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Pickin’ My Brains Out

23 Jan

Banjo Boy

I’m ruminating on the BANJO this eve. It’s got a real nice sound, the BANJO does: brittle, metallic, hollow-toned and bone dry. Dry like the way my skin usedta feel after spending too much time playing basketball under the hot SoCal sun, in the face of them nasty Santa Ana winds. You know: face feels tight as a drum, and when you smile, lips crack and ooze a bead of blood. Yep, the BANJO sound has a dry, cracked, blood oozing sound.

BANJOS have always been on the periphery of my vision. One of my first memories is of my dad’s BANJO – one of them 4-string, tenor types – rusting out in our garage. Never heard him play it, but it got me pondering what it might sound like, in the right hands. As a little kid, watching cornball Hee Haw TV reruns – ol’ Roy Clark was always front and center, soloing madly on his trusty BANJO. Yeah all his pickin’ & grinnin’ always got me jumpin’ and stompin’ like a little freakazoid. And of course, there were those adolescent, post-soccer victory lunches at the local Shakey’s Pizza Parlour: sharing a pitcher of A&W rootbeer with shin-guarded pals and oogling the guy dressed in cheap, faux-Victorian barrelhouse get-up, as he clawed out Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” on an out-of-tune BANJO in time with a player-piano. Ya see, I just couldn’t shake the BANJO if I tried.

The following fine tunes are only a tiny sampling of the 1000 or so BANJO tunes you just gotta hear before they lay you to rest down in the churchyard. Feel free to point out your own favorites. I’d love to hear em, especially the way I’m feeling tonight.

OBRAY RAMSAY – “Cold Rain and Snow” (from The Music Never Stopped: The Roots of the Grateful Dead CD on Shanachie Records, 1995): An early 60’s classic from the mountains of North Carolina, some of ya’ll will know this from the myriad of versions THE GRATEFUL DEAD waxed throughout their long career. Obray’s high lonesome croon and 3-finger picking crawls down my collar toward my heart like it must’ve to Jerry Garcia’s once, all them years ago.

CLIVE PALMER & BOB DEVEREUX – “D Tune” (from the Suns & Moons LP on Rainyday Records, 1978) Clive’s best known for his involvement with the INCREDIBLE STRING BAND and the great CLIVE’S ORIGINAL BAND, but he’s done a slew of other worthy banjo recordings which explore the edwardian popular songbook in that intentionally stiff, proper English style of his. Here he offers up a more fluid, circular mode of melodic playing that, when I listen closely, makes the floral-print wallpaper turn into spinning pinwheels before my very eyes.

STEELEYE SPAN – “Blackleg Miner” (from the Hark! The Village Wait LP on Chrysalis Records, 1970) One of the first I ever heard by these Brits, and still among my most favorite. That’s Terry Woods on 5-string banjo – he’d go on to play in THE WOODS BAND and, a decade later, the freakin’ POGUES. What a perfect instrument to ram home the no-retreat union miner strike message laid out here. God I love them harsh downstrokes he punctuates the twangin’ riff with throughout.

JIM KWESKIN – “Blue Skies” (from the Jim Kweskin Lives Again LP on Mountain Road Records, 1978) This old Irving Berlin chestnut never sounded so bittersweet. Recorded around the time of Mel Lyman’s death (following years of protracted sickness), I read this as Jim’s packet of good tidings to his old harmonica player, well-loved friend, and almighty figurehead of the cult to which he belonged. Though I could be wrong. Gonna post long ‘n’ hard about this Kweskin guy, as soon as I can find my kazoo.