The North Carolina Banjo Collection
Various ArtistsRounder CD 0439/40
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange by
Frankly, I am in awe, my critical faculties momentarily suspended in the face of this two-CD anthology of 43 five-string banjo showpieces by as many instrumentalists. The whole of it is assembled by as knowledgeable a group of music lovers as one could wish for.
Here are field recordings and country music releases gathered to demonstrate the range of banjo styles which have flourished in the Piedmont and the mountains - frailing, two-finger, three-finger - up to, but excluding Scruggs. Producer Bob Carlin arranges these in stylistic clusters, beginning with the presumably oldest of folk styles (the first CD in the collection), then moving to more sophisticated folk and popular picking (the second CD).
Here are such old friends as Elizabeth Cotten, the nursemaid and friend of Charles and Ruth Seeger's four children who taught Mike and Peggy her "upside down" guitar arrangement of Freight Train; Etta Baker, another woman as proficient on banjo as she was on guitar; "Aunt" Samantha Bumgarner, whose performance at the North Carolina Folk Festival in 1936 inspired a young Harvard student by the name of Pete Seeger; Frank Profitt, who gave us Tom Dooley among a half-hundred other banjo songs and ballads; Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who, in the first three decades of this century probably did more than anyone to assure the mountain folk that their music was important; and literally dozens more.
Many of those recorded here are new to me, or less familiar, but certainly no less interesting as musicians. Indeed, some of the performances are dazzling: Frank Jenkins' Baptist Shout, Carlie Marion's rendition of that perennial showpiece, Under the Double Eagle, and a personal favorite, Hobbie Whitener's Whoa, Mule, Whoa (indeed, I wonder if David Brose, who recorded him, has more of Whitener's music. He certainly merits his own CD).
In all, this is a wide-ranging survey of the regional styles of what arguably is the most fertile source of five-string banjo playing in the country. A few of the performers - George Pegram and Wade Mainer - are not represented by their best work. I imagine that permissions for better or more representative performances were not possible. And since this is a demonstration of musical styles, instrumental works predominate to the exclusion of ballads.
Beyond the music, the lengthy notes also command attention. Andy Cahan provides a historical essay tracking the "origins" of white banjo playing in the Piedmont of North Carolina and its transfer to the mountains of western Virginia. Robert Winan offers a short history of the banjo in the United States. And producer Carlin documents tunes and performers.
If there is any fault to be found, it is that the various picking styles are not delineated clearly in producer Bob Carlin's notes. Carlin defines four styles: down-picking (frailing or clawhammer are alternative names), up-picking, two-finger, and three-finger. A couple of bars of tablature would have helped, particularly as the performances become more and more complex.
Consider this the critic's cavil. A close listening reveals much - certainly enough to approximate the recorded performances for those with the requisite talent.
Finally, a word of credit to the Folklife Section of the North Carolina Arts Council, which provided a grant that helped to underwrite the project, and to brave-unto-foolhardy Rounder, which continues to bring out compact discs that cannot hope to appeal to large audiences. We are the richer for their collaboration.
Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz (firstname.lastname@example.org)