Recapturing the Banjo

recapturing_banjo.jpgTitle: Recapturing the Banjo

Artist: Otis Taylor

Label: Telarc

Catalog No.: 83667

Date: 2008

Colorado isn’t the first state you probably think of as a center for the blues. Perhaps that outsider status is what allows Otis Taylor to construct his own framework of the genre. Taylor, who currently resides in Boulder, has worked out of Colorado for years. Though he took a hiatus from music making in 1977 to deal in antiques, he began playing again in 1995 and released the acclaimed album Blue-Eyed Monster in 1997. Taylor’s style has never been orthodox, nor has it adhered to a site-specific sound such as Delta blues, Memphis blues, or Chicago blues, yet he’s incorporated elements of each in the past. His latest release, Recapturing the Banjo, maps similar outsider space, although this time it’s more historical than spatial.

Recapturing the Banjo is undoubtedly Taylor’s project, but more accurately he leads a dream team of contemporary blues musicians, each with strong affiliations to traditional forms. Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’, and Don Vappie all contribute substantially through combinations of picking, singing, and songwriting. The roster of musicians and their diverse contributions render the idea of a uniform “black” way to play the banjo dead on arrival.

The banjo has an uncomfortable but nonetheless essential role in African-American music, yet undoubtedly it has become more synonymous with white vernacular forms such as old-time and bluegrass music. The prototype came from West Africa on slave ships and evolved from such instruments as the xalam and akonting, reflecting such “melting-pot” concepts in its variations. Recapturing the Banjo showcases not only those variations of instrumentation but of playing styles, from Guy Davis’ percussive, thumb-heavy clawhammer on “Little Liza Jane,” to Don Vappie’s jazzy rhythms played on the tenor banjo in “Les Ognons.”

The song writing and selection reflect a frank and concerned role of African-American experiences. While Taylor’s own writing tends towards the dark side, including songs about a Klan lynching, “shot ’em down” ballads, and white indifference to black suffering, the disc also includes up-tempo songs such as Gus Cannon’s seminal “Walk Right In” (made famous by the all white, folk-pop, sans-banjo trio The Rooftop Singers), the Creole children’s song “Les Ognons,” and the brooding affirmation of Keb’ Mo’s “The Way It Goes.”

Though there is much to learn here (the liner notes are complete with a bibliography and discography providing a more detailed history of black banjo music), the sound and feel of the music is anything but academic. Taylor refuses to substitute pedagogy for groove, and the album cranks along with a blend of old-time rollicking tunes and swampy electric guitar blues accented by the ever-present banjo. Taylor’s iconoclastic style is on full display here and it’s a shame he isn’t better known outside of blues circles, since his taste is so wide-ranging, never solidly fitting into genre categories, but always negotiating between them.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia

black_banjo_songsters_ncva.jpgTitle: Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia

Artists: Various

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Catalog No.: 40079

Date: 1998

Editor’s note: Smithsonian Folkways has received many requests from radio stations for re-servicing Black Banjo Songsters so they can pair it up with Otis Taylor’s CD on their respective radio shows. We thought we’d do the same, just in case you missed this CD when it was originally released back in 1998.

Otis Taylor’s recent release, Recapturing the Banjo, is not only an album, but a statement of musical lineage. And if the banjo is to be “recaptured,” it must be asked who is doing the recapturing: blues players or black players? The banjo has a clear history traceable to Africa via slaves in the American South back through the Middle Passage. Long before anyone heard the lighting-fast, three-finger picking of Earl Scruggs, black musicians had already developed styles of banjo playing quite different from Scruggs speedy arpeggios. There are more recordings of these early banjo styles than most casual listeners might suspect.

One of the seminal collections is the venerable Smithsonian Folkways 1998 release Black Banjo Songsters, which collects thirty-two recordings of banjo songs from North Carolina and Virginia. Most of these songs were recorded in the 1970s or later, and mostly by musicians in the waning years of life. This led to the common conclusion that banjo music in black communities was a dying art form. Whether or not the tradition was dying is irrelevant at this point, because it’s clearly not dead. If we were to allow the commercial recording industry to proclaim what is alive and what is dead, we’d be privy only to a thin slice of the various music that continues to thrive outside the umbrella of commercial acceptance. In many ways this is the principle that has led Smithsonian Folkways to its unparalled success.

The songs on Black Banjo Songsters are anything but commercial and would most likely be of little interest to those who are unaccustomed to the rough hewn sound of field recordings, where pitch correction and over-dubbing are foreign concepts. Black Banjo Songsters is something of an educational project, shedding light on the various aspects of black banjo stylings including percussive claw hammer style as well as the two-fingers, up-picking “complementing” style. The extensive liner notes by banjo scholar Cece Conway and Scott Odell detail the specifics of these different styles.

The collection gives credibility to the diversity of approaches by black players. Just as white players such as Roscoe Holcomb, Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck found individual sounds with the instrument, familiar songs such as “Coo Coo,” “John Henry,” and “Old Corn Liquor” get individual treatment by lesser known players such as Dink Roberts, Odell Thompson, and John Snipes.

But the education aside, the music is rich and welcoming, showcasing first class talent, many of whom were never offered recording gigs because they didn’t play the one of two genres that fit neatly on “race records.” Most importantly, it reminds us of what is lost when the missing piece of the puzzle goes unnoticed for too long.

Reviewed by Thomas Grant Richardson