Banjo Connections -- by Jim Matthews
As some of you know, I was a member of the Sacramento Banjo Band in a previous life. (At least it seemed like one.) It was 1970 or so, and I had started lessons under Frank King. Not long thereafter, the demands of college and graduate school took me in other directions --and to other parts of the country. Now that I have been back with the band for about two years, I can offer some observations on how it is different from back then, and some other possibly more interesting observations on how it is the same.
One can make a case that certain types of music stays with generations. People have continued to follow the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead, and Elvis even as their years advanced. And it was under pressure from older Rolling Stones fans that the upper age limit was removed for participation in the Mick Jagger Super Bowl halftime show. Some say that Mick Jagger will be around for ever, as long as there are cockroaches (or something like that). I am confident that the banjo will also survive as long as cockroaches, and one reason is that it can adapt to different environments. Indeed, music that was popular with my cohort from youth, including the works of Woody Guthrie, the Village Stompers, and the Beatles has found its way into our banjo band repertoire. So that is definitely a change from what I can remember from those early days.
But some things about our band have not changed. During my early involvement, there was concern that the banjo, especially in the traditional "jazz" style, was in danger of extinction. Now, nearly forty years later, our band, still playing mostly oldies, is alive and well. I don't know what it was like in the intervening years, but it is now about the same size as I remember --maybe a little bigger. And the age distribution also seems to be about the same as back then. Obviously, some "replacements" have arrived from somewhere.
This course of events would serve to bolster the theory that peoples' tastes in music can differ at various stages in life, rather than stay the same through a generation. It has been said that you cannot play a sad song on the banjo. Indeed, the banjo even makes the blues sound up-beat. Present-day children are naturally attracted to our "happy" tunes, as evidenced by our recent "kids night out" performances. As children approach their teens, they typically need to demonstrate their newly acquired capability for more complex forms of expression, and prefer musical styles that reflect that complexity of feelings --and sometimes frustrations-- that might not generally be suited for the banjo, except in the hands of some of the masters. But upon reaching middle age or older, when people have advanced in careers, reared families, fought wars, and to some degree established themselves in life, they no longer need to constantly demonstrate levels of sophistication, and just want to have fun with their music. This is one possible explanation for why adults at this stage of life have been attracted (and in some cases returned) to banjo bands, as players or listeners. But, I must add, this is not to say that no deeper meaning can be found in the banjo, which has served to uplift peoples' spirits in trying times throughout its history. It still makes a profound statement.
So after this brief analysis, I would offer this conclusion: The Sacramento Banjo Band is much the same as I remember it from years ago, except when it is different.
Reprinted from the Sacrament Banjo Band Newsletter, March 2006, page 3.