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The New Old-Timers.

    If there is a human race here in a hundred years, banjo is going to
be
   one of the main reasons.
                           --Pete Seeger
   A gentleman is a man who knows how to play the banjo, but chooses not
to.
                           --Mark Twain 


The five-string banjo has never gotten a lot of respect in mainstream America. In the half century since Pete Seeger strummed the instrument back to life in the run-up to the folk revival of the 1960s, a series of popular figures from Jerry Garcia to Steve Martin have come out of the closet as banjo players. But the attention they've received hasn't done much to improve the banjo's boondocks reputation. The most familiar image of a banjo player in popular culture is still the mute, backwoods Georgia boy in John Boorman's 1972 film Deliverance.

(I know this because every time I mention that I've started playing the banjo someone in the room is guaranteed to make a crack about the movie's most famous scene, a dark-hollow nightmare in which two sexually deprived hillbillies force a rotund Ned Beatty to "squeal like a pig.")

In the novel on which the film is based, James Dickey describes the young banjo player as a "demented country kid" who "don't know nothin' but banjo-pickin'." An albino with eyes pointing in opposite directions, he is as broadly drawn a caricature of rural impoverishment as American literature has to offer. "He ain't never been to school," the old man who introduces him reports; "when he was little, he used to sit out in the yard and beat on a lard can with a stick."

And Deliverance is just the most famous instance of a bias that crops up almost unconsciously when talk turns to the banjo. As the country edges toward acceptance of other minority groups, banjo players have become the butt of a genre of humor that must be the last frontier of the politically incorrect joke. Some of these jibes are directed at the peculiarities of the instrument itself: "How long does it take to tune a banjo? ... No one knows yet."

But more often they reflect on the sort of person who chooses to play the banjo: "What do you say to a banjo player in a suit and tie? ... Will the defendant please rise."

Like the image in Deliverance, this brand of humor plays on the presumed insularity and backwardness of the southern Appalachian region where the banjo has its American roots. "If a banjo player and his wife divorce," one joke asks, "would they still be cousins?"

Admittedly, it's mostly banjo players themselves who tell these jokes. But cracking the joke, as cultural studies professors used to say, is sometimes the only way to break the yoke of prejudice. And maybe it's working. Recently, the tide has started to turn. Banjo greats like Earl Scruggs, who is credited with inventing the three-finger style of playing used in bluegrass, and Ralph Stanley, whose recording of "O Death" was featured in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, have become pop-culture elder statesmen. (During the last presidential campaign, Stanley even was asked to record a radio spot for Barack Obama.) Meanwhile, a new generation of independent-label musicians have latched onto the banjo as an emblem of musical authenticity. It's suddenly trendy to say that old-time, a genre of music that features the banjo as a lead instrument, is the new punk. You can find hipster kids picking in Washington Square or trading licks on YouTube. Playing the banjo is becoming a matter of style.

When I was growing up in Tennessee in the 1970s, there was nothing even remotely fashionable about the banjo. If I'd had the option of hanging out at Gerde's Folk City there might have been some cultural cachet to the instrument's mountain twang. But the kids I knew along the hilly stretch of road between Kingsport and Johnson City didn't want anything to do with a backwoods past that was a little too near at hand for comfort. By the time we were in high school, my friends and I were listening to the same dope-smoker rock you could hear drifting out of basements anywhere in the country. But for me the electric guitars and drum solos were an acquired taste.

When I was younger, my family had been as devoted to bluegrass as our neighbors were to the Baptist Church. The classic Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs tunes, songs like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and "Flint Hill Special," were the soundtrack of my childhood. A snappy theme song the duo recorded for one of their Nashville sponsors--"Now you'll bake better biscuits, cakes and pies / With Martha White self-rising flour, / The one all-purpose flour, / 'Cause Martha White self-rising flour's got Hot-Rise"--was the first song I remember singing.

The virtuosity these musicians displayed on their best recordings elicited a kind of reverence from my father that's hard to convey without hyperbole. When Earl Scruggs kicked into an instrumental break on something like "Shuckin' the Corn," I was expected to actually look at the stereo speakers, as if just listening wasn't sufficient to take in the torrent of eighth notes he was reeling off. In our house you couldn't even sit down to enjoy an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies without reflecting on the injustice perpetrated against Lester Flatt when CBS pulled his vocal from the show's theme song. (Flatt and Scruggs were riding a wave of popularity that would take them to Carnegie Hall in 1962, and they had been courted to record producer Paul Henning's composition, "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," for the television show. Somebody at the network must have decided it was a good idea to replace Flatt's nasal baritone with the rounder voice of a Texas singer named Jerry Scoggins to avoid putting off the rest of the country, my father thought, with Flatt's Appalachian twang.) As we saw it, Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde was a masterpiece, less because of the performances turned in by Warren Beatty and Fay Dunaway--in retrospect, I recognize that they acquitted themselves pretty well--than because Penn had the good sense to use "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" behind the car chase scenes.

