Thursday, August 29, 2013

Archivist Greg Adams Talks Smithsonian Folkways' New "Classic Banjo"

On August 6th, Smithsonian Folkways released a fantastic new collection called Classic Banjo. The 30-track compilation is a wonderful tribute to the truly unique instrument via a diverse cross section of artists. I recently had the opportunity to speak with archivist Greg Adams about his work on putting together Classic Banjo.

Hi Greg, thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions regarding the release of the new Smithsonian Folkways collection Classic Banjo. Before we dig into the new collection, I'd like to begin by asking you to share some of your own history with readers.

First, can you tell us about your previous work before this project with Smithsonian Folkways?

Greg Adams: Thank you, Chris, for your willingness to interview me about the Classic Banjo release. I'm glad to do it. Professionally, I've been working as an archivist since I graduated from library school in 2004 via a Master's program at the University of Maryland.

My undergraduate degree was in music history where I studied classical guitar, in part, because I couldn't major in banjo (I finished my Bachelors degree in 2001). I also have a second Masters degree in Ethnomusicology (also from the University of Maryland), which I completed in 2012.

How and when did you connect with Smithsonian Folkways for this project?

Greg: I work as a processing archivist in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, which, like Smithsonian Folkways, is part of the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH). I was contracted to work on the Classic Banjo project with Rinzler Archives head archivist Jeff Place (who recently worked on the Woody at 100 box set), which I did outside of my regular contract processing collections in the Rinzler Archives.

Can you describe your personal history with the music of Smithsonian Folkways?

Greg: After I completed my undergrad degree in December 2001, I moved to Maryland where my wife-to-be had already moved the previous summer to begin her work teaching elementary general music. Once I came to Maryland, I served as an intern in the Rinzler Archives digitizing open-reel tapes as part of what was then the Save Our Sounds project.

That internship confirmed for me that I wanted to go to library school, which I did, and that fall, for my first semester of graduate school, I returned to the Rinzler Archives to do a 60-hour practicum doing an inventory of the paper records from the Rinzler Collection.

It was during that archival internship and practicum that I also realized that this was the place I would one day want to work and that it would be my dream job! Well, after many years, in August 2011, I had the chance to return to the Rinzler Archives in a professional capacity, and it has been a dream come true. I love what I do!

Let's move onto the banjo! Can you share your own personal history with banjo music? How has your affinity for the instrument evolved and the artists and albums that sparked your interest early on, as well as others that have inspired you to dig deeper?

Greg: I've been deeply interested in the banjo for nearly 20 years now. I started playing the banjo in 1994 after watching the 1981 documentary The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! and becoming completely struck by Pete Seeger and his banjo playing and what his banjo playing seemed to mean to so many people.

I've mentioned this in other places, but it's worth restating, ever since watching that documentary when I was 19 years old, many of my decision came back to a basic question, "How will this affect my ability to pursue my interest in the banjo?"

For example, all three of my degrees (BA in Music History, Masters in Library and Information Sciences, and Masters in Ethnomusicology) are part of my personal narrative to maintain a central focus on studying the banjo's complex history and arguing for the "So what?" of that history's relevance today.

How did you get involved with the Classic Banjo project?

Greg: A few key people at Smithsonian Folkways knew how heavily involved I was in studying the banjo and banjo history. For example, in 2010 and 2011 I gave banjo-related conference papers at the Society for Ethnomusicology's annual meetings. At one time or another, Dan Sheehy (Smithsonian Folkways' Director and Curator), Atesh Sonneborn (Associate Director for Smithsonian Folkways), and Richard Burgess (Director of Marketing and Sales) attended one of those sessions at the conferences, giving them insight into the types of work I was doing with the banjo.

One day while I was at work in the Rinzler Archives, Jeff Place (our head archivist) came to my office to say that he'd been speaking with the Smithsonian Folkways staff down the hall and they wanted to know if I'd be willing to work with him to compile and annotate the music for the Classic Banjo release. Of course, I said, "Yes!"

What were your initial ideas for this album?

Greg: My initial thoughts about the project were along the lines of, "Oh geez, how does one select a limited (and limiting) number of tracks that provide a glimpse into the actual diversity of ways in which the banjo can be played, but also situate those performances within a larger view of the banjo's broader history?" This is not an easy question to answer.

Which artists and songs set the tone for the collection?

Greg: Pete Seeger sets the tone for the recording because of his iconic status as a musician, as an activist, and as a tradition bearer inspiring multiple generations of banjo players to expand their awareness of the instrument's potential to communicate. Yet, while Pete's performance may set an initial tone for the release, all of the tracks that follow represent an evolving tone for this collection of performances.

For example, to contrast Pete's performance, we have tunes such as Hobart Smith's "Banging Breakdown," Dink Roberts' "Coo Coo," Mick Moloney's "Skylark/Roaring Mary," Lee Sexton's "Fox Chase,"  Irvin Cook's "I With to the Lord I'd Never Been Born," Roni Stoneman's "Lonesome Road Blues," and Tony Trischka and Bill Evans' performance of "Banjoland."

