Tuesday, March 29, 2011

banjo equinox: first challenge!

For those of you taking part in Banjo Equinox: here comes your first group recital. We're going to get together and play some music. This weekend I'll post a video of myself playing Old Molly Hare (the first tune in Erbsen's book), and in the comments you can add a link to your own video. A randomly picked winner of all video submissions will win a copy of Banjo Camp!, which is a beginner's book about the culture and magic of the banjo. Great for inspiration and lessons on clawhammer and bluegrass styles (with a CD to boot). So start practicing.... Video will be posted this weekend! Winner picked next Tuesday night! Oh, and if you learned this tune on the fiddle in the Fiddler's Summer challenge a few summer's back. Post a video of you sawing out that tune and you are entered too. Same goes for guitars and dulcimers, voices and pots and pans.

Below is an interview with the author from a few summer's back.

I want you all to meet Zhenya Senyak, the author of the recently published book Banjo Camp! Zhenya hails from Asheville, a town I love and used to frequent when I lived in Tennessee. Banjo Camp! is a gem folks. It's a beginner's instruction book for teaching yourself the basics, but it's much more than that. This colorful and friendly book is a tour on the backroads of America's roots music. You'll see photos, hear stories, and learn about all the ruckus happening in camps and shindigs all around the country. It makes you want to sling your banjo over your shoulder and start walking to the nearest campfire jam.

Zhenya has been kind enough to stop by the farm for an interview. We'll be having a friendly conversation about old-time music, his love of openback banjos, and some advice for all of us new pickers out there. If you are even mildly interested in making the banjo part of your life, pick up his book. It comes with a CD too, so you can listen to what you should be playing as you frail along at home ( a must-have for all us self-taught folks.) Okay enough yakking from me, everyone pull up a chair and gather round.

Zhenya, thanks for stopping by. Welcome to the farm.
Hi, Jenna, appreciate the invitation. Love the farm… and thanks for the mug of coffee. If Jazz and Annie are willing to move over a little, I can put down my banjo case.

So you've been playing banjo for how long now?
That’s hard to pinpoint. Six years ago I started Blue Mountain Schoolhouse, a teachers cooperative that offered all kinds of classes around Asheville, North Carolina. And in the course of interviewing teachers I got turned on to old-time music. I found a little hand-made banjo at a garage sale, , cracks filled in with bondo, strings high off the fretboard and some assorted tuning pegs screwed into the peghead. The guy said it would look good hanging on my wall but that was my first banjo. I paid $12 for it, about what the Pete Seeger banjo book cost me.

That part of my banjo career lasted about two weeks, maybe less. But I did hear some banjo sounds before I got discouraged. It was three years ago, when I was about to start a newspaper job, that one of the Blue Mountain teachers traded an open-back banjo for one of my acoustic guitars. And there was something magical about that banjo. I played it first thing in the morning, lots during the day and last thing at night. I’d wake up hearing that jingle jamming plunking sound in my head and couldn’t wait to start picking. So I’d say, yeah, I’ve been playing about three years now.

I gather you started as an adult. Was that intimidating?
I don’t know about being an adult, but I know I was surely getting on. I finished that newspaper job two years ago when I turned 70 and figured it’s now or never. I just leaped full bore into banjo and mountain roots music, spending an intensive year studying, visiting banjo camps, jamming. Yeah there were some intimidating parts. I got started playing bluegrass where, beyond learning the rolls and repertoire, there’s a whole routine of lead breaks and backup that you have to know before feeling reasonably comfortable in a jam. Plus bluegrass is a lot more of a performance.

Old time music is mostly people sitting in a circle, putting their heads down and playing together. When I found my way to old-time music banjo playing kicked into a whole new gear for me, more soulful, rhythmic, communal. I’m lucky, living in the heartland of old time music, to be surrounded by great old time musicians. For now, that usually keeps me at the edge of the circle at fiddle conventions and the many old-time jams around town, but I can play along and get into the groove and be part of the music.

Do you think making your own music can be considered a form of self-reliance?
That’s a good question. The flip side of picking with friends – and strangers – is your relationship to your instrument and to music. What I love about the banjo is its transformative power, the way it can jack me up or calm me down, keep me company on the road.

