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MARCH 2010:

MORE BLACK BANJO ROOTS AND SHOOTS
The Banjo Project returned to Appalachian State University (Boone NC) for the five-year reunion of the Black Banjo Gathering, catching up with members of The Carolina Chocolate Drops (who met at the first gathering in 2005, also taped by The Banjo Project), jazz banjo maestro Don Vappie, Cheick Hamala Diabate, and music historians Tony Thomas and Greg Adams. A backstage jam between Vappie, Cheick Hamala and Corey Harris was just one of many highlights. New talent included two young musicianers from New York, Jerron “Bind Boy” Paxton and Hubby Jenkins, and a black bluegrass picker named Carl Johnson from Tennessee. Performances and presentations encompassed the far-reaching impact of black banjo and stringband music, including Tony Trischka, Riley Baugus, James Leva, and Alice Gerrard. The Banjo Project also finally sat down with John Cohen for a long-overdue interview.

Carolina Chocolate Drops Trischka and Giddens
New Orleans maestro Don Vappie struts his stuff. The Carolina Chocolate Drops perform "Hit "Em Up Style," from their new Nonesuch CD, "Genuine Negro Jig." Rhiannon Giddens Laffan tries out Tony Trischka's banza.
backstage
Backstage before the opening night concert at the 2010 Black Banjo Gathering: (left to right) Corey Harris, John Cohen, Don Vappie and (back to camera) Cheick Hamala Diabate.

Special thanks to Cece Conway and to Mark Freed for making it possible for The Banjo Project to record this event.


FEBRUARY 2010:

Mike Seeger and Crew
Steve Martin performs “The Crow” at the New Yorker Festival.

GRAMMY-WINNING BANJOIST TO NARRATE THE BANJO PROJECT
Up-and-coming picker Steve Martin has agreed to be the Narrator for our television documentary. Congratulations to Steve and producer John McEuen for The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, along with Pete Wernick and Tony Trischka, for winning the Grammy for “Best Bluegrass Album.” All of them appear in The Banjo Project.

Kudos also to Bela Fleck, who brought more Grammy-hood to the banjo, winning “Best Contemporary World Music Album” for the exquisite Throw Down Your Heart.


JANUARY 2010:

Mike Seeger and Crew
Mike Seeger and Crew

TONY TRISCHKA’S SCHOOL OF BANJO It’s been approximately 155 years since the first banjo primer, and Tony Trischka’s School of Banjo is finally online. The innovative picker is also an innovative pedagogue (yes, it’s legal – look it up!). Tony has developed a truly interactive teaching program, with over 150 online lessons for all levels of players and the opportunity for one-to-one feedback and personal instruction. He’s also creating a library of interviews and performances with great players like Pete Seeger, Bela Fleck, Steve Martin, and Bob Carlin.

Check it out at www.tonytrischkaschoolofbanjo.com/

AUGUST 2009:

Mike Seeger and Crew
Mike Seeger at his home in Lexington, VA, with the Banjo Project crew (June 2008)

MIKE SEEGER, ROOTS CULTIVATOR The Banjo Project notes with deep sorrow the passing of Mike Seeger, the great folk musician, collector and champion of "Music from True Vine." Beyond his role in the folk revival, his life and work are a crucial connection to the art and culture of pre-mass media America, re-discovering and performing what would have been forgotten, but also inspiring and encouraging new generations of musicians by his guidance and examples. Mike was a key advisor to The Banjo Project and one of its earliest and strongest supporters. Over the past five years, Mike generously agreed to multiple interviews and performances (at home and in concert) and these will be part of the bedrock narrative of our documentary in all its forms.

Our last interview was late June 2008, when he also performed "Free Little Bird" on a 19th century banjo (see Performances).

 

MAY 2009:

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THE BANJO PROJECT IS NOW IN POST-PRODUCTION! Since 2003, we've shot over 200 hours of videotape, traveled to 15 states, taping interviews and performances with over 80 subjects, exploring banjo history from Adcock to "Zip Coon," gourd banjos and Mastertones, covering plectrum and tenor as well as 5-string, gathering film footage, photos, recordings and all manner of related ephemera. (See "About" tab, "What We've Done So Far...") There are many other people, places and events we'd love to include, but it's time to start the next phase of The Banjo Project—editing and shaping the narrative for the documentary and building up the website.

