How and Why the Banjo


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author: Amy Colburn

As far as I know, the first time I saw a banjo was on the television show Hee Haw. I visually remember Grandpa Jones and Roy Clark, but I have no memory of the tunes they played. At home, we used to listen to bluegrass on the radio during family dinner at noon on Sundays. I’m pretty sure that was so we didn’t have to talk to each other, but I liked the music and I didn’t want to talk anyway. Other than that, we had a record player, and an album that I used to play frequently called “Music of the Ozarks”. It was put out by National Geographic Society in 1972 (LP 703). There was some banjo playing on it, by a fellow named Walter Gosser, but mostly I remember Jimmy Driftwood’s singing.

The first time I played a banjo was in Chatham County, North Carolina. I had rented a small house on a dirt road to nowhere from an old farmer who always showed up riding his tractor. I was working  for another farmer getting up hay and doing farm chores. The banjo belonged to my friend Lyman, who also played a Guild 12-string guitar. Though he is talented, he couldn’t play both at once. His brother, my dear friend Loryn, played the fiddle or sometimes the mandolin. I wanted very much to play music with them. The guitar made no sense to me, and this particular guitar ‘drove like a truck’. I liked the sound of the banjo, and so I became acquainted with a longneck Vega. We tuned it in D, a lower version of standard G tuning, to blend easily with the Drop D tuning on the 12-string. I still play longneck banjo tuned this way. Loryn showed me a few tunes on the banjo. He didn’t normally play it, but he was one of those rare people who can play any stringed instrument. He taught me the only tunes I knew for many years: Worried Man, Banks of the Ohio, and later Soldiers Joy and Fishers Hornpipe. I remember sitting on the porch trying to play these crazy things called hammer-ons and pull-offs that were required in the version of Soldiers Joy that he taught me. I found it hard to believe that anyone could do that consistently. Sometimes I missed the string entirely. I’ve learned a bit since then, but continue to be amazed by the many layers of complexity and the subtleties that can be explored while playing the banjo.

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A music teacher living and working in the Boston area. Plays banjo in the band The Hi-Tone Ramblers. Teaches banjo, guitar, piano and a few other things.

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