When I entered graduate school, I was interested in all forms of American vernacular music (though I probably wasn’t calling it that). I grew up playing music with my family in our living room and around the campfire. My dad would lead songs on his weathered D-18, and my sister and I would follow along, eventually bringing others into the family band, and learning and leading our own songs. Between our family members, we played guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, autoharp, harmonica, bodhran, bones, and Dobro. We take turns, pass instruments back and forth, and work up songs as best we can.
My father always took the Pete Seeger route towards community music: everybody sings, regardless of talent. This was the ethos I was raised with, which is also why I continue to sing along despite not being able to carry a tune worth a damn. I appreciate participation and amateur music making and find real meaning and purpose there. Consequently, I also never really got good at any instrument. I can make my way on guitar, and can fake my way through a break on the mandolin (if no one’s listening too hard), and can boom-chuck along on the banjo – but I’ve never really become what I’d consider a serious player.
In graduate school this became a strange phenomenon, as I made friends with some AMAZING players, including some of the best fiddle, guitar and banjo players I’ve ever heard. Over the years I played often with my friends and I think got a little better because of it, but I never really got the chops I was looking for. Either school work, social life, or lethargy took over.
As I developed as a scholar with particular interest in old-time music, I didn’t always follow the playing routes that were available to me. I took a couple of clawhammer lessons, but nothing more. I attended jam sessions, but more often equipped with a camera and notebook than a banjo. Playing wasn’t my path, documentation and scholarship was. I enjoy bearing human witness to the amazing art that is often made in living rooms, in school gymnasiums, small pub session, and around campfires. But I came to realize I’d left the world of those who just made music for fun, entertainment, and community involvement, and I’d entered the world where people elevated their music to art. I was now witnessing players who had serious dedication to their craft: technique, tone, repertoire, style, etc.
As I continue my research in old-time music, and I encounter both types of players (professionals dedicated to the art of the music, and amateurs dedicated to the art of the community) and many who walk that line, I feel that lack of ability more and more. My new Canadian friends are as welcoming as my grad school friends, but still, I’m feeling the need to step up my game as a player.
If the first step toward improvement is admitting you’ve got a problem, I’m going to do what I’ve never done before, show off my level of playing. Here’s my version of “Barlow Knife,” as I’m learning from Chris Coole’s DVD Elements of Clawhammer Banjo, without (much) practice beforehand. I should say that the DVD is great, and any faults belong to me as student, and not to Chris as teacher.