MARCH 2009:

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CLINTWOOD VIRGINIA BACKSTEP Probably the only living banjo picker with a museum in his name, DR. RALPH STANLEY hosted The Banjo Project at the Ralph Stanley Museum and Mountain Music Center. Amidst state-off-the-art displays, memorabilia and photos representing over six decades of Dr. Ralph’s career, he spoke of his early influences, the development of his unique picking style and what he thinks of the label “bluegrass .” Later, he went out on the porch to clawhammer “Shout Lulee,” the first banjo tune he learned from his mother.

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THE WIZARD OF FAIR LAWN The Banjo Project’s Music Director Tony Trischka talked and banjified for the better part of two days in a lively, wide-ranging interview. Tony’s recent activities include playing on Steve Martin’s new banjo CD, as well as winning an Americana Music Award for Territory (Smithsonian Folkways).

JANUARY 2009:

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THE BANJO REFINED AND UPLIFTED How did the banjo get from the minstrel stage to Carnegie Hall? From farmhouse porches to the parlors of Fifth Avenue? Classic banjo expert Eli Kauffman explained the banjo’s brief ascendancy into respectable urban white society – a fascinating era that encompasses ragtime and cakewalks, the birth of the recording industry, banjos designed for conspicuous consumption and virtuoso players like Vess Ossman and Fred Van Epps.



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NOVEMBER 2008:

PORTRAITS IN BLUEGRASS The Banjo Project conducted an extensive interview with folklorist/music historian Neil V. Rosenberg, author of Bluegrass: A History is widely considered to be a definitive work on the subject. Our discussions included his experiences with Bill Monroe at Bean Blossom, the genius of Don Reno, and the under-appreciated impact of the Earl Scruggs Revue.

OCTOBER 2008:

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ABIGAIL WASHBURN & THE SPARROW QUARTET WITH BELA FLECK AT THE BEAR THEATER IN WOODSTOCK NY We couldn’t resist the opportunity to videotape some of the boundary-breaking, genre-defying music of Abby Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet with Bela Fleck. Abby and Bela also discussed the banjo in the context of the globalization of folk and regional pop styles.




JULY ’08:

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SOUTHERN HUMANITIES MEDIA FUND PICKS THE BANJO PROJECT The Banjo Project is now the proud recipient of a major production grant from The Southern Humanities Media Fund. The SHMF is a consortium of state humanities councils from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, dedicated to supporting media productions that explore Southern history and identity and the region’s special place in the shaping of American and world culture. According to Marc Fields, the producer of The Banjo Project, “With this grant, the Southern Humanities Media Fund recognized the banjo’s significance as a powerful symbol and transformative tool for the dissemination of Southern culture, as well as the value of our documentary’s multi-disciplinary approach. We are thrilled and honored to have their support.”

JUNE ’08:


HAIL TO “THE CHIEF”—SONNY OSBORNE AT THE RYMAN
Bluegrass legend Sonny Osborne granted a rare interview to The Banjo Project in view of the stage where as a 14 year-old phenom – “clueless and scared out of my mind,” he recalled – he appeared as a Blue Grass boy with Bill Monroe in 1952. He also explained how the Osborne Brothers developed their innovative style.


ALISON BROWN—NEW DIRECTIONS ON BANJO AND COMPASS

While in Nashville, our shoots included a visit with progressive banjoist and producer Alison Brown at Compass Studios, where she and husband Gary West record and distribute innovative roots and world music. Alison shared her observations about being a woman instrumentalist in bluegrass, as well as her recollections of the fertile bluegrass and folk scenes in Southern California in the Seventies.



THE HOLY GRAIL OF BLUEGRASS BANJOS

What makes the Gibson pre-war flathead banjos so coveted by bluegrass pickers? Banjo maker Steve Huber gave our cameras a lesson in banjo anatomy and design, showing how and why he crafts every piece of his custom instruments to replicate the classic 1930s flatheads.

