What Is?
Banjo Connections -- by Jim Matthews

I’m not sure how I came up with this title, but it is probably an extension of the deep philosophical discussion which took place at our last Tuesday rehearsal. This important discourse centered on the definition and relative social value of the “performance” vis-a-vis the “jam session,” and how the relationship between these environments impacts upon a “recording session.”

This line of thought has made obvious the need, on a more basic level, to precisely establish the definition of a banjo band. My preliminary investigation has found broad consensus that a band cannot call itself a banjo band simply because it contains one or more banjos. Conversely, a banjo band need not consist solely of banjos, nor be the subject of frequent speculation as to the number of banjo players required to complete certain specified mundane tasks. I would hypothesize that the essential elements of a banjo band are that (1) the banjo be the feature instrument, and (2) the band in some manner expose or demonstrate the heritage of the banjo.

The banjo’s heritage includes slaves struggling for freedom, gold prospectors seeking fortune, and Irish immigrants carving out new lives in America, all the while manifesting the very foundations of American rugged individualism. Listen to a typical banjo band, and you hear lots of rugged individualism. (Such improvisation has its place. However, there certainly are times when we all need to be on the same page, literally and figuratively.) The banjo can best be understood and appreciated if it is demonstrated in its natural habitat, which, to many, would be the presence of beer and pizza, although evidence of such a relationship is purely anecdotal.

The natural habitat of the banjo would include support from other instruments. In the 1830’s, banjos’ first public performances were along side fiddles. Banjos cannot re-create the flavor of that period –or appear with Huell Howser—without working with a fiddle.

It is safe to assume that bass instruments were also present in those early days, probably most accurately represented by the instrument known alternatively as the gutbucket or the wash tub bass. For purposes of this study, it will be referred to as the wash tub bass for sake of political correctness. But the background of this instrument vis-a-vis the banjo requires further study. Recall that throughout history, the banjo has been defined solely as a body that approximates a circular or hemispherical shape attached to a long stick or handle, over which are stretched an unspecified number of strings. Early banjos had no frets, and most present day banjos do not have stretched skin heads. When considering only the criteria that has been held constant over time, one could argue convincingly that a wash tub bass is a banjo, and therefore its presence in a banjo band requires no further justification.

Come the jazz age, banjos were in the constant company of horns and reed instruments, which are well represented respectively by the sousaphone and clarinet. These instruments have their place in banjo bands, because of their major roll in re-shaping the banjo, both in design and playing style. If a banjo band undertakes one or more bluegrass numbers, acoustic guitar accompaniment is quite authentic and appropriate.

The various “rhythm” devices typically being rung, scratched, whacked, bounced, burped, or launched during a banjo band performance are of such salience and diversity as to merit a separate article.

So, in conclusion, it is evident that the banjo has adapted itself to a variety of environments throughout history, and that a banjo band should reflect that pragmatism, and be played appropriately for jam sessions as well as for formal performances. The discussion of the varying formats of banjo band presentations can be reduced to this one basic truth: Before a formal performance, be sure that your cell phone is off.

Reprinted from the Sacrament Banjo Band Newsletter, April 2005, page 2.