With my banjo, I don’t have to depend on MP3 players or CDs, on an electrical hook-up or batteries and ear buds. I love music, all kinds of music and, play lots of instruments… somewhat. Most any instrument, for that matter, most any way of producing music or rhythm gives us the ability to create an environment. The open back banjo, to me is alone in its range as a solo instrument. It can be mellow or insistent, ring out or just sing along softly on a single string. It’s a drum on a stick with stringed intervals that encompass all musical forms.

Why do you think old-time and bluegrass music feel so kindred to living close to the land?
Old-time music, country music whatever its form, is really folk music, music people make when they come together. Sometimes the music is about current events but often it’s a variant on old tunes passed along in families and communities. This is music that sustained people working long hours on the farm, when maybe the only refreshment was picking up a banjo at the end of the day or coming together with others for a fiddle and banjo dance.

Handmade music as the accompaniment to rural life is the natural way it has been for many centuries, long before cities and concert halls arose All that living history of folk music only started being collected in recordings and published and passed along recently. It’s great that that work has been done because now we have some historic record of folks who are gone, music we might never have

Returning to the roots or roots music is not a big leap. We may take our Blackberries and other electronic gear for granted, but the World War One was less than a century ago and at that time radio didn’t exist. Television, in any form, has only been around for 60 years or so and personal computers only go back a little more than 25 years.

You did mention to me you recently picked up a fiddle. Are you saying mountain music has some inevitable side-effects
When I was researching Banjo Camp! I interviewed many old-time banjo players who also played the fiddle. Maybe it’s not right to say “also,” since you’re talking about some of the best old time fiddlers in the world, like Brad Leftwich. Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham are good old-time examples of the nexus between fiddle and banjo. When the fiddle bug bit me, I understood immediately why these instruments are so bonded together. Of course they’re both light and portable, but their voices just naturally blend. When played together, fiddle takes the lead and banjo provides the beat, but it’s more complex than that since rhythm is an important part of fiddling just as dropping melodic and harmonic licks into a solid frail is part of banjo. It’s a conversation and now that I’m past that first squealing sour note stage of fiddling, it’s a conversation that’s fun to listen to . Bob Carlin and John Hartford made a fiddle/banjo CD called just that, “Conversations” that’s worth listening to if you get a chance. An old-time musician, playing fiddle and banjo is a little bit like Pinetop Perkins playing boogie woogie on the piano, the parts just come together.

What has been the biggest reward since you played your first tune on your banjo?
Hard to say. There have definitely been some highlights, long sessions with David Holt showing me the clawhammer ropes, conversations with Pete Seeger and Tony Trischka, listening to Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn at an Obama fund-raiser, the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Joe Thompson on fiddle at the Swannanoa Gathering, weekly Shindig on the Green events in Asheville or the Wednesday night jams at the Jack of the Wood Tavern. For all that, I’m pretty much a loner. The biggest rewards for me have been the break-throughs, the empowerment, feeling close enough to my banjo to make the music I hear in my head, or maybe even close enough to let the banjo lead into the music.

What advice do you have for the timid-wannabe-banjo players out there?
It’s called playing the banjo…and that’s the attitude to take. If you just sit down and mess around for awhile, get some good old-time banjo music in your head and learn a few basic chord positions, it will all come together. You’ve got to just do it, knowing it’s about the music and playing and having a good time. You can work hard at it because it’s fun but if you start getting all grim about it, might as well take up insurance sales or something.

Think you'll ever stop picking?
That’s my epitaph: “Finally stopped pickin’”

Thanks Zhenya, 'preciateya.
So… you ready to break out your banjo and pick a couple of tunes?


Blogger Kitchen Mama said...

I'm a little far from joining in a group recital yet--just working on getting the feel of my new baby, got it in the mail today. However, I'll do my best to get caught up.

LOVE the picture of the gals in the stream.

March 29, 2011 at 8:32 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

I love the picture too.

Kinda wish I'd done this but I can't commit to anything right now. Sure seems like a lotta fun, though.

March 30, 2011 at 1:23 AM  
Blogger treehuggers kitchen said...

