Does The Banjo Get A “Bad Rap” At Times?
Is the banjo and instrument that sometimes receives undeserved or critical judgment from non-musical observers? At times, I notice references made on television or in public, to the banjo or banjo playing. These comments may include references to Dueling Banjos and mountain men. Once I heard a late night show address the banjo in a comical manner, as though it is as they called it; a “hillbilly instrument”. Some, for effect, like to hum or whistle the first couple of notes of Dueling Banjos as though the banjo is not sophisticated. Maybe some well recognized Scruggs tunes, such as the Beverly Hillbillies theme song or Foggy Mountain Breakdown (the theme song from Bonnie & Clyde), may have inadvertently stereo-typed the banjo with a biased or opinionated image of the rural countryside.
What the public doesn’t often hear are jazz and orchestral arrangements that are performed by some of today’s best banjo players. Have you heard of Alison Brown or Jens Kruger? If you haven’t, you are missing two of today’s most diversified banjo players, who aren’t afraid to extend the instrument’s reach to jazz, classical or chamber music. Listen to Bela Fleck play his electric banjo with his band the Flecktones, or how his five sting banjo sounds in an album called “Perpetual Motion”, and you will be amazed at the unlimited possibilities this instrument has to offer.
As a performer of the guitar, mandolin and the banjo, I find it interesting that when you go to a local music store in many metropolitan areas, a customer is lucky to find one or two cheap and overpriced banjos, at the end of a long row of guitars. The music store owner fails to recognize the instrument’s potential or promote the instrument to the public. Sure, the guitar is one of the most popular instruments to play but even my first banjo class had fifteen registered participants with a wait list of ten. Yet, there were hardly any banjos to be found for sale at local music stores.
Ironically, when playing music in public, the banjo has a presence that is captivating. I have played guitar for almost as many years as the banjo. I could sit with another guitar player and strum some of our best tunes without much recognition beyond a polite applause. However, when I put the guitar down and start playing the banjo, the audience comes alive and they are mesmerized. Children, as well as adults, are fascinated with the sound the instrument makes.