I hear a song with some banjo playing, or I realize an artist I have been listening to for years plays the banjo- and I never really thought about it before.  It’s pretty cool that there is so much banjo out there, and that it can be used for such a variety of purposes from more traditional to the new music that is being written and performed now.

Taj Mahal

November 16, 2013

In Which My Banjo Becomes Famous…

Today when I arrived for my shift monitoring the radio station, not only was I greeted by the amazing sounds of (check it out by clicking there –>) yyu, an artist that we were filming, and streaming live on the radio, but also the sight of my banjo lying on the floor.  yyu  was covered in a lacy sheet and singing and producing sounds from a small machine that was shrouded under his lace. It was really interesting to hear his music.  At first, I felt a slight panic rise in me.  I had left my banjo in the station, trusting that everyone would respect it- and that nothing bad would happen to it. I quickly quelled my fears as I lost myself in the mind stretching and amazing music that I was experiencing live with just about four other people.  I hope that people listened in on the radio, and we should have the recording up soon (which I will try to post if I can).  After he was done performing, I found out that he had been using my banjo for some of his music. Instead of being annoyed that someone had been using  Susannah without my permission- I was flattered, and curious.  I was happy that my banjo was actually GETTING PLAYED.  I feel as though I haven’t been playing it quite enough, and I want to get some use out of it.  It is great that both my friends at the radio station, and musicians that have been hosted at the station have been able to get some use out of it.

I really regret that I was unable to motivate myself to stop writing my newsletter for my fundraising class, leave my dorm and get to the radio station a little sooner to hear the banjo music.  I need to get a banjo alert system that goes off anytime someone is playing a banjo around my campus so I can immediately show up, listen & learn.

My banjo in my messy closet from last year...

November 11, 2013

Banjo in the Station

Yesterday, my banjo took its first journey out of my dorm room for the entire semester, and landed at the radio station (after a quick pit stop at Starbucks).  One of my friends wanted to try his hand at banjo picking, and of course, as “Banjo Lil” I was happy to oblige.  I hadn’t really carried my banjo around very much but I felt a certain sense of accomplishment as I lugged it in its ill-fitting case across the campus and into the underground radio station that is practically by second home.  When we arrived there were two other conflicted music sources, of course, the person who was currently on the radio was playing, and someone was practicing guitar in an abandoned room upstairs.  This made for a difficult practice/ jam session (I had my guitar as well- I know, a real multi-instrumentalist!) but we managed, at least for a few minutes.  Watching someone else play was a cool experience, although I am still not very proficient at playing anything other than a few random chords, and some improvisational finger picking, I felt as though I was sharing something.  We played quietly in the station, and then moved into the hallway determined to overpower the people playing upstairs.  Of course, our two acoustic instruments were hardly a match for a loud electric guitar, but this also made a strong musical impression on me.  Needless to say, the banjo will be residing in the radio station for a while longer, perhaps spreading the influence to even more people that have always wanted the chance to try their hand at the banjo.

Susannah at the Station!

Susannah at the Station!

November 7, 2013

Turn Your Radio On…

As I was brainstorming ideas for this blog post, I realized that I had overlooked one of my favorite banjo players, and that he needed a post all to himself!

John Hartford. I used to protest when my parents would put on his albums and CDs, but a few years ago I realized this music that I had grown up with was undoubtedly important and GOOD- better than good, great.  My parents seem to own every one of his albums.  As I was digging through five crates of records in my basement this weekend I saw all of them.  Some were peeling at the corners and had travelled with my parents from their old home to the houses in-between, and now landing in our basement.  One of his CDs is always stuck in the side compartment of our car ready to be listened to at any moment.

John Hartford

His songs are sometimes stories, sometimes revelations, and sometimes just a good bluegrass tune.  My favorite album of his is “Aereo-Plain.”  A family road trip is never complete without at least one listen of this album.  It starts and ends with the song “Turn Your Radio On” which is a particularly enjoyable selection.  The entire album though is honestly fantastic.  The banjo playing (of course) adds a lot.  I wish I could more accurately pinpoint the direct influence of banjo on this album, but the banjo serves as an important part of the band in this case.

