Posts tagged ‘banjo’

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 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 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 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…