Calling our veneration of the music religious isn't much of a stretch. For a period in my childhood, it was as if everything was filtered through bluegrass. I first learned the story of Abraham and Isaac from Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," but I heard my first Dylan songs on "Nashville Airplane" and "Final Fling," two crossover albums Flatt and Scruggs recorded for Columbia as the 1960s drew to a close. I probably wasn't the only one. The fact that Lester and Earl were covering Dylan in those days may have helped bridge the generation gap in a lot of Appalachian families. But the group's departure from the conventional bluegrass repertoire was also symptomatic of a split that had sundered the world of country music. My dad's obsession with Flatt and Scruggs put us on the far side of not one, but two, musical schisms. And the accounts I heard of these events stuck in my head with the force of myths--one distant and miraculous, a kind of virgin birth, the other more recent and disruptive, like Luther nailing his Theses to the door at Wittenberg.

Here's how the story went. In the distant past, there was music, lots of it, but it wasn't much to listen to. It was played on the five-string banjo in a style called clawhammer. (I don't remember ever hearing my father say the word without a dismissive "that old" in front of it.) Also called flailing, it was a mournful, monotonous sort of music, made by striking down on the strings with the thumb and the nail of one finger, and the songs all sounded pretty much the same. If country folk were once happy with the clawhammer style, we believed, it was because they simply hadn't known any better. But a new era began on an afternoon around 1934 or 1935 when Earl Scruggs, still just a ragamuffin, ten-year-old North Carolina boy, sat down with his banjo in the front room of his parents' house and started picking around on an old fiddle tune called "Reuben."

He must have started out playing in something resembling a claw-hammer style because, like everybody else, he still didn't know any better. But he got to making little rolls on the strings, playing individual notes by plucking up with his index and middle fingers, and striking down with his thumb. When he alternated between thumb, middle, and index in various patterns he found himself ringing out loops of sound that were both forceful and sinuous, driving the song forward even as the rhythm seemed to be doubling back on itself. He kept at it, syncopating the rolls and varying their speed until he could play "Reuben" on the banjo with something like the supple slide and pop that old-time fiddlers gave the tune. When his older brother came up to the house a few days later, Earl was sitting out on the porch, still playing "Reuben." As Scruggs himself tells it, his brother cocked an ear as he walked up the road because he was catching the first strains of what he quickly recognized was a brand-new way to pick the banjo.

By 1945, Scruggs had joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys and was turning his three-finger style of banjo into the signature sound of the turbocharged new music that would come to bear the band's name. Although the music Monroe played was rooted in the old-time tunes he had heard growing up in Kentucky, he had created his own bluegrass sound by splicing together a variety of American musical traditions. The band might take a tune like Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel #8"--which was itself a country music variation on a black blues theme--and alter its pacing until it took on an entirely new rhythm. (It was probably an accident that Monroe even gave the song a different name, calling it simply "Mule Skinner Blues.") Running against the melody, Monroe's mandolin chopped out a syncopated backbeat that drove the songs along at breakneck speed. They weren't just faster than old-time tunes either; they were also higher. As Monroe explained it, "we pitched the music up where it would do a number some good." A tune that might have been played in G back in the mountains, the Blue Grass Boys would hike up to B-natural. It was as if the songs were driven by an engine that wound up to a higher pitch as it hit top speed.

Most people who aren't familiar with the genre hear bluegrass today and assume, because it features the fiddle and banjo and favors lyrics about things like drinking corn liquor from a jar, that it's a traditional form. But bluegrass, like new styles that emerged in the other arts in the period between the two world wars, was modernism pure and simple. Monroe had no doubt missed Ezra Pound's injunction to "Make it new." But that was just what he had done--he'd taken the material of an older tradition and given it a modern twist. It was higher, faster and, to Monroe's ear, lonesomer than anything that had come before.

And Scruggs's banjo fit right in. Lester Flatt, a thirty-year-old singer and guitar player from Tennessee, was already a member of the band when Scruggs turned up for an audition in December of 1945, and he later remembered that he wasn't thrilled with the idea of bringing a banjo back into the group. David Akeman, a clawhammer player better known as Stringbean, had just left the band, and Flatt felt that the express-train sound Monroe preferred was better achieved without his banjo in the mix. "It was a fine style and I loved String," Flatt said, "but it would really drag the tempo down."

Earl Scruggs, though, surprised him. His playing turned out to be nothing in the world like the old-time frailing Stringbean was known for. When Monroe led Flatt backstage to hear the newcomer run through his repertoire, he found that there was a crowd already gathered around a young man who was eliciting impossible sounds from a five-string. "I worked my way through to where I could hear him and see him," Flatt recalled, "and I was just dumfounded. I had never heard anybody pick a banjo the way he did. He'd go all over the neck and do things you couldn't hardly believe. Bill said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'If you can, hire him--whatever the cost.'"

