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.

September 29, 2013


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!

September 26, 2013

Throw Down Your Heart

Since I just started my banjo journey, I haven’t seen very many movies about banjos.  I have though, seen one that was pretty fantastic.  It’s called “Throw Down Your Heart.”  It follows Bela Fleck (an amazing banjo player!!) Check him out here.

Bela journeys to Africa (where the banjo is originally from) to play with a lot of really amazing African musicians, and hear some of their stories.  It’s a really cool movie, and it’s filled with great music & some pretty touching stories. Watch a  preview here.

Throw Down Your Heart

Another interesting thing about Bela Fleck is that he collaborates with musicians from around the world, one of my personal fave collaborators are the Tuvan Throat Singers.  These guys are AMAZZZZZINGG. They can sing more than one note simultaneously… like WHAT??!!! Listening to them is kind of mind blowing, you’re not quite sure how they’re doing it.  Read all about what they do…

Throat Singers

Basically, the moral of this post is that the banjo is a gateway to so many different cultures & a lot more music than you might have bargained for.. it’s not just some 99 year old on a porch in a rocking chair picking a tune, or a new modern day folk band. As with any instrument you can kind of take it in the direction that you want- but the banjos seems to have a unique versatility. I’m looking forward to reaching the point at which I can explore even more genres, although as you know- I love my original folk tunes…

September 24, 2013

A Little Practice…

Today I got a chance to practice!  I reviewed the songs that I already knew, and started to look up chords to some other songs that I like.  Playing the actual chords is pretty easy (considering that I already play guitar) but I think I need work on the strumming pattern.  I think I might need to locate someone that already knows the banjo to give me a few lessons so I actually know what I’m doing.  I also think I might need to start working on reading “actual” music (I can read bass clef, but not treble).  A lot of the songs in the Pete Seeger book are written out like that, so to learn them I’m going to have to start remembering how to read music, we’ll see if that happens!

I recorded myself playing “This Land is Your Land” (my greatest hit!!) but I’m not quite tech savvy enough to actually be able to put in in this post right now… maybe I’ll figure it out soon.

What I have found to be the most fun on the banjo is just improvising and playing whatever comes to mind.Image

Here’s the book I’m using.

Here are the chords to “This Land is Your Land” in case you want to try and play it on YOUR banjo!


The “Crawdad” song is also a good one.  I went to summer camp at a farm with I was nine, and we used to sing that song all the time…all these songs seem to keep bringing back memories, maybe playing the banjo is making me feel old…

September 20, 2013

This Land is Your Land


I started learning a few basic songs on the banjo a week or after I got it.  I was learning from the Pete Seeger’s Book “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.” I was pretty excited to be learning from someone that I thought was a pretty amazing player (with an interesting life too!)  I had been to his 90th birthday concert when I was a freshman in high school, but had not fully appreciated the impact that he had made both politically and musically.

Skip to My Lou

Here he is playing Skip to My Lou.

The first song that I learned to play was “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie.  Woody Guthrie is another one of those musicians that I have a certain reverence for.  Although the song is pretty basic, I was pretty happy that I was able to play the recognizable tune, and it also gave me something to practice my picking on.  Playing “This Land is Your Land” also makes me slightly nostalgic, when I was younger my dad and I used to bike by the railroad tracks near my house, and I was always worried we would get caught and get in trouble, but my dad assured me that is someone asked us to leave, we would simply sing “This Land is Your Land” and all would be well.

When playing the banjo (the 5-string) you have to hit the fifth string at a certain point in your picking pattern.  I am still working on this, and can only hope that by the end of the semester I am able to play in a more cohesive way.

While I am trying to learn some more songs on the banjo (I pretty much have down “The Crawdad Song” as well as “Skip To My Lou,” it is almost time for the banjo tour again. You should check it out!

Banjo Tour

I wasn’t able to make it to a show last year, and I’m not sure if this week will work for me either, however, it is certain to be a good time.

I’m hoping that this week I will be able to advance my playing skills… I haven’t been able to practice a lot since I got back to school, but I think I should be able to find more time soon!

September 12, 2013

Me and the banjo

So, perhaps I should kind of introduce myself to start off. I’m Lilly- but for this blog, I’m “Lil.”  I love learning new instruments, and there are so many that I would love to learn.  My newest venture is the BANJO. These days, it seems like the banjo is everywhere, it seems to be having a resurgence of popularity and it seems that musicians are incorporating it into a lot of the music they play.  I started thinking about the banjo more & more when my dad started planning a banjo tour for the performing arts center that he works for.  Last fall, even though I was at college, the banjo consumed my mind & my family’s minds.  Then, I began to get more and more interested in the banjo when I started listening & learning about Bob Dylan. This might sound weird, considering that Dylan doesn’t use banjos in the majority (or all?) of his work, but listening to Bob led me to Pete Seeger.  Growing up in a VERY music oriented family means that I already knew who he was, but my interest began growing.  Over the summer I read a biography of Seeger called “How Can I Keep from Singing?”: The Ballad of Pete Seeger by David King Dunaway. I decided it was time to learn this instrument. So, with a stroke of luck I received one on “indefinite” loan, and I started in.


Here she is… “Susannah.”

ANYWAY. In my blog I plan to outline my journey in learning the banjo, learning about those that play the banjo, and pretty much anything I absorb that catches my interest about the banjo.  So, let’s see how it goes!