Archive for ‘Music’

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)

-Harmonica

-Ukulele

-Piano

harmonica

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:

-Sitar

Ravi Shankar

-Drums

-Fiddle

-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.

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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 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!

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…)

 

 

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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.

Anyway,

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.

September 29, 2013

4-Strings?

I was reading the newspaper yesterday & saw an article about the four-string banjo.  I knew that they existed, but I wasn’t totally familiar with them.  It was interesting to see a banjo other than the five string infiltrating the media.  The four string is apparently used more in jazz than in folk etc.

The banjo is invading mainstream culture it seems, every time I turn around I am hit with another article, another player, another band, or another song that features the banjo. The banjo seems to have had some sort of popularity for a while, but recently it has had a resurgence. I’m not quite sure why there has been this newfound banjo love, but whatever the reason, it’s nice that the banjo has been able to continue on.

Here’s an article with some insight to the banjo popularity.

It kind of seems like every year there is a new instrument that emerges as the newest “it” instrument.  The ukulele had its heyday, and it seems like the banjo may be taking over.  It’s kind of a cool trend, it creates new opportunities for people to learn new instruments, which is better than something detrimental being popular.

Some of the new bands that I saw this summer used the banjo, and although a lot of them were playing more “traditional” music with the banjo, they were still younger players.

Here’s a band I saw this summer that uses the banjo!