As it turned out, it didn't cost him that much. Monroe hired Scruggs at a salary of sixty dollars a week. (Five or six hundred dollars by today's standard.) If the pay wasn't staggering, the consolation was that there was practically no time to spend it anyway. The band was on the road nonstop. Throughout the week they would play towns all around the South, then tear back to Nashville in order to perform at the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. Within a few years, Flatt and Scruggs, who found they got along pretty well together, had had enough. In December 1948, they informed Monroe they were through. Stories vary on how Monroe took their departure. Some say he was so angry, he refused to speak to Flatt for decades. By all accounts, Monroe was a careful steward of the musical form he developed, and it's unlikely that he looked favorably on his proteges setting themselves up as independent purveyors of bluegrass. But the three-finger style of banjo playing that Scruggs pioneered had become by then one of the most recognizable features of the Blue Grass Boys' sound. Monroe and Scruggs could both lay claim to bluegrass orthodoxy. Fans wound up in one camp or the other depending on whether their musical ecstasy hinged on the high, lonesome sound of Monroe's vocals and mandolin or the rapid-fire virtuosity of Scrugg's banjo picking. My father, needless to say, fell squarely in the second group.

That's how I always heard it. The real story of the three-finger style turns out to be more complicated. As I would discover later on, there were musicians playing in two- and three-finger styles stretching way back. Listen to Fred Van Eps playing "Rag Pickings" in 1911, and you can tell he knows how to use his fingers. (His early 78-rpm recordings are available for free on www.Archive.org.) Van Eps was no Stringbean; he sounds more like a Django Reinhardt of the banjo. But if he wasn't playing old-time music, he wasn't playing bluegrass either. In fact, the line of banjo players descended from the Van Eps school--it's called "classical banjo"--looked down on Scruggs-style pickers when they began to turn up in larger numbers in the 1950s.

However you look at it, Scruggs had pushed back the boundaries of what you could do with a banjo. Maybe as important, his attention to technique had the effect of shifting the role of the banjo player in country music. Probably because they came out of a minstrel tradition, banjo players tended to spice up their music with comedy. Stringbean, whose shoes Scruggs had stepped into when he joined the Blue Grass Boys, had been the band's comedian as well as its banjo player. He specialized in novelty songs--"How Many Biscuits Can You Eat?", "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy," "I'm the Man Who Rode a Mule Around the World." Even the way he dressed was calculated for laughs. Stringbean's stage costume consisted of a pair of jeans worn at his knees and belted around an oversized shirt to exaggerate his already lanky build. It was the long, tall hillbilly version of Chaplin's little tramp, and the look weirdly anticipated the low-slung fashions of the hip-hop generation. Scruggs, in contrast, stood on his dignity and his banjo picking. Stringbean's mentor, Uncle Dave Macon, provided him with a model for his blend of banjo and clowning. Although he was no slouch on the instrument, playing it in a unique two-finger picking style that combined the downstroke of clawhammer with up-picked melody notes, Macon had become the first blockbuster star of the Grand Ole Opry using a similar formula of old-timey humor and music. There's a legend that when Uncle Dave heard Scruggs play for the first time, he said the boy could pick the banjo all right, but he ain't one damn bit funny.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s you could still see vestiges of this cornpone tradition, and it was linked up in my mind with the clawhammer style. Watching Hee Haw on Saturday nights, it didn't take much of a leap for me to understand that it was Roy Clark, playing three-finger Scruggs style, who was the show's musical hero. Stringbean and another costumed clawhammer player named Grandpa Jones--who could frail a mean "Mountain Dew"--were on the show as beloved anachronisms. But you couldn't take them seriously.

There's probably another reason why clawhammer never got the kind of musical attention we devoted to bluegrass around my house. The other performer you were likely to hear playing in a frailing style in those days was Pete Seeger. With the Vietnam War in full swing what he had to say was anything but comic. In fact, the time slot Hee Haw occupied on Saturday night had opened up when The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was cancelled, in part because of the kind of political controversy Seeger stirred up when he performed "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on the show the previous year. On that occasion, he was accompanying himself on guitar, not banjo, but whatever instrument he was playing, you didn't listen to Pete Seeger in 1968 or 1969 because you wanted to hear the nuances of his picking.

But the fact was that Flatt and Scruggs were starting to be influenced by the same exigencies. Those Columbia albums that included the group's covers of Dylan songs also showcased antiwar anthems like Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Universal Soldier":
    He's the universal soldier and he
   really is to blame
   His orders come from far away no more
   They come from him, and you, and me
   and brothers can't you see
   this is not the way we put an end to war. 


Whether the sentiment was sincere or not, those songs always felt a little off. (There's a line in "Universal Soldier" that says "He's a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain,/a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew." When you hear Flatt saying Boodiest you realize that Scruggs's hippy sons had probably taken over the selection of the material.) And much as I liked the Dylan covers, there was something a little trumped up about some of them too.

One day after I'd moved to Knoxville--this would have been in the early 1980s--I was listening to the Flatt and Scruggs's version of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" when one of my friends dropped in. He was a hillbilly Deadhead from down near the Smoky Mountains, and I thought this stuff--Scruggs's banjo backing up Flatt as he sang "... I would not feel so all alone, Everybody must get stoned"--would be right up his alley. He stood listening for a minute and then said, "Why don't you listen to the real thing?"

