Archive for October, 2013

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

October 19, 2013

From Grandpa Jones to Gillian Welch

Grandpa Jones


Now, to be honest, I have never consciously listened to Grandpa Jones.  I’m sure I’ve heard his music at some point.  He’s a banjo legend & I happen to know about a tribute concert that is taking place for his tonight.  I won’t be able to attend, although it sounds like it’s sure to be an entertaining evening.  This tribute show includes the Ramblin Jug Stompers and The Lost Radio Rounders both bands of course include a banjo!

It is good to see new bands appreciating the older music that influenced them as well as raising general awareness about it by bringing it into the modern day.

Speaking of the modern day, there are plenty of other talented banjo players out there that I feel as though I need to start paying more attention to.  For one, Gillian Welch.  Although she plays other instruments, the banjo is used frequently in her work.  I spent a few years protesting against her music every time someone in my family would put it on, but recently I’ve begun to appreciate a few of her tunes (and it doesn’t hurt that she plays the banjo!!)  I suggest that you check out “The Way the Whole Thing Ends” from her album The Harrow and the Harvest.  This is the song that made me start to enjoy listening to her music.

Banjo adds a special sound to whatever song it is in.  From old, like Grandpa Jones, to new, like Gillian Welch it creates a special happy, but also mournful twang that I’m starting to think can’t be beat.

October 16, 2013

“Banjo Lil”

So, word has gotten out.

Despite the fact that no one really reads this blog that knows about it (out of my friends at least) people now know that I am “BANJO LIL.”  People have begun to refer to me as such.  Although my playing is still elementary and I certainly have not been playing in front of a great many people I still have somehow managed to become a small personality within my circle of friends.  Perhaps it’s because I’m constantly babbling about the banjo, and the banjo tour.

As I mentioned in my last post, the banjo tour made me feel a little bit as though I should give up (they even mentioned this within the show, something about inspiring a lot of people, but convincing a lot more to quit).  I played a tiny bit today.  One of my friends wanted to try out the banjo (it really inspires a lot of excitement from people, they can’t quite believe that you actually own a banjo).  So she got to try Susannah, and quickly figured out some chords (she’s also a guitar player).  Seeing someone else play made me realize that I really need to pick up my rate of learning.  Although, I don’t really have much time- I really think that winter break will be my chance.  Hopefully, I’ll take it.  I’m not planning on being the next banjo prodigy (it’s already too late for that anyway), but if I could get down some picking patterns that’d be great.

Learning a new instrument is almost more difficult when you already play other ones, you’re more inclined to keep accelerating on the instrument that you’re already proficient at…

I also learned today that Sufjan Stevens used the banjo a lot in his latest album.  I gotta give it a listen, and then maybe I’ll recommend a song or two.

October 12, 2013

NY Banjo Tour!

Last night a got to go to the NY Banjo Tour- finally! I was very happy that I made it to a performance, since I didn’t think that I was going to be able to.  I got there a few minutes late & the show was already in full swing.  Fingers were flying and the crowd was enraptured.  Bela Fleck was just getting off stage when we arrive (but he returned soon after to play some more tunes).  The first half of the show was mainly a banjo player with the (really, really amazing backing band) playing a few songs of their choice.  Some were old folk favorites and others were new compositions.  All of the musicians range in age from young to old and it is cool to see them all work together.  After about an hour, it was time for intermission.  I got to go backstage.  I met almost all of the players, as well as the baby on tour and some of the other guys that work with the tour.  It was cool to see the whole backstage area of the venue (the Tilles Center) as well as meet the people I had just seen playing!  I also got a chance to see the Banjo Bus (their tour bus) it was really interesting to see how big & how small it was at the same time.  People had to sleep in chairs and on couches because there were only six bunks (and there are so many musicians/ family members etc.

The second half of the show featured slightly longer sets with more original music.  Bela Fleck played part of his composition for banjo and orchestra (without the orchestra).  He also played a few songs with his wife Abigail Washburn (who has a hauntingly beautiful voice).  After a few more tunes (and one all together) the night was over.  After a standing ovation however, they came back for an encore.  The first song of the encore involved Bela playing his banjo, and then Tony Trischka came and played on the neck while Bela picked, then more and more players came out until about 4 of them were all playing on the same banjo (and of course it sounded flawless & fabulous).

Here’s a video from another performance of what they did (although my friend took a video- this one is better quality so you can actually see what’s going on. They finished the show with a tribute to Earl Scruggs- all playing and singing together.  There couldn’t have been a better ending.

After the show they came out to sign autographs and it was fun to see people full of excitement snapping pictures with their favorite players. Although this show almost made me want to give up on the banjo, I hope that I won’t.  To see the level that these players have achieved is indescribably amazing, and I am so happy that I got to see them.  They truly show off the banjo’s versatility & how far you can go with the instrument.  Getting a backstage view was also great- seeing a little slice of life on the road, for me at least, was pretty inspiring in and of itself.

I’ve got a lot of work to do.

The tour has two more show YOU SHOULD CHECK IT OUT if at all possible!

Here’s the site (and also you can find out more about NY Banjo history & about all of the players that I’m mentioning here, because I would have to write a novel to give them all justice…)





October 3, 2013

Banjo Roots

When I was at home this past weekend I walked by a relic, you could say, from my childhood.  Every single night (when the weather is decent).  There is a man that sits outside on a bench and plays his banjo.  He has been doing this for as long as I remember.  Family legend has it that I used to dance to his playing whenever we would walk by (when I was three or four).  Perhaps my playing was in the cards?

This guy plays his banjo without fail.  He’s pretty good, in my opinion, and he obviously has a real love for the instrument.  He sits with his banjo case splayed, and I saw last night that he actually had a CD out-which is great, but it also makes me melancholy.  Often it seems as though you can do nothing without having to reach the most advanced state of whatever you are doing.  You can’t just join a team, you have to be the captain.  I’m glad that he has an opportunity to record his music & I want him to be doing well. Although, I never remember talking to him, I feel a certain caring towards him as a member of my community.

He had sat on the same bench for years & years until last summer when they took down his bench to make way for a new ice cream shop.  Now, he sits on a stool, facing the opposite direction.  He doesn’t seem bothered, but I can’t help but wish that he could resume sitting in his chosen place.  The new ice cream & chocolate shop sometimes gives him something sweet to eat, which is nice.


I’m just glad that my town can attest to having a dedicated banjo player at its core.  He’s popular & known in town- and I’m not sure if he would have been able to achieve that same presence with another instrument.  There seems to be something special about the banjo, it has a certain quality that somehow knits people together.