various artists,
Classic Banjo from Smithsonian Folkways
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2013)

When Moses Asch gave his label, Folkways Records, to the Smithsonian, he did so with the caveat that the Smithsonian would keep everything in print. Having been maybe the nation's foremost purveyor of the recorded folk music, Asch gave the museum quite a treasure chest, and the museum has responded by giving the people a series of treasures, a recent one being this anthology of fine banjo music.

The banjo is the quintessential American instrument, first referred to in The Spy, a New York City newspaper. Thought to have brought to this country from Africa by slaves, it quickly became the instrument of choice for white people also; it belongs to black and white, young and old, male and female -- it is truly the instrument of the people.

And this CD, choosing from the Asch collection of more than 330 banjo recordings, 30 of the best, ranging from the 1930s through the 1960s. We hear one of the finest banjo players of the Appalachians, Hobart Smith, do his classic, "Banging Breakdown," Frank Profitt's "Johnson Boys," Pete Seeger doing a medley of old banjo tunes and Dock Boggs doing "Bright Sunny South."

What is more exciting, though, are the selections from forgotten or never known talents like Pete Steele who explains in a spoken introduction that his "Coal Creek March" was written to celebrate the lives of the miners who died in the Coal Creek Rebellion of 1891.

Along the way, we get a few lessons in exactly what the banjo is capable of. We hear it play the blues, jazz, polka, folk, gospel and, of course, bluegrass -- the CD closes with the famous Bill Monroe lineup that included Bill Keith on banjo and Peter Rowan on guitar doing "Bluegrass Breakdown."

Classic Banjo is a fine record that will have you searching for more recordings by the forgotten players represented here. It is also an important record because it is living history, a recorded example of where we come from musically and how the music helped make us into the people we are.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

3 August 2013

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