When I asked him which real thing, he said, "Either one." I knew what he meant. And I took his advice. I wound up obsessed in almost equal measures with both Dylan and the rawer recordings Flatt and Scruggs put out on Mercury Records before 1950. I even went back--though I didn't tell my father this--to the work they had done with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Monroe, it turned out, was good.

From that time on, it seemed that the farther north my life took me, the deeper my musical taste plunged into the roots of Appalachian music. When I was in graduate school in New Jersey, I was able to make do with just about anything with a modicum of twang, in large part because I was getting a strong agrarian vibe from the milieu I had dropped into. Although I spent most of my time reading modern literature in the library, I was working on an organic farm on the weekends--I cooked up my dissertation while driving a tractor, listening to Joyce's Ulysses through earphones shoved under my hearing protectors--and eating lots of homegrown tomatoes and sweet corn from the fields adjacent to the house where I lived with a few other muddy-boots grad students. We had all landed in the same department because a sympathetic professor--he was the founder of a school of literary interpretation called eco-criticism--had been the graduate admissions director for a few years running. Thrown together as we were, we managed to establish what amounted to an outpost of the rural outback smack in the middle of New Jersey.

After I started teaching in New Haven, though, I was too busy to cultivate that kind of boondocks community. And even if I'd had the time, I imagine it would have been a hard job finding anyone in my new department with a tractor I could fire up on the weekends. Before long, the life of an urban academic had me jonesing for the hardcore mountain sound you can get only from the banjo. I needed a mainline shot of twang. When I wrapped up the day's teaching, I would spend a little time reading through a Web site called BanjoHangout.org. It was filled with advice from members who posted from all over the country, and it seemed like a good place to start if I was going to give the instrument a serious try. But--partly, I think, because the messages were formatted into threads--the site seemed to invite arguments. When I dropped in on the virtual hangout back in 2004, the forum was embroiled in a debate about Scientology. It turns out that Deering Banjos, one of the few companies still actually building their instruments in the United States, was sending their customers a Scientology pamphlet called The Way to Happiness, and some of the Hangout members were offended. (Around the same time Tom Cruise was reportedly handing out The Way to Happiness on the set of War of the Worlds.) It was a fascinating story. I learned, for instance, that L. Ron Hubbard himself had been a banjo picker. But it didn't get me much closer to playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Threads about choosing an instrument or learning to play tended to get mired in a similar morass of viewpoints. There was a constant clamoring about who was really playing a particular style and who wasn't.

Somewhere along the way, the BanjoHangout started to make me feel the same way I was beginning to feel about Earl Scruggs. It had finally hit me that what the sound of Scruggs playing the banjo says to a potential banjo picker is direct and unequivocal: you can't do this. No way in hell. Ever.

So I put the banjo on hold again.

It wasn't until I left academia and moved to Westchester County, New York, that I knew for sure it was time to take it up. My wife had accepted a job at a school in the city, and we wanted our kids to have more room than we could afford from a Manhattan apartment, so we decided to give the suburbs a try. Everyone I told about this predicted what would happen next, but it was still a surprise to me. I don't know if Westchester is officially home to the world's largest concentration of investment bankers, but it sure feels that way. And I had a weird reaction to the manicured lawns and gleaming black suvs that seemed to express the highest values of the local population. Being plunked down in that kind of environment instantly had me hankering to buy back the old vw bus I'd sold before leaving Connecticut. I wanted to park it on the front lawn. And stock it with chickens. Not fancy chickens, either, but plain old Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks. Out of deference to the neighbors, I intended to house the goats in the backyard. Buying a banjo turned out to be nearly as effective an emblem of dissent, and there was a lot less manure involved.

But there was still the old problem of how to get started. Luckily enough, it was around this time that I had stumbled across a blog run by a father and son team named Pat and Patrick Costello. They posted video workshops in which they played and sang and read some mail from the students who tuned in to learn what they had to teach. They had a whole shtick. Patrick was the comic loose cannon, Pat the long-suffering father. It was like a down-home Car Talk with no cars and more talk. And a lot of banjo. It was impossible not to like them.

Patrick--the son--had written a book called The How and Tao of Old Time Banjo. I started reading around in it and liked what I saw. The How laid out the nuts and bolts of banjo playing in a straightforward way that made it look possible to knock out a song or two. But it was the Tao that really set the book apart from other instructional manuals I'd seen. Tao is a Chinese word usually translated as "way," but it refers to a particular kind of way. For Lao Tzu, the sixth-century-BC philosopher most closely associated with the term, the tao was all in what you might call taking it easy. Not forcing things or making them more complicated than they are. That's the philosophy Patrick slips into the anecdotes at the back of his book. The lessons--go with the flow, keep it simple, don't worry about how you're supposed to play a song or a lick--were more or less the opposite of what I'd been getting elsewhere.

