The Banjo Project

Monday / March 8, 2010 / 4:00 p.m.
Red Room at Cafe 939
939 Boylston Street
United States

The Banjo Project is a collaboration between Emmy-winning writer/producer Marc Fields and banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka (the project's music director), whose World Turning CD on Rounder was the inspiration. The Banjo Project brings together contemporary players in all styles-in performances and interviews-with folklorists, historians, instrument makers, and passionate amateurs to tell the story of America's instrument in all its richness and diversity.

If any musical instrument can be said to be quintessentially American, it is the banjo. Even in its construction, it tells a story of cultural exchange: the banjo is a drum with strings, a symbolic blending of African and European musical identities. Brought to the New World in the memories and traditions of enslaved Africans, repeatedly re-invented by African- and European-Americans, the banjo has shaped most American musical forms: the minstrel show (the dominant popular entertainment in the United States in the 19th century), ragtime and early jazz, old-time folk, and the folk revival, as well as blues, bluegrass, country, and new hybrids yet to be labeled.

The Banjo Project is a musical odyssey through 300 years of American history and culture, featuring contemporary banjo masters such as Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Béla Fleck, Taj Mahal, Mike Seeger, Alison Brown, Sonny Osborne, Don Vappie, Cynthia Sayer, and Abby Washburn in interviews and performances, combined with rare archival footage, stills, recordings, and first-hand narratives.

Using the banjo's diverse musical styles, rich social history and colorful players as our narrative "thread," The Banjo Projecthighlights many of the issues at the heart of American culture today. In its long history, the banjo has symbolized patriotism and protest, pain and pleasure, low entertainment and sophisticated leisure. It's been a black instrument, a white instrument, a laborer's pastime and a socialite's diversion, a young person's fad and an old-timer's friend. But mostly it's been a snubbed instrument. Whether it's Dan Emmett in blackface, the jazz age flapper whamming on a four-string or Pete Seeger leading an antiwar rally with his long-necked Vega, the banjo has been the symbolic prop for stereotypes about race, class, gender, region, and political persuasion right up to the present day.

With contemporary banjo masters providing the commentary, The Banjo Project documentary weaves together rare archival footage and recordings with the narratives of historic banjo figures such as Joel Walker Sweeney, Lotta Crabtree, S.S. Stewart, Vess Ossman, Gus Cannon, Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, Elmer Snowden, Eddie Peabody, Dock Boggs, and Etta Baker. Throughout the program, experts in cultural history, folklore, popular music, and instrument design supply additional analysis and historical context: Mike Seeger, Kip Lornell, Neil Rosenberg, Joe Wilson, Tony Thomas, Lowell Schreyer, Cece Conway, Bob Winans, Sule Greg Wilson, Pete Ross, and George Wunderlich.

Of course, there's too much good music, too many good stories, and colorful characters to fit into a two-hour documentary. There's also an upcoming comprehensive DVD, to include additional performances, historical profiles, interviews, and archival footage.