Sunday, July 17, 2011

Local Travels: Banjo Festival at The Birchmere + bonus music essay

Old Time Banjo Festival
The Birchmere
Alexandria, VA

I went to a banjo festival.

(I will pause now so you can get all the Deliverance, hillbilly, rat tailed banjo boys jokes out of your system. Go ahead. I know you have at least one. Ok? Let us continue.)

When you want genuine music - music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whiskey, go right through you like Brandreth's pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pinfeather pimples on a picked goose - when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo! - Mark Twain

More than you probably ever care to know about the banjo:

The banjo came to America from Africa via the West Indies slave trade. This instrument made
traditionally from gourds was very common in early African-American culture. In the early to mid 1800s minstrel players introduced it into their routines, which sadly often would demean and caricatured the African American culture. These minstrels toured throughout the States and also made it to Europe, where the banjo was picked up with great success by the Europeans. At the turn of the 20th century the banjo was rapidly becoming popular in cosmopolitan America;  in New York it was the second most popular parlor instrument after the piano. Its influence can be heard in Scott Joplin's ragtime numbers (Did you know his mother played the banjo? She did.) and Gershwin. That's right Gershwin, just listen to Rhapsody in Blue, the tenor banjo is there. The banjo made its way into many of the early swing and jazz bands. Djanjo Reinhardt, probably one of the great jazz guitarists, played the banjo. He was of gypsy blood, just had to point that out.

Whatever respectability it seemed to gain, the banjo also remained a constant in the homegrown vernacular music of the South, Appalachia and even followed the cowboys out West. After World War II, this fine instrument found new audiences with the  explosions of jazz, blue grass, and folk music. And now with the current folkster (folk + hipster) community booming we are again seeing more and more banjos pop up in bands that are being played on alternative rock n'roll radio stations. Brilliant.

I share this bit of rapid music trivia because it helps to explain why the banjo just get under my skin (in a good way, not like a rash) and stays there. To me,  it has a very blues,  man of constant sorrows, beautiful heartbreaking reality to it. Whenever I hear a banjo in any song I know that there is is going to be a little bit of sadness there, but then you start clapping your hands and stomping (not just tapping) your feet. Does the banjo sing about fast cars and big homes and explicit escapades? No, it is a little bit more about finding yourself alone in the gutter, picking yourself up and getting on with your life and hitting up a couple of hootenannies along the way.  That's really what all good music is about.

The festival

The night of the banjo was held at The Birchmere which is a mix between a country honky tonk and a jazz club, which, actually is pretty fitting.  We ate pulled pork sandwiches while waiting for the music to begin and there was an Elvis mural in the bathroom. Nice.

I don't normally take pictures in rooms of rest, but I also don't run into Elvis that often in them either.

The official name of the festival was the Mike Seeger Commemorative 5th Annual Old Time Banjo Festival . Mike Seeger was a local boy and very well know folk musician who passed away in 2009 . The festival was organized by Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer who opened the show. It was a very intimate setting, they chatted with us while tuning and shared stories of the songs they played.

Banjos played:
Cello banjo
Vintage 1916 six string banjo
5 string banjo
Ukulele banjo

The Hot Seats
The Hot Seats are a blue grass group from Richmond, VA, that were the youngsters of the evening, keeping the music alive for the next generation and so what not. Two banjos, a fiddle and a washboard? How could that NOT be great? Their short set was filled with intensity and humor, respecting old time and blue grass music, but not by treating in like a relic on a shelf but by showing it off and adding their own voice to it.
Fiddler in motion!

Instruments played:
Bass banjo (it was the size of a kid's wadding pool. Seriously.)
Stand up bass (I think everyone in band played the bass )

During the intermission we (A and I ) had a discussion about exactly what is old time music. It seems to refer to music that is distinctively American. We may have have borrowed influences from Irish jigs or African spirituals, but we as little whippersnappers of a country were the ones that blended it all together and then started to make our own hoots and hollers. The term "old time" music didn't pop up until the 1920's, so maybe it recalls music that has long ago roots. In other words, we kind of still don't know how to define old time music is, we just know we like it.

Buddy  Wachter
Two words: Banjo virtuoso. Amazing. I don't know how anyone could strum that fast without setting the place on fire. He took us on a musical history lesson of the banjo, playing everything from ragtime  to blue grass to classical to swing.

Banjos played:
Tenor banjo

Bruce Molsky
Mr. Molsky is a renowned fiddler and banjo player who didn't really start his music career until he was in his forty. Live your dreams, man, live your dreams! He played a lovely collection of songs with both is fiddle and his banjo, but not at the same time.

Banjos played:
Gourd banjo with gut strings
5 string?
The fiddle, (not a banjo, but still amazing!)

Closing time
The show was closed with all the musicians coming on stage to perform a couple of numbers. 6 banjos playing at the same time. Yep. Minds were blown.


  1. I think I would have loved this evening of music.

  2. Summed up so much more beautifully than mine. (I should never blog when I'm tired. And I'm always tired!) Here's to a fab evening. Long live the banjo!