Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Story of the Banjo, A Comeback For The Ages

Music is changing at a breakneck speed in today’s modern culture. Spurred by new technology and increased access via the internet, new genres are popping up nearly every day. EDM has influenced the popular music sphere, rap has gone mainstream, and thumping bass seems to be creeping its way into all sorts of music. If someone just a few decades ago flipped through today’s radio channels, they would be utterly confused by the futuristic qualities of the music. However, if a denizen of perhaps the 1940’s or 50’s flipped to a modern alternative channel, they would recognize something very familiar: the loud twang of a banjo.

To understand the banjo, we must first look at its history. It started as an African folk instrument fashioned out of a hollow gourd and sticks. Slaves brought the instrument over to the America’s where it slowly evolved. These slaves taught their masters to play the banjo and soon the instrument caught on in the popular culture of the South. In the mid-19th century, minstrels brought banjo music on the vaudeville circuit, exposing it to the nation. Many Dixieland Jazz bands featured the banjo in their arrangements at the turn of the 20th century, furthering its exposure as the Jazz became a wild hit nationwide.

But, when jazz moved north to New York, Chicago, and Kansas City, it left the banjo behind for the most part. Deep in the Appalachians, the tradition of the banjo was very much alive, however. Irish immigrants in the hill country invented their own genre based around the banjo, mandolin, fiddle, stand up bass, and sometimes guitar sometime in the late 19th century. This would eventually evolve into bluegrass: a combination of southern country music and the traditions of Celtic folk music. The banjo became synonymous with bluegrass when Earl Scruggs teamed up with Lester Flatt. The two became a smash hit in the South and even coined the term bluegrass.

It wasn’t long ago that the banjo was seen a backwater, “hick” instrument. When one thought of the banjo, images of the 1972 thriller Deliverance popped into their heads with the iconic “Dueling Banjos” playing in the background. Hell, I even own a sticker that says, “I hear banjos, paddle faster!” The instrument was sequestered into the genre of bluegrass where it stayed for years. Within bluegrass, the banjo is an essential element. Many picking styles, especially the Scruggs style, were invented for the genre and a whole generation of phenomenal banjo players came and went, enjoying little recognition in the popular eye.

Although the banjo was known largely as a bluegrass instrument, it also was a key part of Celtic folk music and most surprisingly it played a role in rock and roll. Bands such as the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Buffalo Springfield, and even Genesis used the banjo in a few of their songs. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was also an avid banjo player, recording and gigging with many bluegrass artists throughout his career. Despite all this, the banjo remained look down upon by most.

In the 1980s, a new genre appeared that began to pave the way for the ascension of the banjo to popular music. Some call it roots rock, some alternative country, but I personally prefer dad rock. The Jayhawks were one of the first bands to kick off this new styling, hailing back to the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, mixing country and rock. The Dave Matthews band took the torch and then handed it off to Wilco.

Then, in October of 2009 a band by the name of Mumford & Sons–have you heard of them?–released an album entitled “Sigh No More.” The album featured traditional folk and bluegrass instruments such as the banjo and mandolin. Against all odds, the album shot to the top of music rankings and the band was given much radio play time. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this happened, but an obsession with Americana that had been sprouting slowly through “hip” culture.

Although Mumford & Sons is reviled by many bluegrass fans as a bastardization of the genre using elements of it as a gimmick, it is hard to not to thank the band for opening the floodgates for other bluegrass bands and the renaissance of the banjo. Many popular bands such as the Lumineers, the Head and the Heart, and the Avett Brothers have rose to popularity using the banjo. This renaissance also spurred a renewed interest in bluegrass focused around bands such as Trampled by Turtles, Punch Brothers and Greensky Bluegrass.

While the banjo might not be your thing, it is permeating popular music. While it might not be as powerful of a force as synths and electronic beats were, the banjo is changing music as we know it. Folk music has come to the forefront of our attention and its not hard to find great folk or bluegrass music to listen to today. You may not like it yet, but I recommend you give it a shot and maybe you’ll find a new genre you like. And best of all, people won’t judge you (as much) any more for listening to music of the country.

Goding, Noel. "The Story of the Banjo, A Comeback For The Ages." NYU Local. 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016.