Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

In Part One of our interview, we talk about Peter's latest album, Better Than Expected, by Peter Stampfel & the Lower Manhattan And Brooklyn Banjo Squadron. That segues into a history of the banjo in American popular music.

Q: Let’s talk about the new album first. My understanding is that this was an experiment to see how many banjos you could have playing at a time without it turning into total anarchy.

Peter: Well, then again, anarchy works. (laughs) The question is, how far can you go? Having a limited number of musicians in a band makes everything much easier. Once you get beyond four, it starts getting tricky. Up to four, it’s fairly easy for everyone to hear everyone else. Once you get five, five is a lot harder than four. And as you add numbers, the difficulty becomes exponentially greater. Six is a lot, lot harder than five, and seven is a lot, lot harder than that.

In the real world, I keep running into people I play with and want to include in whatever project’s going down. This is the dao of the world. This is what I’m constantly confronted with. Oh, I gotta play with this guy, gotta play with this guy too. So at a certain point, you go, okay, one more and that’s it, and then finally I just said, fuck it, I’m not going to restrict the upper number. Like I write in the liner notes, half the potential members of the banjo squadron weren’t available when the tiny window for recording revealed itself. So we’ve never had more than five banjo players going at once, despite the fact that there were ten or more potential people I wanted. And my idea was, after a certain point, say after five, I was going to split the banjos into two groups, A and B. This album is an experiment on several levels. I’m not doing it so certain things will happen; I’m doing it to find out what happens if we do it. When you approach an artistic project with the idea, “I don’t know, I have no fucking idea what’s going to happen,” it just opens up everything wonderfully. Instead of having some sort of formulaic, didactic plan. So I was going to split the banjos into two bunches, and have the first group play on four beats or eight beats, or two beats and one beat, and have the second group play on two, four, eights, sixteenths. And have group A play four beats, group B play four beats, and then everybody play four beats. The idea being, once you get that many people, it constructs things so that despite the crowd, the potential number of people playing at any one time forces some people not to play but to listen. Because listening is the whole point of being in a band. That’s why three or four people is the ideal band, especially when you’re improvising, because they can all listen to each other. Listening is just incredibly critical when you’re free-forming. Otherwise you get mud. So the idea here was to have some kind of magic happening with multiple people where half the group was being forced to listen to the other half at least part of the time.

Q: The banjo is an interesting instrument, though, because if you have two guitars, you can play harmonies, like the Allman Brothers. Banjos don’t really do that.

Peter: Oh they can, they can indeed. In fact harmonies are my favorite way of improvising. If you’re harmonizing with somebody, you’re automatically in rhythm. You can’t possibly harmonize with someone and not be following the same beats. I love fifths, I love fourths, I love weird-assed harmonies like a fifth above and a fourth below. I like harmonies that ideally make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Q: It seemed to me like the banjo fell out of favor for a long time and recently they’ve been revived by all these alt-Americana bands like Mumford & Sons made them chic again. But I know most folk purists don’t like that band. How do you feel about it?

Peter: Banjos were the rock and roll of the 19th Century. Banjos were absolutely massive. There’s the cliché of the cowboy with a guitar, but guitars in the 19th Century were an upper middle class woman’s parlor instrument. Guitars didn’t become popular until the Spanish-American War. The lower class and lower middle class soldiers picked up guitars in Cuba and brought them back to the U.S., and a substantial number of black musicians at that time laid their banjos and fiddles down and picked up a guitar. I mean, guitars are fucking amazing things, you can see why they became so popular, especially with blues musicians. Then the four-string banjos came into popularity because of ragtime music and early jazz, and you had to compete with a bunch of horns, so you needed resonators and flat picks. Then banjos began fading again in the 1930’s when electric guitars came into vogue. They never amplified banjos, oddly, but guitars and amplification were a marriage made in heaven. By the 1930’s, your professional banjo players had to wear clown drag. Even Uncle Dave Macon had a real clown shtick going. And you had country people like Grandpa Jones and Stringbean who wore bib overalls and low-cut pants and all had a comedy thing going, because banjos just weren’t taken seriously at that point.

Q: Except for bluegrass.

Peter: Well, that’s an interesting story. I had a friend in Milwaukee who introduced me to folk music in 1957. This guy named Ron Tiafan who was from Texas, he was going to Marquette University studying dentistry, but he played 5-string banjo. He played on Louisiana Hayride, which was a big country radio show, and he played in a talent show at Marquette. He had a top hot with the top ripped off and ripped jeans, it was a strange meme of banjo playing being equated with being a yokel clown.

Bluegrass music actually came into being based roughly on what Charlie Poole was doing with his finger-picking, and he played like that because Charlie Poole played baseball, and he was too macho to use a glove. So he caught a fly ball with his bare hand once and broke his fucking hand, and it set into a position where he could do three-finger picking but that’s about all he could do. He couldn’t bend his hand to hold a pick or hit any more strings. And then Flatt & Scruggs came along with that same finger-picking style, about 1939 or so, and that became bluegrass.

Pete Seeger is about one-half responsible for the banjo’s popularity among non-Southerners. Back in the Fifties when Pete Seeger became more widely known, he introduced the banjo to a whole new audience of urban listeners and it never really died out since then. And I’d say there’s been a steady growth with an occasional growth spurt. But I’d say that the popularity of banjos, if you were going to draw a chart, number of banjos sold and people playing them, I think your chart would be going steadily upwards from the Fifties. And people are still picking up on it. What’s that pop record? “Best Day Of My Life.” That has a really cool banjo sound in there. It’s got a nice banjo part. A perfect example of how excellently finger-picked banjo can be incorporated into contemporary rock ‘n’ roll. I see on Youtube all the time more and more people playing banjo along with the standard rock and roll instruments, which I’m very happy about.

Continue to Peter Stampfel, Part Two



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