 

MOUNTAIN MUSIC — KENTUCKY’S RENEWABLE RESOURCE.
Long before “bluegrass” became the name of a musical style, Kentucky’s banjoists played “mountain” (a/k/a “old-time”) music. Eastern Kentucky in particular was home to some of the earliest and most individualistic banjo players. The Cowan Creek Mountain Music School in Whitesburg is keeping their rich musical traditions alive. The Banjo Project observed Kentucky masters such as George Gibson, Jimmy McCown, Brett Ratliff and Cari Norris (granddaughter of Coon Creek Girl Lily Mae Ledford) leading workshops for children of all ages and adults. The Banjo Project website now includes artwork by Kentucky artist John Haywood, and a performance by George Gibson.


RILEY AND ROUND PEAK

Banjo/fiddle player Riley Baugus added his recollections of Tommy Jarrell to the wealth of material we’ve collected on the Round Peak style (named for a tiny community in Surry County, NC) and its influential practitioners (Jarrell and Fred Cockerham). Several of The Banjo Project’s participants—Ray Alden, Hank Sapoznik, Dave Winston, Paul Brown and Bruce Molsky—have also described the importance of their youthful pilgrimages to Round Peak to bask in the music and wisdom of “Tommy and Fred.”

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THE BANJO’S UNPREDICTABLE PAST
A fascinating array of music historians and folklorists continue to share their insights and discoveries with The Banjo Project. Our May and June shoots included interviews with several key scholars: Chris Albertson (author of the definite Bessie Smith bio and producer of Harlem Banjo with Elmer Snowden); Robert Winans (author of several groundbreaking works on 19th century banjo); Kip Lornell (many books, articles and album notes on folk, roots, jazz and multicultural America); Cece Conway (author of the seminal study, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia


MAY ’08:

Cynthia Sayer

JAZZ BANJO IN THE BIG APPLE
The Banjo Projectfocused on the four string tenor and plectrum banjos during a series of location shoots in New York. Plectrum maestro Cynthia Sayer led an all-star jazz band at Small’s Jazz Club, with audio mix by Alan Silverman of ARF Mastering (see performance clips for a sample).

Eddy Davis

EDDY DAVIS, THE MANHATTAN MINSTREL
One of the reigning masters of the tenor banjo, Eddy Davis can be heard most weeks at New York’s Café Carlyle, where he is music director of The New Orleans Jazz Band featuring Woody Allen on clarinet. Eddy demonstrated several jazz tunes and told us about the significance of James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra, as well as stories of his Hoosier upbringing, the trad jazz scene in Chicago, Spike Jones’ Orchestra and tenor banjo greats such as Mike Danzi, Harry Reser and Ikey Robinson.

Eric Weissberg

THE JUILLIARD STUDENT BEHIND “DUELING BANJOS”
It’s the source for the most persistent and widespread modern stereotype of the banjo: the song “Dueling Banjos” in the 1973 film Deliverance. Bluegrass picker and former Juilliard student Eric Weissberg gave us the real story behind the recording and release of this infamous banjo anthem. Eric also discussed his experiences with The Tarriers and the Blue Velvet Band (with Jim Rooney and Bill Keith) and added his perspective on the Folk Revival in New York and Boston in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

 

APRIL ’08:

THE BANJO AS OBJECT D’ART
To celebrate its acquisition of the legendary Consalvi banjo – the world’s most decorated banjo, with over 30,000 separate inlays of engraved ivory and pearl --the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hosted a presentation by collector Jim Bollman and curator Darcy Kuronen and a performance by classic banjoist Geoff Freed. The crowning achievement of Icilio Consalvi, Boston’s greatest instrument craftsman, the Consalvi banjo is a revealing symbol of the instrument’s cultural transformation in the journey from plantation to parlor.


