Friday, December 5, 2008

Clawhammer! #3.1

Oversights are the bane of the historian, even the most casual ones like yours truly. As regular Robert Frost’s Banjo commenter Patrick has pointed out, the “Clawhammer #3” post fell victim to this curse, & so I’m back on the Clawhammer history trail to set things straight.

As Patrick pointed out, there were two wonderful clawhammer banjoists who, thru the magic of TV, brought their music into a whole lotta living rooms in the 1970s—& I really should have mentioned this in the earlier post, because my family—especially my father—watched Hee Haw religiously, with banjo players Grandpa Jones & Stringbean Akeman (not to mention hosts Buck Owens—still a favorite of mine—& Roy Clark, & lovely Hee Haw gals such as Barbi Benton & Misty Rowe—not to mention renowned country musicians from Chet Atkins to Faron Young). Until I was poking around the ‘net for this post, I’d forgotten that Hee Haw began as a 1969 summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers, another of my dad’s favorite shows.

Anyhoo, both Grandpa Jones & Stringbean came thru the lineage of clawhammer banjoists who also sang & did comedy—obviously this lineage dates back to the minstrel show days, & can be traced thru Uncle Dave Macon to these two Hee Haw performers. Of course, Grandpa Jones & Stringbean also brought their diverse skills to the Grand Ole Opry stage (as did Uncle Dave Macon, who was a bit of a mentor to Stringbean).

One thing to stress about both Jones & Akeman is that they were very gifted musicians along with being comics. Stringbean Akeman performed with Bill Monroe, while Grandpa Jones performed with Merle Travis & the Delmore Brothers. Jones also wrote a nice instruction book for clawhammer banjo that’s still available (both as a b
ook & a download) thru Mel Bay. In fact, Pete Seeger mentions this as a “good instruction book” in his “How to Play the 5-String Banjo,” so Jones’ book has been around for quite some time.

Patrick mentioned in his comment that both Jones & Stringbean were singers, & that the old-time music scene these days really leans toward instrumentalists. That's a valid comment. It’s possible that both Jones & Stringbean have gotten some short shrift (& from me, too, mea culpa) because of their comedic personas. As I mention
ed, in some ways this actually makes them even more “old-time,” but there’s sometimes a serious edge to the old-time music scene, at least dating back to the Seegers & the folkies. There’s also a danger that any sort of revivalist movement can be a bit uptight about a sort of precious aesthetic purity (cf. the Pre-Raphaelites for a lit world comparison).

Anyway, I appreciate Patrick bringing this up, & hope this sets things somewhat to rights. I’d encourage folks to take a look at the links & find out more about Grandpa Jones & Stringbean.

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