Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I just heard that Pete Seeger died.  Though his playing is not of this specific genre, I would bet that it was he that turned a lot of us in this direction.

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Oh ya. I grew up with a bunch of his records, books, and instruction books.

Rest easy, Pete.  I will never forget your inspirational work which made me want to play banjo and sing like I meant it.  You will be missed.

I learned to play from his book way back when, and had the opportunity to see him several times over the years, it was always a great concert. That's Pete in his  lap.

I've been reading very moving commentaries on Pete's passing on various forums all day.  He was a remarkable person in a variety of ways.  He left us a lot.

I met Pete Seeger once at a school teachers' conference on "storytelling" near my hometown. He has always been my primary guide for all things about the banjo and community life in America. At that conference Pete mentioned to me that he designed a bumper sticker for his grandson's guitar case. It said, "There's no hope, but I might be wrong."

"I got  my first banjo in 1961 and bought Pete Seeger's little red book on how to play the banjo, simply because that was all there was at the time.  While the book was all but incomprehensible to a novice trying to learn to play the banjo, I remember I thought it was very interesting, anyway, and I was very curious as to whatever this "frailing" thing was all about.. I later saw Pete at a concert in 1965 and was totally unprepared for what an incredible musician he was.  Today we associate him with sing-alongs and "Good Night Irene", but Pete was into early Dylan at that time.  His performance of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" was memorable enough that I still remember it almost 50 years later as though it were yesterday.  

Rob, I think I may have recounted this before but I, too couldn't quite get the basic stroke or frailing from Pete's red book.  It wasn't until he took a few moments out of his "Rainbow Quest" program to slowly demonstrate it, that I got going.

Well, Al, I eventually moved to North Carolina and learned to play the old fashioned way--in person--from some really great musicians, Nowell Creadick, Blanton Owen, and even a few lessons from Tommy Thompson.  Both Blanton and Tommy had untimely deaths, but Nowell is still around. Nowell was my neighbor for many years and is one of the guys who started the Augusta Heritage Workshops, where I learned minstrel banjo from Bob Flesher.  I know everybody can't be lucky enough to have access to a teacher, but having opportunities to play with other people is invaluable. Until about five years ago I literally had no other people to play minstrel banjo with, other than Dave Kirchner, who I saw a couple times a year at festivals.  All the new people should try to go to at least one of the events or find somebody in the area who plays.  It will greatly enhance the learning curve and overall experience.    

I coveted Pete Seeger's banjo book. I liked all the history and 'How to make a banjo bag.' But didn't have a clue when it came to the tabs and patterns. Then a guy showed me how to do the bum ditty and it all made sense. One thing's for sure, Pete loved the banjo.

And how about brother Mike Seeger? A true banjo family. Last year I had the honor to make a replica of one of Mike's banjos, a fretless, friction peg 1800's looking little beauty.

Mike's banjo playing was great, but totally unlike Pete's.  As far as I know, nobody else really played much like Pete did.  It was just sort of his own thing.  Good, though.  Maybe my problem with Pete's method was that I never did the bum ditty.

On the Rainbow Quest show you can see Pete eyeing Clarence Ashley's playing. The index picked up, the fingers brushed down, and then the thumb. Crazy. About a year ago my son Dan was sitting here playing like that. I said "Where did you learn that?" He said it was the 'easy' way to clawhammer. After 30 years I can't get it though.

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