NEWS ARCHIVE

nothin' but a bunch of men
"Nothin But a Bunch of Men" by John Haywood

DECEMBER 2007—GRAMMY NOMINATIONS FOR BANJO PROJECT ADVISORS TONY TRISCHKA AND BOB CARLIN
This year's Grammy nominees include Tony Trischka's Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, in the category of “Best Bluegrass Album,” and Bob Carlin and Cheick Hamala Diabate's From Mali to America, for “Best Traditional World Music Album.”
Tony is Music Director for The Banjo Project and Bob is a primary consultant, and both appear in the documentary's interviews and performances.

NOVEMBER 2007—10TH ANNUAL BANJO COLLECTORS GATHERING
The Banjo Project crew taped interviews, exhibits and performances in Philadelphia, including a special concert hosted by NPR's Paul Brown, featuring Bob Carlin, Cheick Hamala Diabate, Mike Seeger, Clarke Buehling, a banjo orchestra led by Eli Kauffman and Paul Brown. We were privileged to get an interview with Lowell Schreyer, multi-talented banjoist and author. Sadly for all who knew him, Lowell passed away barely a week after returning to his home in Minnesota.

art: cold icy mountain
"Cold Icy Mountain" by John Haywood

OCTOBER 2007—THREE IBMA AWARDS FOR TONY TRISCHKA
At the annual meetings of the International Bluegrass Music Association, Tony won the award in all three categories in which he was nominated: Instrumental Album of the Year (Double Bluegrass Banjo Spectacular), Instrumental Performer (banjo) and Recorded Event. The Banjo Project features commentary and performances by several of Tony's colleagues on his Double Bluegrass CD, including Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck and Steve Martin.

JUNE 2007—"NOW I'VE BEEN ALL AROUND THIS WHOLE WIDE WORLD…"
The Banjo Project
spent a week in western North Carolina, recording performances and interviews around the Charlie Poole Music Festival in Eden, NC. Poole bio author Kinney Rorrer regaled us with stories and commentary, pristine 78s and a guided tour of Poole sites in the area. At the Spray Cotton Mill, where Poole and his buddy Posey Rorrer use to serenade workers on payday, New North Carolina Ramblers Jeremy Stephens (banjo) and Kirk Sutphin (fiddle) performed "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and "Southern Medley."

Performances taped at the Poole fest included some of the most talented and dynamic young string bands on the scene today: Uncle Earl, No Speed Limit and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. (Special thanks to Louise Price and Hank Sapoznik for their help with the festival). We also had the opportunity to hang out with the Carolina Chocolate Drops (Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson) during a rehearsal with their mentor Joe Thompson.

Hank Sapoznik provided us with a lively, insightful interview about the folk revival and Charlie Poole as a pivotal figure in banjo history… Noted banjoist, producer and music historian Bob Carlin made his Banjo Project debut with an extensive interview covering everything from Joe Sweeney to John Hartford and he's graciously agreed to become one of our primary consultants… And Peter Szego shared his incredible collection of minstrel-era banjos, illustrations and toys…

MAY 2007—Thanks to a generous production grant from The Tides Foundation, The Banjo Project was able to spend a week shooting on location in June (see above).

art: a family affair
"A Family Affair" by John Haywood

APRIL 2007—"THEY TAUGHT 'DIXIE' TO DAN EMMETT…"
This provocative epitaph is sure to ruffle a few feathers across the cultural landscape. It appears on the grave of two African-American musicians, Ben and Lew Snowden, close neighbors of the great minstrel man Dan Emmett in Mt. Vernon, OH. The Banjo Project interviewed historians Drs. Howard and Judith Sacks, whose fascinating book, Way Up North in Dixie, documents the musical Snowden family as early pioneers and influential citizens in Knox County, OH before and after the Civil War. We were also fortunate enough to tape several performances in the historic Woodward Opera House, an ante-bellum theater—now being restored in which the Snowdens and Emmett appeared.