Love the comment about Jazz and Annie moving over a bit. :)

March 30, 2011 at 8:33 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

RIght now i'm working on being able to play the song without looking at the book! It's coming along!

March 30, 2011 at 12:10 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Stayed up late last night to read your book "Made From Scratch". Good job on being inspiring! Can't wait to check out the resources in the research section.

March 30, 2011 at 1:02 PM  
Blogger Odd Ducks Farm said...

Oh, crap. I better practice. :o)

March 30, 2011 at 3:33 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Alright, I need some help. There is a little inset on Old Molly Hare in the book that starts out "You don't need to concern yourself with chords on..." (You can look up the rest so I don't have to type it, right?) Anyway, my poor never done anything that had anything to do with music self can't figure out what it's saying. What am I supposed to do when there is a C at the top of the clawhammer unit (arrow thing)?

March 30, 2011 at 6:02 PM  
Blogger Tami said...

Hmmmm...no way to record...I think. Admittedly I am tech ignorant. My lap top does have a video thing on it but no clue how to use it. Guess where I'll be celebrating spring?! 19th annual spring festival in Townsend!!! Can't wait to get back home.

March 30, 2011 at 7:19 PM  
Blogger City Girl said...

I've been practicing tuning my banjo and strumming the clawhammer lick by following the wonderful online videos you posted. I am still waiting for my book to arrive from Amazon.ca so I don't have access to the song you refer to. But I love that you are keeping us on our toes!!

March 30, 2011 at 7:42 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Okay, as to what I asked earlier, I have been playing that part (the HAM part) the way the chord diagram for C is on the previous page (or maybe the one before that?). The last time I played through before I finished practising tonight actually sort of maybe sounded vaguely like a slowed down version of the song!

Anyone interested in me starting a thread on CAF Locals (under the mountain music section) where you can ask questions, talk about banjo equinox, or just brag when figure stuff out?

March 30, 2011 at 9:03 PM  
Blogger Rachael said...

Oh I sure hope my book gets here soon! If not, I suppose I could fiddle it up instead. Or maybe get creative with the strumstick. Guess I got my work cut out for me over the weekend!

March 30, 2011 at 11:01 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Ozy.... When there's a C above, it means you push down the first string on the second fret (to make it a C) when you do the last part of the claw ham-mer. The strum down part. It sounds fine if you do not do it. but if you remember to put your finger on it, it sounds even better! Good luck!

March 31, 2011 at 12:44 AM  
Blogger Firecracker Farm said...

I am inordinately nervous about learning the banjo. (I don't actually have the instrument yet - it's on its way) BUT hearing that Zhenya got a late start is super encouraging. (I'm no spring chicken)
My son (the spring chicken who knows how to do that technology thing) and I will post something as soon as we get caught up.

March 31, 2011 at 4:42 PM  
Blogger delayne said...

Anyone else out there suffering a bit from Tender Fingertips Syndrome? Yi! :)

March 31, 2011 at 6:59 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

battlewounds Delayne!

March 31, 2011 at 7:13 PM  
Blogger Odd Ducks Farm said...

When you bleed on the frets, you've earned a badge of honor there, Delayne. :o)

(Actually, I think if you're bleeding you may be pressing too hard.)

March 31, 2011 at 8:14 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

If you go here:
you can download the page for Old Molly Hare, if your copy of the book hasn't arrived yet.

April 1, 2011 at 1:21 PM  
Blogger Coley said...

I've got the song down my memory! I played it for my friend Kim the other day! It actually sounds like a song. I'm just scared to sing along.

April 1, 2011 at 3:10 PM  
Blogger Odd Ducks Farm said...

Way to go Coley! Isn't it cool when it comes together?

April 1, 2011 at 10:46 PM  
Blogger Dani said...

It's slow and painful, but I'm getting it.

April 2, 2011 at 5:59 PM  
Blogger Maggie said...

oh boy! not ready for a video yet but coming along. except the darn 4th string. Also, anyone else play guitar and having trouble always striking down?

April 3, 2011 at 12:03 AM  
Blogger Darcey Blue said...

waiting for my banjo to arrive!!!
how will i catch up! ooohoh

April 3, 2011 at 8:11 AM  

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