All of these are great performances in their own contexts, but they are just a narrow glimpse of a much bigger picture.

How did you go about selecting artists and songs?

Greg: It was a mixed approach in choosing artists vs. performances. We wanted to be sure to include key individuals such as Pete Seeger and Mike Seeger, Elizabeth Cotten, Frank Proffitt, Hobart Smith, Dock Boggs, and Doc Watson. These are people with a type of name recognition that should automatically be associated with any "classic" banjo recording.

Yet, Jeff and I knew full well that great performances by those with name recognition are not the only great performances or representative performances that should be included. It was from that point where, in the end, it also came down to quality or the historical significance of the performance. Each performance on this recording was selected as "classic" because it was "somehow, iconic, instructive, or reflects some of the more notable ways in which people have used the banjo over time."

For example, I believe Dink Roberts' "Coo Coo" is a great performance of a tune that is often played in old-time music circles, yet I hope that more banjo players might be inspired to emulate Dink's approach to playing the piece because it has so much depth. Another example is Lee Sexton's "Fox Chase," which is not even a minute in length, yet, when I heard that recording for the first time, it was such a powerful performance, I felt we had to include it.

The same might be said for Irvin Cook's "I Wish to the Lord I'd Never Been Born," where as we state in the liner notes for the song (page 37), "Cook delivers the lyrics with a veritable sincerity, while his banjo and [Leonard] Bowles's grinding fiddle form a groove that makes the performance invigorating as both a song and a dance piece."

How do you feel this compilation appeals to the audiophile/ collector, as well as newcomers to these artists, songs, and the uniqueness of banjo music?

Greg: I think the audiophile and collector will appreciate our effort with this release because we sought to find a balance between the mainstream and the esoteric. For me, the real challenge is to invite the newcomers to the banjo to give them a glimpse into the types of sounds that collectors and audiophiles might hold as significant.

How would you say the banjo has defined and redefined American music?

Greg: I would argue that the banjo helps to define American vernacular and popular music. In vernacular contexts, the banjo comes out of African and African American music traditions and is popularized as a commercially manufactured tradition in the mid-19th century. The banjo is redefined in American music as its varying associations with vernacular and popular contexts change with dominant American attitudes over time.

To answer a question of how the banjo has redefined American music, it means that we must collectively work to explore those things that are often unacknowledged about banjo history, in particular slavery, racism, and negative stereotypes. For example, here in North America, we understand the banjo had a presence as part of the American experience since the colonial period where it was, at that time, only known to European observers as an instrument associated with enslaved Africans.

It wasn't until the 1830s and '40s, when the banjo was appropriated as part of blackface minstrelsy, America's earliest form of popular entertainment, that the instrument was commercialized and heading in the direction of mass production. Looking back now, from the 21st century, one way of seeing the banjo is through a lens of how it has been defined and redefined in American music from the point of view of stereotypes. Plenty of excellent scholarship exists to outline these stereotypes (to explore *some* of the scholarship on these topics, take a look at the references cited on pages 39 and 40 of the Classic Banjo booklet).

In the 19th century, the banjo's associations with blackface minstrelsy places the banjo in very racist contexts, while in the 20th century, the banjo is re-commercialized as the "white," southern, hillbilly instrument. If people are able to question why such stereotypes were created and perpetuated in the first place, then they too will be able to discover for themselves how the banjo both defines and redefines music associated with the American experience.

Can you share some of your insights and knowledge into the banjo's role and practice on a global scale: Africa, Caribbean, North America, Europe, and beyond?

Greg: The banjo is being used today in a variety of contexts around the world. One of my closest research collaborators is a man named Shlomo Pestcoe of Brooklyn, New York. He and I have been working together since 2006 on a variety of initiatives to broaden people's awareness of the banjo's multicultural heritage and the many ways in which the banjo is not just an "American" tradition, but is, in fact, being incorporated into a variety of traditions on an international basis.

We have a Facebook page focused on specifically highlighting some of the ways in which banjos are being used in different parts of the world. It is called Banjo Roots: World Banjo. On the "about" portion of the page, we describe that our objective is to "look at the globalization of the modern banjo family and its current role as major instruments in local vernacular musics the world over, from the Caribbean to the South Pacific."

A couple instances of the banjo's use that we've linked to the page (from other people's posts on YouTube) is the banjo's use in the South Pacific's Kingdom of Tonga as well as this duo of banjo players, percussionists, and singers from Haiti. These are just a couple of many examples of the banjo being used in contexts not represented on the Classic Banjo release.

How and when did the banjo emerge as a major instrument in North America?

Greg: The banjo emerged as a major instrument in North America by the 1830s and '40s through the phenomenon of blackface minstrelsy. Up to that point, the banjo was only known as an instrument created and played by African Americans.

