News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Equalizer: The Golden Age Of The Banjo
BY JONAS BEALS
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Now that Mumford & Sons have solidified themselves as the year’s most popular band, a question: When did the banjo become so damn sexy?
Aside from the constant four-on-the-floor disco beat that underpins all their songs, the most prominent Mumford & Sons sound is the banjo, a much-ridiculed acoustic folk instrument rarely heard in pop music for the past 50 years. As insufferable as Mumford & Sons’ songs are, this is a tremendous development for the banjo.
It’s worth noting that the banjo was common in early popular jazz and “hillbilly” recordings, and it’s been a staple of bluegrass since Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe in the 1940s. Even though Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was one of the first songs Elvis Presley ever recorded, rock ’n’ roll would effectively kill the banjo as a lead instrument in the late ’50s. The ’60s folk revival would keep the banjo alive behind the scenes, but it rarely popped up among the increasingly electrified world of pop music.
Fortunately, it reared its tight, plinking, drum-style head now and then. Time to see how an instrument with hillbilly connotations and African roots became the surprise darling of 2012.
1966: “Stop Stop Stop” by The Hollies
One of the few rock songs with banjo as the lead instrument. Tony Hicks’ strumming style is closer to what you’d hear from a tenor banjo or modern bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and Trampled By Turtles.
1966: “I Know There’s an Answer” by The Beach Boys
Glen Campbell strums some subdued tinniness into the end of this Brian Wilson production on the Pet Sounds album. Wilson used dozens of instruments on his records, and the banjo was both a timeless and progressive choice in the mid-’60s.
1967: “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles
It practically disappears in the layered production, but it’s there, livening things up in the hands of John Lennon.
1970: “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin
One of the oldest folk songs remade by Led Zep, this one features Jimmy Page on a rolling banjo.
1972: “Old Man” by Neil Young
No surprise that folk-rocker Young would turn to the banjo. You might be surprised to learn that it’s James Taylor plucking the melody on a a six-string banjo here. An example of the banjo adding age, authenticity and depth to an acoustic track.
1975: “Squeeze Box” by The Who
Banjos have a prominent place in British and Irish folk music, and were popular instruments in the skiffle bands that preceded many of the British invasion’s greatest rock bands. Pete Townshend, who wrote the song, plays a very rudimentary bluegrass-style banjo on the track, lending a loose, good-time vibe to the tune.
1982: “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners
Beating back the predominant synthesizer trend of the time, this celtic-influenced track was both banjo-heavy and a surprise pop hit.
1998: “There’s Your Trouble” by The Dixie Chicks
The ’90s were a rough decade for the banjo, even in country music. Save the occasional understated role in a Diamond Rio or Alabama song, the most quintessential of country instruments had been washed out of Nashville for decades—until Emily Erwin dared to be a banjo player in a popular band. She kicks off this tune on the five-string, the first notes of the Chicks’ first hit.
2001: “O Brother” and Alison Krauss
The revenge of bluegrass. Thanks to the movie and the honey-voiced singer, traditional Appalachian music took the country by storm, and it brought the banjo along for the ride.
2004: “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show
Not exactly a pop hit, but this song had a huge impact online, and you’ve probably put it on a play list in the last eight years. The Nashville roots movement was a clear inspiration for bands like Mumford & Sons.
2007: “1234” by Feist
An incredible showing for a song with noticeable banjo: No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The most popular song of the banjo’s run in indie-rock—the other movement that made it possible for Mumford & Sons, and the banjo, to rule 2012.
JONAS’ IN-TOWN PICK: The Eddie James Trio at Bistro Bethem. Some great local music from a band with bass, drums and guitar/fiddle. Tuesday at 8 p.m.
OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: Medeski Martin & Wood at The Kennedy Center in Washington. One of the most adventurous jazz groups working today. Saturday at 9:30 p.m.
LISTENING TO: “Shanti” by Béla Fleck and The Flecktones. A sort of Beatles-esque raga exploration on a sitar-sounding banjo.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036