Maybe you think of the banjo as primarily a bluegrass instrument, but try not to forget that prior to about 1830, it was played pretty much exclusively by African-Americans, and it seems to have as ancestors several African instruments.
It's not hard to find people with a visceral dislike of the banjo, on to which they have projected a corniness and a kind of assaultive good cheer. That's not fair. The banjo is a more expressive and versatile instrument than it gets credit for, and, if anything, it's being used in a very hip way these days by artists like Sufjan Stevens, Modest Mouse and Beck.
Earlier this summer, I saw my friend Jim Mercik playing banjo with a jazz group in a graveyard in Hartford and I was again reminded that my own mental associations with the instrument are pretty limited. I mean, a talented banjo player can do a heckuva a lot more than just play the theme from the Beverly Hillbillies. Not that that's easy.
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This episode originally aired August 30, 2011.
- Noam Pikelny is a Grammy-nominated banjo player with the band Punch Brothers.
- Béla Fleck is widely acknowledged as one of the world's most innovative and technically proficient banjo players
- Jim Mercik is a banjo and guitar player in Connecticut
- Dick Bowden is a traditional bluegrass banjo player