Another cool thing about John Hartford is that he played at one of my favorite venues, one that I have volunteered and interned at.  This makes me feel as though I have a small connection to him because we have both been in the same place kind of “behind the scenes.”


John & Lena

October 31, 2013

Banjo Movies

Movies with banjos… I hadn’t really thought about how some great movies have scenes with banjos in them- and then all of a sudden, I did.  I found a list online of movies that include banjos, and as I reflected back on the ones that I had seen, it was clear that the banjo was featured, and made a least a little bit on impression on me.


The movie that stuck out to me most was the Muppet Movie.  I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten that the banjo was featured somewhat prominently in one of my favorite childhood movies.  In the beginning of the movie, before Kermit sets out on his journey to become a movie star, he sits calmly in his bog singing “The Rainbow Connection”, and playing the banjo-of course!! Hard to believe that I did not remember this childhood banjo relic.  This song was always enjoyed by me- my sister and I even tried to memorize most of the lyrics one day.


Also on the list was “Cool Hand Luke” a movie featuring Paul Newman.  He plays the song “Plastic Jesus” which I had found unbelievable entertaining when I watched the movie, and sang it for weeks afterword.  The banjo, of course, is the instrument that he sadly plays throughout his prison sentence.  This is one of the bright spots in the movie, and was mostly what I remembered from the movie other than the upsetting ending.

Harold and Maude was also on the list, a movie that I have only seen once and had no recollection of a banjo whatsoever- but I found the clip with the banjo!  I want to watch it again- especially now that I know there’s a banjo!  Interestingly Bonnie and Clyde was also on the list, I’ve never seen that whole movie but for some reason I associate it with Harold and Maude even though the premise is almost entirely different.



October 27, 2013

Banjo Building

I started thinking about building my own banjo today (I saw an inspiring picture online).  So I thought I would mix up my entries (instead of raving endlessly about all my fave players) and discuss a project that might be fun to one day complete (when I have the right craft supplies).

Here’s the link to the site that I found with step-by-step instructions…. despite the fact that it is on a site with ideas for “moms” I still think that it’s a pretty cool idea.  Despite the fact that this cobbled together instrument might not last very  long, or sound very in tune (apparently you can’t really tune it) definitely something that I am not going to disregard trying.  Maybe over winter break….

Here’s an article about banjo making back in the good ol’ days.  Thinking about the making of instruments is always somewhat fascinating.  That someone is able to cobble together some fibers and materials and make a thing that can create a sound that is unique and SOUNDS GOOD is really quite an amazing feat.  The life of an instrument can be a tough one, and is it so cool to think about how as the wood or the other mediums stretch, shrink, and crack the sound can eventually become stronger instead of weaker.  It’s pretty amazing what we are capable of doing.  So, I hope that when I get around to collecting the materials for a cigar box banjos, and maybe can play a note or two, I will feel as though I was able to create something truly special- even if it only last for a couple of hours.

cigar box banjos

cigar box banjos

October 23, 2013

Banjos Everywhere

Last night, I watched “No Direction Home” one of the documentaries about Bob Dylan (and one of my favorite movies).  Although the movie is (of course) mainly focused on Dylan- it covers his musical background and influencers very well.  You see everyone from Hank Williams to Odetta.  It was interesting for me to see (this is the first time I’ve watched it since plunging into the banjo world), how many artists use the banjo in their work at this time. Of course, there are the “singer-songwriters”, like Dylan himself, but the folk movement (of course) included a lot of banjo.  Everyone from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band to The Weavers (of course) had someone picking at the banjo.

I may digress here, for a moment.  “No Direction Home” is one of those movies that makes me both overwhelmed by all the music that is in the world, as well as so happy that I will never run out of new bands and new musicians to discover.  It is so interesting to see all of the bands and solo acts that influenced Dylan, as well and who were around in the same era as him.  Although their music is more or less all part of the folk revival, they are all such diverse musicians and that’s what makes the movie great (and it doesn’t hurt to see numerous pictures & clips of Bob himself).  Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are of course a part of the documentary, and it is nice to see Pete holding onto his banjo throughout his entire interview, the banjo such a part of him that they can’t be separated.  Perhaps someday, I’ll be heading in that direction, but for now, I’m still in awe of all of the amazing musicians of yesteryear as well as today.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan