The Old-Time Herald Volume 12, Number 1

Feature
Trends in Old-Time Banjo Playing Part 3:
By Ray Alden
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Mac Benford . Photo by Ray Alden

The Second Choice:
use the banjo to accompany the voice or the fiddle?

Pete Seeger and later the New Lost City Ramblers always featured singing as a main ingredient in their performances and recordings. Pete’s recordings, whether from the political side (Folkways’ 1941 LP Talking Union and Other Union Songs), those for children (Folkways’ 1951 LP Songs to Grow On), or with a group (Vanguard LP The Weavers Songbag), focused on songs. Only rarely did solo instrumental LPs appear, such as Folkways’ 1954 LP The Goofing Off Suite. Continuing with the singing tradition, from 1958 to 1961 Folkways issued several LPs (The New Lost City Ramblers, The New Lost City Ramblers Volume II, Songs from the Depression, Old-Timey Songs for Children, The New Lost City Ramblers Volume III), all of which concentrated on songs with only the infrequent instrumental (“Black Mountain Rag,” “Colored Aristocracy”).

In 1968, just before large numbers of musicians joined the old-time music revival, the Hollow Rock String Band (Alan Jabbour, Bertram Levy, Tommy and Bobbie Thompson) from the Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina issued an LP of old-time string band music instrumentals mostly influenced by fiddler Henry Reed. They featured tunes such as “Richmond Cotillion,” “Betty Likens,” “Money Musk,” “Folding Down the Sheets,” and “Over the Waterfall.” The Fuzzy Mountain String Band, another string band formed in the same area and influenced by the Hollow Rock String Band, released its first LP on Rounder in 1971. Their second LP soon followed, titled Summer Oaks & Porch. Numerous changing members included Bill Hicks, Vicky and Malcolm Owen, Eric Olson, Blanton Owen, Tom Carter, Dave Crowder, JoAnn Stokes, Dick Zaffron, and Sharon Sandomirsky. Instrumentals were again the prime focus, and members of the band made visits to record old-time fiddlers and banjoists so that that virtually all their repertoire was learned first-hand. Featured tunes such as Shooting Creek,” “Double File,” “Old Sledge,” “Sally Ann,” “The 28th of January” and “Green Willis” were learned from Southern musicians such as Gaither Carlton, Frank George, Burl Hammons, Tommy Jarrell, Taylor Kimble, and Oscar Wright.

It is perhaps the timing of the release of these instrumental LPs, combined with the influx of Northern musicians, somewhat more unaccustomed to singing than if they had grown up with song as occurred in the South, that tilted the balance of old-time banjo toward that of use primarily as accompaniment to the fiddle rather than the voice. One of the notable exceptions for using the banjo only to accompany the fiddle is that of New Jersey native old-time banjo player Mac Benford.  As Mac wrote to me, “I moved to California’s Bay Area in 1967, and began my professional performing career with the much-beloved Dr. Humbead’s New Tranquility String Band and Medicine Show. This group specialized in the recreation of the old-time music captured on 78 rpm records from the 1920s, most especially that of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers.” Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers were a singing band, and Mac sang many of their songs, some of which can be heard from this exact era in California on the Field Recorders’ Collective’s FRC609, Berkeley in the ‘60s. For Mac, the primary goal was not an academic exercise to recreate the music precisely, but, as he says, "It was all about fun for us and fun for our audiences."

 

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