It didn't take much time trolling through their blog to see that these guys didn't have any truck with the kind of complexity I felt mired in when I was surfing the BanjoHangout. As the Costellos saw it, you didn't need to agonize over choosing an instrument to get started on. "A banjo," Dear Old Dad liked to say, "ain't nothin' but a hoop on a stick." And getting started was what they did every day. Patrick records a video lesson most mornings--it's called the Daily Frail--and each one starts with the rock-bottom basics of flailing the banjo--that is, playing in the style I've been calling clawhammer. By the time I'd been watching the Daily Frail for a week or so, I had the opening more or less memorized.

"Good morning, everybody," Patrick would say. "Welcome to the Daily Frail. Let's get things rolling with the basic frailing strum. We're gonna strike a string, strum a chord, and let our thumb come off the fifth string. It's a quarter note and two eighth notes, so we're gonna count: one, two and, three, four and. Relax. Get that rhythm down."

That strum--the basic flailing strum--creates a rhythm Patrick refers to as the bump dit-ty. You strike a string with the back of your finger nail--bump--then draw back and strum the same nail across the bottom three or four strings on the banjo--dit--and as your hand completes the strum, your thumb, which has been resting on the skinny fifth string up towards the top of the instrument, pops off--ty.

Bump dit-ty, bump dit-ty, bump dit-ty. Before I'd even touched a banjo I had that rhythm running in my head like a mantra.

"There's really nothing to this," is the phrase you hear more than anything else when Patrick is teaching the banjo. Nothing to it. When he cuts loose on a song, there's so much going on in the melody and rhythm you think he's kidding when he grins and says there's nothing to it. But his own ease with the instrument makes you almost believe him when he explains that that flurry of notes you're hearing is just a string of variations on the basic flailing strum. Bump dit-ty, bump dit-ty, bump dit-ty.

Around this time, I was spending most of my days writing in a college library up the road from my house. Because I watched the Daily Frail first thing in the morning, I would still have the bump dit-ty in my head when I sat down at a library carrel to do my work. An hour or two later, I'd be reading and suddenly realize I was tapping out the bump dit-ty on the edge of the desk. Maybe I'd been strumming it all morning.

Just as the bump dit-ty was burrowing into my neurons, I was also starting to hear more of the kind of music frailing had traditionally been used to play. The re-emergence of my inner hillbilly after the move to Westchester had me dredging deeper into the roots of Appalachian music. I was discovering old-school pickers like Tommy Jarrell--a North Carolina fiddler and banjo player born at the turn of the century--and a still older Virginian named Hobart Smith. I listened to Wade Ward playing songs like "Cluck Old Hen" that were so old their intonation and rhythms sounded like they'd come out of the Urals or the Hindu Kush instead of Appalachia. The guy who really had my feet stomping was Roscoe Holcomb, a Kentucky coal miner born in 1912, who played and sang with an abandon you couldn't really imagine coming from the big-label bluegrass groups I'd grown up listening to. Those guys, for all their high-lonesome energy, were playing suit music--admittedly the suits came decked out with string ties and big white Stetsons--but this was something else: dirt-farm and coal-mine, bib-overall music. As Bob Dylan once put it, Holcomb played with "an untamed sense of control." (If you listen to Holcomb doing "I Ain't Got No Sugar Baby Now," you can hear how he influenced Dylan.)

This was more like it. If I couldn't let rip with a run of Earl Scruggs licks, maybe I could do a little untamed frailing. And flailing was just the stuff Patrick and Dear Old Dad were teaching. I still wasn't ready to commit to learning the banjo for real, but a writer always has a ready excuse to look into something new. So I dug up an e-mail address on the Costellos' Web site and fired off a note saying I'd like to interview Patrick and his father when they had the time to talk to me. The reply popped up so quickly I thought my own e-mail had been bounced back by the server. But it was Dear Old Dad asking me to call him on the phone. I found a study room in the library and dialed the number he sent.

The next forty-five minutes passed in a blur. It felt like I had tapped into the inner monologue of a man on a mission. Pat Costello is a retired manager who over the years ran plants making everything from electronics to bubble gum. Whip thin with a tuft of white hair, he is soft-spoken, but he gives off the confidence of a guy who has always been able to get things done. Where Patrick is a kind of musical Lao Tzu, getting where he is going by going with the flow, his father is the sort of self-starter who'd prefer to rig up some chutes and spillways to put the flow where it needs to go. But you can tell they both have the same goal in mind. This whole banjo thing they have going on with the blog isn't just about music. What they really like to do is bring people together and let them help each other out, whether that means showing someone how to make a chord or giving a homeless person a meal. "Fellowship," Pat calls it. The weekly video workshops he and Patrick film together always end with the same injunction: "If you see a need, fill it." It's an idea they take seriously, though they're careful not to take themselves too seriously while they're putting the message out. The last beat of the workshops is usually a lighter piece of advice: "And don't step in anything soft."

