Roots of the banjo on YouTube

What better place to start than with Bela Fleck, arguably the greatest banjo virtuoso of all time?

Notice the shorter drone string — just like the fifth string on a banjo — and the drop-thumbing clawhammer style. Even the singing — nasal, high-pitched — is reminisicent of what we think of as old-time Appalachian style; the singer’s speaking voice is an octave lower, as heard in the talking-blues-style spoken interludes.

Another Sana Ndiaye piece. Ndiaye is from the Jolo people of southern Senegal. There’s more of his music at his MySpace page, where his bio stresses a peace- and justice-oriented approach to music in general and the ekonting in particular.

An ancient and extremely rare three-stringed gourd instrument, the ekonting (which looks like a large banjo) is virtually extinct in Senegal. Played using a technique similar to plucking a guitar, its sound is so soothing that historically it was used to bring peace to the villagers in times of unrest.

This clip is from Mark Burda’s 1992 MA Thesis for Governor’s State University. It was shot at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s “Making of the 5-String Banjo” exhibit in 1989.

The great musicologist (and very good musician) Mike Seeger on the gourd banjo.

When they started making banjo heads out of snare drums instead of gourds in the early 19th century, the louder, janglier sound was much better at drawing a crowd. What once might’ve been prized for instilling peacefulness was now used to draw a crowd and whip up American consumer appetites instead. A banjo player had to be a showman, a comic, and a pitchman as well as a musician.

On the white side, Uncle Dave Macon was the last famous banjo player in the minstrel/medicine show tradition, and played a founding role in the development of what we now call country and western — surely the most crassly commercial genre of popular music.

A tune called “Ethiopian Cracovienne,” from oldcremona.

Briggs Banjo Instructor, published in 1855, is the earliest example of the style of banjo playing popular in the antebellum era. As such, it forms the basis of what we know about exactly how people were playing the instrument at that time.

A Cracovienne is a dance, and “Ethiopian” refers to the blackface style of performance that banjo players used. This song probably would have accompanied a dance number in an early minstrel show.

For more from the Briggs Banjo Instructor, check out this page of audio and video.

Uncle John Scruggs acts out the usual racist stereotype engraved in the American imagination by more than a century of minstrel shows with black and blackface performers. Painful to watch. Is it any wonder that African Americans turned their backs on the banjo when guitar blues and barrelhouse became popular?

Dock Boggs learned directly from an African American teacher around the turn of the century. I couldn’t find a video of Boggs’ playing, but this animated short was fun.

Roscoe Holcomb had a unique style, and seemed to have been as influenced by blues records as by string band music — his recorded repertoire includes covers of blues standards.

Another giant of mountain music, Clarence Ashley, reminisces about medicine shows and the early recording industry.

Taj Mahal is usually classed as a blues musician, but his repertoire includes styles and instruments from across the African diaspora, including the five-stringed banjo played frailing/clawhammer style.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are almost single-handedly trying to revive the once-flourishing black string band tradition, but as the last video shows, they’re not confining themselves to the traditional repertoire.

(A cover of this song.)

Medicine Show (1)

This entry is part 13 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


“The banjo is a well of souls.”
—Scott Didlake, gourd banjo maker

The first mate goes round
unlocking the ankles of 20 at a time,
a wet cloth tied over his face against the stench.

Now come the crackers,
now come the leather-tongued snakes.
Welts rise like anthills on calves & shoulders.

Get up! shout the pink-faced men
as they drive their rapidly declining stock up on deck.
You’ll die if you don’t start moving. Dance!

Those with chained feet make music
for those with chained hands.
And half-atrophied as they are

the muscles remember
what the human being wills itself to forget,
claw finger, hammer thumb,

the firmness of a taut-skinned earth
trembling under the organized tromp of feet.
The calabash carries

the burden the singers croak:
going, going, gone.
Legs like flames on the savanna flare & die.

How Jefferson Heard Banjar

This entry is part 14 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


“The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.” —Thomas Jefferson, 1781

Banjar, he wrote, because he found it jarring
to his cultured ears.

Because he was thinking of nightjar, &
how the whip-poor-will
disturbed his slumber with its
monotonous omens.