The earliest documentation researchers have for the banjo's development comes out of the 17th-century Caribbean through the traditions of enslaved West Africans, while what is currently the earliest-known reference to the banjo in North America comes from a 1736 New York City newspaper called the New-York Weekly Journal. There, the banjo was referenced as being used by African Americans as part of what is likely an Easter Monday celebration. Shlomo Pestcoe and I co-authored an essay contextualizing this reference for a forthcoming book project about some of the latest banjo-focused research.

So, in North America it took approximately 100 years before the banjo became part of American popular music. What began as an instrument of the enslaved, became an instrument of the masses.

What would you say are some of the biggest attributes and uniquely singular qualities of the instrument? In your opinion, what would you say sets it apart?

Greg: This is a big question. I alluded to some of these details, but basically, several of the banjo's biggest attributes and singular qualities are the instrument's drum-like body (whether made of a gourd, calabash, wooden hoop, or other material) and the use of a short thumb string on the side of the neck.

What sets the banjo apart tonally and musically are the ways in which the strings sound (whether gut, nylon, or metal) when vibrating against a bridge that then amplifies the sound against an animal-hide or plastic sound table.

Symbolically and philosophically, as an archivist, ethnomusicologist, and musician, I want to encourage people to look more deeply and critically at both banjo history and how our living traditions relate to that past.

If you and your readers are willing to visit another Facebook page that Shlomo Pestcoe and I created, please consider our Banjo Roots: Banjo Beginnings page, which works to create a framework for more deeply exploring banjo history, instrument construction, and music analysis in systematic ways.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of the banjo entering the mainstream and attracting mass appeal (Steve Martin, Mumford & Sons, Avett Brothers, Punch Brothers, Infamous Stringdusters), etc. How do you see Classic Banjo connecting the past to the present?

Greg: I see Classic Banjo as potentially functioning as a bridge linking aspects of the banjo's past with its use in the present. We are in the midst of another wave of popular awareness for the banjo in the hands of those people that you mentioned in your question above. While Classic Banjo can't represent all aspects of banjo history and banjo traditions, it can serve as a building block toward greater understanding.

From working on this project, what were your biggest takeaways? How has this project influenced your perception and appreciation for some of these artists, songs, and the banjo as an instrument?

Greg: One of the biggest takeaways for me is the fact that I got to enjoy the privilege of trying to represent specific aspects of banjo history and tradition in such a significant way. I've been collaborating with a variety of scholars, collectors, musicians, and builders for a long time, trying to build infrastructure for research, projects, and musical efforts that seek to counter negative stereotypes and build inclusive communities of awareness, not only for banjo history, but also for how that history fits into a bigger picture of the human experience as well as the American experience.

Being able to take the time to listen (and re-listen) to so many great performances has only amplified my appreciation for the incredible body of musicians who maintain tradition. For example, as a musician myself and as a result of this project, I've learned how to play Hobart Smith's "Banging Breakdown" (through the mentorship of Stephen Wade, another important tradition bearer), Mike Seeger's interpretation of Josh Thomas' "Roustabout," and emulate Tony Trischka and Bill Evans' performance of "Banjoland." I'll keep working on other tracks as I have time!

Where would you direct new listeners who may be coming to the Smithsonian Folkways label and/ or some of these artists through Classic Banjo?

Greg: I would say that the best thing to do is to not limit the listening experience. Go to the Smithsonian Folkways website and just type "banjo" into the search box. You will get 341 album results to begin your own explorations!

What have you been listening to lately?

Greg: As relates to the banjo, lately I've been doing a lot of listening to the Carolina Chocolate Drops and keeping tabs on what other popular groups are doing with the banjo (including Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers, Punch Brothers, and Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers).

I've also been listening to a lot of cylinder recordings of banjo music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries from UCSB's Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project (as well as others) and actively participating in several social networking websites focused on "classic" banjo music and early minstrel-era banjo music at and

I also love listening to field recordings of West African plucked lute traditions and other traditional musics from different parts of the world. To get away from the banjo, however, I turn on my radio, scan stations, and listen to selections of classical music, rap and hip hop, and rock and roll. When I need a break from music in general, which does happen on occasion, I'll listen to either NPR or C-Span radio.

What is coming up next for you?

Greg: Outside of my work in the Rinzler Archives, one of my major projects is working as the guest curator putting together a 2014 banjo exhibit and ancillary programming with banjo scholars Bob Winans and Pete Ross for the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The exhibit is entitled Making Music: The Banjo In Baltimore and Beyond (Facebook page).

As we've described in our outreach literature for the exhibit, the project explores "the banjo as a Maryland tradition beginning as early as the 1740s, concentrating on the historical components of the banjo's cultural and manufacturing heritage. It will focus primarily on Baltimore's William E. Boucher Jr., a 19th-century entrepreneur with a hugely successful commercial manufacturing and retail banjo business. The public programming will include panel discussions, public lectures and workshops, and public concerts connecting banjo history with 21st-century traditions."

It is an exciting time to be so involved in a variety of banjo initiatives and it will be great to see where everything goes from here!

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