Pat said they might be able to help me out, but he never once mentioned the interview I had proposed. Instead, he intended to plunk me down in a group of musicians and stick a banjo in my hands. Every spring--and now every fall too--the Costellos run a retreat for folk musicians at a state park in Crisfield, Maryland, where they live. Or, I should say, they organize the retreat. The spirit of the thing dictates that all the instruction is ad hoc. It comes partly in workshops led by whoever turns up, and partly in jam sessions, large and small, that go on more or less continuously throughout the weekend. One of these retreats was coming up in a couple of weeks. The cabin where the musicians sleep was already booked solid, Dear Old Dad said, but they'd make room for me somewhere and they'd see that I was fed. All I had to do was get myself to Crisfield.

"If you want to write about folk music," he said, "you have to live it." And he started reeling off the names of all the musicians I had to meet. They all sounded like hobos. Pat the Loafer, Hallelujah Don, Doug from Dallas, Fred from Baltimore.

I kept trying to make it clear that I wasn't a banjo player. I was a writer. But that didn't faze Dear Old Dad. "Down here," he said, "when you have a banjo in your hands you're a banjo player." But he conceded that it would be wise to put in some time "behind the pot" before I came down. The pot is the round part of the banjo, and time behind it means time spent practicing. As it happened, the Costellos had on hand a prototype of one the banjos they designed. The next morning, Dear Old Dad put it in the mail for me to practice on. When it showed up at my house a couple of days later, I don't think more than half an hour elapsed between opening up the box and plunking my way through a primitive, but recognizable, rendition of "Boil Them Cabbage Down."

It felt like I had gotten the bump dit-ty more or less nailed from practicing it on the side of my desk through all those hours in the library. Not only was it unnecessary to have a fancy banjo to get started, I'd apparently gotten a start with no banjo at all. I wasn't inclined to trust my own ear, however; but confirmation came quickly from a team of outside observers. My daughters, the oldest just four, popped into the living room to investigate the bizarre racket that had interrupted Mister Rogers. They had heard me play a little guitar before and never showed much interest. But the banjo had an entirely different effect. They began to bob, then to flap. Before long they were both hopping up and down, pogoing around the room like hillbilly mosh-pitters, and joining in on the "down, down ... brown, brown." In The How and the Tao, Patrick refers to this response as the "chicken dance." Apparently it's not uncommon. People hear the banjo and they can't help flapping up and down. If you can get a chicken dance going, I reasoned, you must be playing the banjo.

From then on I had the banjo in my hands constantly. Calluses formed on my fingertips. The nail on the middle finger of my frailing hand split apart. I learned the C chord and the D chord. (On a banjo, G comes free; you just strum the unfretted strings.) I worked my way through a few songs. And I practiced the bump dit-ty itself for hours at a time. Bump dit-ty, bump dit-ty, bump dit-ty. My wife sought solace in Stephen Sondheim. Then earplugs. Two weeks later I was driving across the George Washington Bridge on my way down to Crisfield with a banjo in the back of the car.

The Eastern Shore town of Crisfield, Maryland, isn't in the middle of nowhere, Patrick likes to say, but if you walk out onto one of the town's docks and lean a little you can see nowhere from there. Crisfield sits on a small bay, sheltered by Janes Island, that opens onto Tangier Sound to the southwest. (Tangier Sound is also the name of the Costellos' blog.) The town was once the seafood capital of the United States, or at least, its residents had good reason to claim the title. If you ordered a seafood meal in a fancy restaurant in Philadelphia or New York at the end of the nineteenth century, you could be pretty sure the crabs or oysters or terrapin on your plate had passed through Crisfield. The Little Annemessex River that flows into the Sound at Crisfield once teemed with blue crabs. And oyster beds were discovered nearby in the 1850s. The joint really started to hop after 1868, when a railroad man looking to make a profit from the area's fishery extended the Eastern Shore line to Crisfield from Salisbury, some twenty miles away. The industry exploded. Twenty years after the arrival of the railroad there were more than twenty-five firms involved in the crab trade alone. Crisfield watermen accounted for more crabs than had been caught in the entire state ten years earlier. At one point around 1910 there were more sailing vessels registered in the town than just about anywhere else in the country. When the WPA guide to Maryland came out in 1940, most of the boats in its harbor were gasoline powered, but Crisfield was still the kind of seafaring hub that invited high-flown descriptions. "All the waters of the Chesapeake Bay are its salty domain," the guidebook says. Nobody really thought the crabs and oysters would ever dwindle. A government report issued in 1890 even went so far as to say that explicitly, claiming that "the fishery will probably never result in the diminution of the species." Of course, that turned out to be wrong.

Watermen still catch crabs and harvest oysters in the waters around Crisfield, but the industry has been devastated by a combination of overfishing and pollution. In the last twenty years, the crab population has fallen by more than 60 percent. But that same 1890 report did manage to catch a foreshadowing of what's happening in the town now. "When a good voice starts the refrain of a spiritual," reads its account of the atmosphere in one of the town's processing plants, "others take it up gradually, and soon the melody spreads through the large shed, rising and falling in smooth cadenced rhythm as knives scrape and shells rattle." Throw in a couple of banjos, a guitar, harmonica, and a set of bones and you have a fairly accurate description of the folk music retreat.

