Fans of folk music gathered at Scuppernong Books downtown last Friday evening to hear local banjo player Bob Carlin speak about his new book, “Banjo: An Illustrated History.” Situated between the shelves of used books, Carlin spoke on the history of the banjo and his own experiences with the instrument to a small but enthusiastic crowd.
The banjo was originally adapted from traditional African gourd instruments. Slaves brought them into the New World to play traditional African music, and eventually the banjo became popular instrument in the black minstrel shows of the 1800s. It took it’s place in folk and bluegrass music after only Joel Walker Sweeney, the first popular white banjo performer, modified the instrument for wider use.
Carlin demonstrated traditional African music on a replica of a period instrument, one that, he explained, goes by many names. The African musicians who played these instruments at the time, Carlin explained, were “the equivalent of our classical musicians.” They worked for the kings, and their job was to preserve history as well as to musically praise the king. Before playing, he pointed out the hybrid technique the song used, with a more European style in the left hand and a traditionally African style right hand.
Bob Carlin is widely considered to be one of the best banjo players around today. He has written countless articles for countless music journals and has recorded many albums of his own playing and collaborations with other talented musicians, such as John Hartford and Dolly Parton. His book “Sting Bands of the North Carolina Piedmont”discuss American folk music at the local level, though his newest book is his first fully-illustrated one.
His book features illustrations and thorough descriptions of the banjo’s many ancestors, as well as accounts and descriptions of important people in the progression of the banjo in America, like Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger.
Carlin spoke casually and conversationally, and from the moment Carlin began playing it was evident how knowledgeable he is. Clearly a laid-back and relaxed person, Carlin was quick to make jokes about banjo playing.“Banjo players spend half their lives tuning,” he said, “and the other half playing out of tune.”
Audience members were highly receptive to his anecdotes and song demonstrations and eagerly asked questions throughout the evening. The area was small crowd, tucked back in the corner with other customers browsing the store. The small audience and background noise made for a more informal presentation, which felt natural for a talk about traditional American music.
Between sips of San Pellegrino, Carlin explained the more recent evolution of the banjo. Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger modified the existing banjo in the 1950s to the five-string, long-neck version most banjoists currently play. Their modifications made the banjo a more viable instrument, and without them, Carlin said he didn’t think anybody would play the banjo today.
North Carolina is considered by many to be a hub for folk music. Mount Airy is home to a strong tradition of folk music and many talented performers. Many popular bands today that incorporate both the banjo and an influence of traditional folk into their music come from North Carolina, like the Avett Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Bluegrass and folk festivals and conventions that attract artists on an international level are held in North Carolina. The National Folk Festival was held in Greensboro a few weeks ago, as well as the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh coming up this weekend.
Bob Carlin’s book, “Banjo: An Illustrated History” is available for $35 online and at Scuppernong Books.