JANUARY 2007—TONY TRISCHKA'S DOUBLE BANJO BLUEGRASS SPECTACULAR CD with Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Steve Martin et al released by Rounder. Guest appearances for Tony on Ellen (with Steve Martin), NPR and Late Night with David Letterman (with Bela Fleck and Steve Martin) soon followed. (Check out Tony's new CD and his TV performances on his website, www.tonytrischka.com.) On Late Night, Letterman's interview with Steve Martin included the classic banjo dis, "Do you play other instruments besides the banjo?" Martin's reply "Would you ask Yo Yo Ma that about the cello?" also explains why we need The Banjo Project.

JANUARY 2007 Interviews with Betsy Siggins Schmidt, co-founder of Club 47 in Cambridge, MA, and rising star Noam Pikelny, who also performed an original solo for our cameras.

AUGUST 2006—EARL, BELA, AND TONY T
The long-awaited Banjo Project interview with Earl Scruggs blossomed into a wide-ranging conversation with two of his most accomplished disciples—Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka—in Earl's beautiful Nashville home. The man who re-defined the banjo and shaped the bluegrass sound talked on camera about his childhood, early musical influences, how he came up with his 3-finger style, Bill Monroe, the epochal "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" sessions and playing the melody. The three pickers kicked back for an extended jam on "Reuben," the standard that Earl was playing at age ten when he came up with his revolutionary style. Excerpts from the interview and the banjo trio performances of "Reuben," "Beaumont Rag" and "Pike County Breakdown" will be included in The Banjo Project documentary and transcripts appeared in the October and November Banjo Newsletter. Special thanks to Gary Scruggs for making it all possible.

art: stringbean on heehaw
"String Bean a Playin on Hee-Haw"
by John Haywood

On the way back from Nashville, The Banjo Project taped interviews and performances with Leroy Troy (excerpt to be posted soon), Stevie Barr of No Speed Limit in a duet with master guitar builder Wayne Henderson in Galax, Mac Snow with family and friends in their weekly music session in Low Gap, NC, a conversation with Joe Wilson, and the Friday night dance at Clark's Oldtime Music Center in Raphine, VA.

JULY 2006—PICKIN' AND STEPPIN': MAKING THE DANCES FOR THE LIVE STAGE VERSION OFThe Banjo Project.
Thanks to a planning grant from The New England Foundation for the Arts, Marc and Tony spent a week developing the dance elements with Sule Greg Wilson and three talented young dancers from the Summer Stages Dance program. With Tony playing the appropriate style of banjo, Sule choreographed "Jalidong," "Jump Jim Crow," and a ragtime cakewalk. Check back for video clips from the workshop to be posted here soon.

JAN 2006—STANDING "O" FOR "THE BANJO" IN CONCORD, MA
Tony Trischka and producer Marc Fields collaborated on a live stage performance with programmed video projections to create a compelling history of the banjo from its African roots to the present. Presented in the Performing Arts Center at Concord Academy, this unique program combined Tony's virtuosic picking on gourd, minstrel, Victorian and bluegrass banjos with archival footage, stills and narrative texts, graphics and clips from Marc's interviews with Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger and Bela Fleck.

The show is a pilot version of a full-scale evening—with five-piece ensemble, multiple video screens, actors reading narrative texts and dancers—currently in development.

SEPT. 2005—STEVE MARTIN HOSTS AN EVENING OF BANJO MUSIC WITH EARL SCRUGGS.
The Banjo Project had cameras rolling at the New Yorker Festival when Steve Martin presented "The Great American Banjo: A Conversation with Music," featuring the legendary Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick, Tony Ellis and an up-and-coming young phenom named Charles Wood. Marc also had the chance to sit down the day before for interviews (and a few short performances) with Martin, Wernick, Ellis and Wood that will be used for The Banjo Project documentary.

 


In 1844 there were not a half dozen banjos in this city, and they were only to be met with in grog-shops or bagnios; to-day there are over 10,000 instruments here in use, and the right melody of its five-strings reaches from the marble fronts of Fifth Avenue down to the slums of Baxter Street. The instrument has become a universal favorite, and a banjo fever seems to possess the minds of even the most aristocratic and pretentious of the Metropolitans.

~ Boston Daily Evening Voice, October 29, 1866