I knew from reading the blog that Patrick wasn't your typical--or I should say stereotypical--banjo player. It's not just that he isn't cowed by the traditional boundaries between, say, one style of banjo and another. (Although he is dedicated to frailing as a technique, Patrick uses it to play everything from old-time fiddle tunes to bluegrass. He even does a clawhammer version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"--the song most emblematic of the Scruggs style.) He just doesn't see boundaries at all. His blog is ostensibly about banjos, but it's really a forum for sharing anything that interests the Costellos. And their interests are far ranging. The reality of this didn't come home to me until I bumped into Patrick in person for the first time.

Having found my way through a complicated set of directions to reach the Janes Island State Park campground where the retreats are held, I had just parked my car under a pine tree and worked up the courage to pull my banjo case out of the trunk. (I'd never been seen in public with a banjo, and I was worried that if I was carrying it someone might expect me to play the damned thing.) As I walked over to the main cabin, where I could hear some banjos tuning up, I saw a man I recognized as Patrick sitting on the front porch giving an impromptu lesson to a guy in an American flag T-shirt. Fearing he would ask me to crack open my case and join in, I slipped quickly up the steps and into the cabin. But as I passed by, I caught a snatch of what he was saying while he demonstrated something on the banjo: "It's like Marcus Aurelius said ..."

The musicians who turn up at these retreats also send anything you ever thought you knew about banjo players out the window. There are a couple of lawyers, like Barrister Bill. There's a psychotherapist named Eton, from Brooklyn, who looks like he might have stumbled in from a meeting of the Workers World Party. There are clergymen of various stripes: Father Keith, Pastor Roy, Hallelujah Don. There's Bob from Annapolis, whose intelligence-agency past I haven't worked up the nerve to pry into. Jim from Philly is a mummer. Miss Trudy, who is Patrick's mother and Dear Old Dad's wife, bakes pies and plays the mountain dulcimer. Doug from Dallas used to be an airline pilot. Tamila from Toronto is an actor who gets cast as the treacherous young woman in Shakespeare plays. She also plays banjo in an indie band. Neil Turner is an architect turned luthier from outside Atlanta who builds some of the banjos the Costellos have designed. He has a side business--I'm not kidding--in South American medicinal plants. Marissa from Bronxville, up where I live, is a folk singer, songwriter, and wickedly good rhythm guitar player, who has been blind her whole life. Kevin Corkery works for the Government Printing Office, and he spends most of his time at the retreats sitting down on the dock or at a picnic table off to the side working out a fiddle tune or experimenting with an alternate tuning on the banjo. Amy from Virginia started writing poetry after her first retreat. Bentley arrived at the last one by sailboat. Kelly Griner, who plays a long-neck banjo like Pete Seeger and has the distinction of being Patrick's first student, is a Desert Storm veteran from Chicago. He plays in a band called Another Pint that specializes in Irish pub songs. But he's nearly as likely to launch into "Meet the Flintstones" as "Whiskey in the Jar." Camilo--or more properly, Camilo the Great--is a magician from Madrid who performs all over the world. After my first retreat, I went to see him at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. More recently he was invited to judge a sleight-of-hand competition in China. European to the core, he plays tenor banjo, the more civilized four-string member of the banjo family. His son Carlos, who plays slide guitar, ukulele, and fiddle, as well as the five-string, is a Converse-wearing elementary school teacher. He posts videos of his Spanish students playing "Skip to My Lou" on the ukulele. James is a retired fireman from Bristol, England. Barbra and Aaron are a couple from Kansas who run a camp for children and adults with severe disabilities. Isaiah is a young newspaper reporter who plays fingerstyle guitar and has recently taken up the banjo. I remember looking around the dinner table one evening and thinking, are you sure this is the banjo retreat?

A good number of the people at the retreat, I realized after talking with them for a while, had found their way to Crisfield as much because of the internet as the banjo. By and large, they weren't musicians in the usual sense. They're people who have always wanted to play music but, for one reason or another, never have. And then, whether they were primarily interested in the banjo or not, they stumbled across the Costellos' blog and found what they were looking for. Technology, strangely enough, put the music they'd wanted into their hands.

That was the opposite of what had been happening for a long time. Patrick once explained to me how industrialization influenced folk music over the years. One wave almost wiped out the banjo as a folk instrument. Part of the banjo's appeal had always been that it was easy and cheap to make. For centuries, they were mostly homemade. The banjo was the tinkerer's instrument, the jalopy of the music world. A banjo player I met in Virginia told me that around the turn of the century there were more patents for banjo innovations than just about anything else you can think of. It was such a simple device that pretty much everyone who played the instrument had the skill you'd need to take it apart and maybe come up with a way to improve it. But when factories started gearing up to manufacture instruments in the last half of the nineteenth century, what was initially a boon for banjo players--a flurry of well-made, affordable instruments--eventually put them out of business. Guitars, which happen to be instruments that are much more difficult to slap together in a shed out back, poured out of the factories too. And they rose in popularity as the banjo declined. Even the techniques involved in playing the banjo slipped over to the guitar world. What you hear in finger-style country blues guitar or in the syncopated strumming used by the Carter Family is an outgrowth of frailing banjo.