Because the singing was in
a nearly incomprensible jargon.

Because its roundness & depth
seemed sufficient for the keeping
of treasured things, as in a jar.

Because of its striking resemblance
to that drinking vessel in the sky,
which also empties itself
every night.

Because of the way it summons one
to the cut-out or Virginia jig, & that door
in the slave quarters
left ajar.

Banjo Origins (2): The Fifth String

This entry is part 24 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


It had been a drifter,
getting by on odd jobs:
guy wire for a weathervane,
the main spring in the crouch of a cat,
a corn broom’s binding cord.

It had learned to sing the wind’s several laments,
to play with its prey,
to teem.

It happened by
just when the banjo was holding
auditions for a new first string,
& unexpectedly
the fifth string got the part.
Its square tuning peg was a perfect fit
for that round & bottomless hole.

The banjo now began
to resemble itself,
like a forest that fills
the spaces between the trees
with more trees.

The Banjo Apocalypse

This entry is part 12 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


Revelation 8

And I saw the seven angels
which stood before God:
& to them were given
seven banjos.

Their necks were nickel-
fretted mahogany,
& they were strung
with steel.

Heads like almost-perfect moons
had one clear patch, one sea
where the frailer’s fingers hit,
regular as oars.

Thumbscrews gleamed
on the rims of resonators,
those round holds that once
were ocean-going gourds.

A vine climbed the neck:
inlaid mother-of-pearl
leaf & tendril to distract
any potential Jonah.

And the seven angels
which had the seven banjos
prepared themselves
to sound.

Merry Christmas

white Christmas

Be careful what you wish for. We had a white Christmas, all right — especially after it started to sleet and the clouds settled in. It couldn’t have gotten any whiter, or any drearier.

American bittersweet 2

Late in the morning, I took the camera on a short walk across the field to check up on the American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), of which we have just a couple vines on the property. I’ll admit I have collected a few sprigs for Christmas wreaths in past years, but since we have so little of it, I stopped. Collecting by camera will have to suffice.

American bittersweet

Unlike the more familiar East Asian species Celastrus orbiculatus, which is invasive in some areas, American bittersweet is in decline throughout its range due to over-collecting and, I suspect, over-browsing by deer. In almost 40 years, we’ve never found a new vine on the property. Up until 15 years ago there was a vine at the Far Field, too, but when its host trees fell over, that was the end of it. The two vines I visited today used to have a third companion, as well.

As a symbol of Christmas, bittersweet seems aptly named, at least as far as my own feelings about the holiday are concerned. For the first couple decades of my life, it was the unchallenged climax of the year, but now, I don’t know — I guess I prefer the smaller but more regular pleasures of daily life, and I no longer feel such an overwhelming urge to acquire new things. Christmas used to be all about the presents, but now seems significant mainly as a celebration of the slow return of light to the northern hemisphere; today’s gloomy weather simply made the holiday cheer more essential.


And of course I love that we get to bring a tree inside (though according to rigid family custom, that can’t happen until Christmas Eve) and decorate it with lights and a couple hundred ornaments, each with its own story. We have hand-painted Christmas balls that once belonged to my mother’s grandmother, and a couple of blown-egg Santa Clauses that my parents made in the first years of their marriage, before we were born. Originally there were a full dozen, each slightly different depending on the exact arrangement of glued felt pieces and cotton balls, but they, like the bittersweet, have suffered a gradual attrition. Mom still exclaims about how much work it was to empty all those eggs: “Never again!”

This year, my niece Elanor was old enough to help rather than hinder the tree-decorating process, which accounts for the unusual concentration of angels at about the two-foot line. She likes angels. And her Nanna told her something about each ornament they hung: “That’s a God’s-eye your Uncle Dave made when he was a boy. And here’s Santa Claus in the bathtub — isn’t he funny? A friend of ours gave this to us years and years ago.”

I was impressed by the extent to which the presence of a 4-and-a-half-year-old child could put the magic back in the holiday for me. She was very good about taking turns opening presents this morning, but was so excited by her own presents, at one point she actually started weeping for joy. She ran over and hugged her daddy after every present from him. And when everything had finally been opened, we discovered one present that nobody could remember giving. The odd thing was that her grandfather had been sitting on the floor with her the whole time reading the labels and making sure all the presents went to the proper recipients.

