It’s Saturday, & as we move into the weekend proper, I expect a number of you are still working on Thursday’s turkey & trimmings: perhaps at the soup & sandwich stages now. Here on Robert Frost’s Banjo, we’re back to our banjo feast with two interesting selections.
Both of today’s songs feature performers whose careers pre-dated the recording industry—their careers stretch back to the days of medicine shows & similar entertainments. Otherwise, however, you might think that Uncle Dave Macon & Papa Charlie Jackson were quite different sorts of musicians playing quite different sorts of music—Uncle Dave Macon is thought of as an old-time “country” musician—he was a charter member of the Grand Ol’ Opry—while Papa Charlie Jackson would be classified as a blues player.
But they both played the banjo—& as we know from many sources, the genre-typing of music that’s a staple of today’s recording industry (& which seems to grow more & more particularized every year) is an anachronism when discussing the actual musicians & types of music played in the actual “old times,” especially prior to World War II. A good discussion of this, particularly in the blues context, can be found in Elijah Wald's fine book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson & the Invention of the Blues.
Anyway, from a banjo perspective, both Macon & Jackson were excellent players. Macon’s style—while idiosyncratic—may be a bit more recognizable. He played clawhammer or frailing style, but interestingly, he often interspersed parts that were played with the fingers plucking upward rather than the downward stroke of frailing. These days this is pretty much an "either/or" choice, & a fair number of banjoists play in only way style period, let alone switching styles in mid-song as Macon did.
Papa Charlie Jackson on the other hand, didn’t play the 5-string banjo or its 4-string relatives like the plectrum & tenor banjos. He played a 6-string “banjo guitar.” Tuned like a guitar, but with a banjo head, this instrument was much more common in the 1920s & 30s than nowadays (tho both Gold Tone & Deering continue to make these instruments)—besides Papa Charlie Jackson, the great Johnny St. Cyr from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five played a guitar banjo; & a couple of musicians whose careers extended later but who had roots in this era also were known for playing the instrument, namely Danny Barker & the Reverend Gary Davis. Even Django Rheinhardt played some guitar-banjo!
Hope you enjoy these two songs (at least marginally “foodie”), & tune in tomorrow morning for two more as the series draws to a conclusion!
1st pic: Papa Charlie Jackson & his banjo-guitar.
2nd pic: Uncle Dave Macon & his 5-string banjo