Friday, January 20, 2012
A happy Banjo Friday everybody. Hope you’re ready for some fine banjo music, because that’s what we have for you.
Let me start by stating a fact: I am completely in love with Gillian Welch’s music. For my money, there’s no better songwriter in US popular music today, especially when you consider the richness of the music combined with the poetry of the lyrics. The fact that Welch is also a top-notch, soulful singer makes her songs so very compelling—rife with emotion, evocative both in terms of sound & lyrical content. To my mind, Welch has something that a relatively small number of songwriters have had in the latter half of the 20th century & beyond—the ability to draw from roots American music in a way that makes the songs seem truly timeless—instantly recognizable both in terms of rootedness & contemporaneity. Dylan certainly has had this, as has Tom Waits in a somewhat different context. Others in addition to Welch? Very few. I would put Welch’s songs up there with the best.
Now you may be saying: that’s all well & good, but Gillian Welch is a singer-songwriter, & we’re here for banjo music! It’s true that on the majority of her songs, Welch plays rhythm guitar behind the intricate solos & fills of her partner David Rawlings—a truly inventive guitarist, & a player of the first caliber. But Welch also plays clawhammer banjo, & while her playing is not “virtuosic,” it’s plenty good; on songs like “My First Lover,” “One Morning,” “Rock of Ages” & others it adds a stark & unexpected color to the music.
It’s interesting to me to see someone using the banjo, especially in the clawhammer style, as a singer-songwriter. We know about the clawhammer style being used for instrumentals & dance music (with or without vocals), but it’s not found much with singer-songwriter types, & I think that’s a shame. It’s true that the banjo is quirky & that its chord voicings can be ambiguous—certainly a guitar gives a fuller background for a voice to ride on—the guitar’s whole set up is geared to producing chords as distinctly as possible—I know this, because in much of the music I do, the aim is to get the chords back to sounding musically ambiguous! What the banjo offers singers is something a bit more spare & contrapuntal, & at its best, this can be a striking effect.
In terms of today’s clip: this is a live recording from a recent show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam; the song, “One Morning,” comes from Welch’s 1998 release, Hell Among the Yearlings. Now a word of warning—this is not a six minute song. In fact, Welch starts playing & finds the banjo is out of tune & stops while Rawlings re-tunes it. As a performer myself, I’m always fascinated to see how a seasoned musician reacts to something like this, so I enjoy watching the clip from start to finish. If you don’t want to see that part, move the slider to about 2:25 & you’ll be able to catch the actual beginning. Besides the fact that I find the first two minutes interesting, I also chose this clip because of the high quality of both the video & the audio, which I didn’t find on other YouTube clips of Gillian Welch with the banjo. Of course, David Rawlings' guitar playing isn’t exactly shabby on this!
The photo of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings is from Wiki Commons, & the image links back to the page of origin. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license by its creator, Flickr user furtwangl.