So a cheap plastic knick-knack suddenly acquired an aura of wonder, and I had a dim recollection of being five and taking it on faith that half my presents had been delivered in the middle of the night by a fat guy in a flying sleigh. Hey, it’s no weirder than the whole incarnation and virgin birth thing, right? Winter is, above all, a time for telling stories. Here’s wishing all my friends and readers an abundance of wonder this holiday season and in the year to come.


Fresh snow—
the child fills the trailer
of her toy truck.


Packaging the cold ground meat,
my hand turns numb.


Netted tight & stacked
by the American Legion,
the unsold firs.


A barn cat by the compost
hisses in defense of eggshells.


The creek at dusk:
doves crowd in to drink
from the dark water.


Christmas Eve, & sleep’s in short supply
as sleet ticks on the windows.

The year in trees

I always enjoy it when other bloggers do year-in-review surveys of their best photos, so I thought I’d try that myself this year, but limit it to trees so I can submit this to the New Year’s edition of the Festival of the Trees, which will be hosted at xenogere, home of so much great nature writing and photography. As usual, I’m linking to photos hosted on Flickr; clicking on them takes you to their photo pages there, where clicking on the “all sizes” magnifying-glass icon above each photo will allow you to see larger versions.

magic oak

This tree with its pair of crazy limbs has always reminded me of some kind of wizard. The photo originally appeared in “Haiku for a day in January.”

Trees that grow along forest edges often develop a lopsided appearance as limbs on the open side try to grab as much sun as they can. The powerline right-of-way that crosses the mountain a couple hundred feet south of the houses is a century old now, which has given the older trees, such as this rock oak (Quercus prinus), plenty of time to grow strange.
Continue reading “The year in trees”

Dash away all

“What the hell are we going to do with all these?” I asked, staring at the eight freshly severed heads lined up in the blood-stained snow. Their eyes had filmed over and the moonlit shadows of their antlers stretched like a phantom woods across the tundra. “They won’t keep,” said the sniper. “The magic has ruined them, as it ruins everything. Watch.”

He took a salt shaker from his pocket and sprinkled each of the heads. The effect was almost instantaneous: first the fur and then the flesh melted away, leaving nothing but the bones. The snow around them turned white again as we watched. I felt the hair rising on the back of my neck.

“This is your first time, isn’t it?” he asked. I nodded. The antlers were branched icicles now on skulls of crystal, skulls that shrank, antlers that withered, as if the temperature around them were 200 degrees warmer than it was. The skulls grew rounder as they shrank, and the gleaming teeth turned sharp as knives.

“These ones never actually belonged to the Caribou Mother,” he said. “They are the children of Sanna — the Inuktitut name for Sedna. That’s the kind of evil we’re up against here.”

The Iraq War veteran bowed his head. “Thank you for this victory, Jesus, temporary as it is,” he said. “I am your crusader.”

I shifted uncomfortably and looked at the ground. Some of the best soldiers in our unit happened to be pagans. We had signed up to defend North American airspace against terrorists, and that’s what the recruiter assured us we’d be doing. Rumors of a holy war had been dismissed as just another paranoid conspiracy theory from society’s perennial malcontents.

The marksman laid a hand on my shoulder. “The Pentagon can say what it wants,” he said, “but this is a war we Christians have been fighting for 2000 years. It took centuries just to kill off Saturn! Declaring December 25th as the birth of our Lord and Savior did little to fool the forces of darkness — the longest night of the year still occurs just a few days before, despite our best efforts.” He sighed. “This Santa character is a real shape-shifter. Give me a Sunni insurgency any day.”

He squinted at the faint pink glow that signalled high noon in the High Arctic. “Welcome to the War on Christmas.”

Video by Rebel Virals (hat-tip: Rachel Maddow Show)

For readers from outside the U.S. who think I might be exaggerating just a bit, see “Jesus Shoots Santa in Controversial Lawn Display.”


burl in a snowstorm

“Old moon
in the new moon’s arms” —
a cellphone set to vibrate.


Going through a bit of a creative drought here. Happy solstice nonetheless.