If that first wave of technology turned banjo pickers into guitarists, the next one threatened to turn players into listeners. As recordings and radio funneled the work of professional musicians into the living room beginning in the 1920s, there was less motivation to make your own music. The birth of bluegrass in the 1930s and 1940S was in one sense an artifact of radio's ascendancy. Old-time music had been made by hand for the people at hand. Pickers made do with a banjo and fiddle, and people danced. As radio gained popularity, stations like WCYB in Bristol, WSM in Nashville, and WAMU in Washington, De, latched onto musicians who were able to give the old-time tradition a polished, professional, up-to-date sound--bluegrass. One downside of the new music was that its standard of proficiency set the bar high for amateur musicians. It was a sound that said, "don't try this at home."

Now the tide is turning. It's not an accident that old-time music is experiencing a renaissance in the Internet era. With sites like YouTube inviting amateurs to broadcast their own performances, a kind of democratic revolution has hit American music. Suddenly, it's not only acceptable not to sound professional, it's desirable. Music is going--to use a term that's popular among computer programmers--open source. The Costellos' blog adds one more element to the mix by providing a virtual version of what Patrick, in The How and the Tao, calls "cool old dudes'--a couple of guys who know how to pick and don't mind showing you a lick or two before telling you to get lost for a while and practice.

And it's not just Patrick and Dear Old Dad who play the role of old-timer at the retreats. There are always a few old-school musical types who show up less for the workshops than for the jam sessions and general camaraderie. Chris Via, for one, is a laid-off auto worker who now raises goats and makes a living building banjos. He has his own line of instruments and also makes some of the models the Costellos have designed. (He built the Somerset s-5 that I play.) Via is only thirty-five, but his mindset is a hundred years older. He lives near Glen Lyn, Virginia, in Giles County, which is out in the mountainous western end of the state, right on the West Virginia border. The most famous resident of the town was a fiddler named Henry Reed who was born in West Virginia in 1884 and grew up in Glen Lyn. When Via discovered Reed's recordings, it was is if he'd tapped into his own earlier incarnation. To say he is obsessed with Reed is an understatement. There are 184 Reed tunes archived at the Library of Congress, and Via has reportedly learned to play them all. Neil Turner, another luthier who works with the Costellos, told me about receiving calls from Via, who would point him to one of the recordings online and then play it himself over the phone. "Does that sound like Henry Reed?" he'd ask. Reed's own sons, who still live around Glen Lyn, think it does. In a documentary film about Reed's fiddling, one of his sons, who must be in his seventies, can be heard to say, "I like playing with Chris because he plays like my dad."

Via also plays banjo, in a Virginia mountain style, and he's steeped in the history of old-time music. He was the one who explained to me how the split between old-time and bluegrass--really a matter of style rather than a generic difference--got solidified in the 1960s. What happened was that musicians playing in the new bluegrass style started winning all the contests at old-time music festivals like the Old Fiddler's Convention in Galax, Virginia. The organizers at Galax eventually divided the contests up into different categories for old-time music and bluegrass. In the banjo division, for instance, you'd have a winner for old-time and a winner for bluegrass. Same for fiddle, guitar, string band. The new system meant that old-time players didn't have to watch bluegrass musicians walk off with all the accolades, but it also froze into place a distinction that has tended to keep musicians playing the two styles apart.

At the Henry Reed Memorial Fiddler's Convention that Via puts on every summer in Glen Lyn, you can really see that split between the old-time and bluegrass camps. They are literally in different camps. The old-time players cluster their tents together on one side of the field, and the bluegrass pickers gravitate to the other side. To my eye, the bluegrass musicians looked a little like a NASCAR crowd--sort of muscular and edgy--the old-timers more like, well, old-timers. One of the best banjo players I heard there, a local man named Jimmy Costa, looked in his overalls and work boots like he might have been lifted out of the Great Depression. (In fact, he had once been an extra in Matewan, the John Sayles film about a coal miner's strike that ripped through a nearby town in 1920.)

When I talked to a man who'd been pointed out to me as the grand nephew of old-time clawhammer hero Wade Ward, he said that from his camp up on the hill he could turn his head one way and listen to bluegrass and then swing around to catch some old-time. I asked which he preferred, expecting him to declare loyalty to the clawhammer style Wade Ward was famous for. But he said he liked both. "It depends on whether you feel like dancin' or listenin'." I heard that from a few other musicians too. One explained that bluegrass was sit-down music, like jazz. It was designed to show off the virtuosity of the musicians. Old-time, in contrast, was get-up-and-dance music. There was even a dance category in the contest program, and it came as no surprise that the music provided for the dancers by Via's Giles Mountain String Band was pure old-time.

I attended the Henry Reed festival with a few other regulars from the Crisfield retreat, including Pat Willis, a former Marine Corps aircraft mechanic who grew up in Prince George's County, Maryland, but has family roots--and a piece of land--in the mountains of North Carolina. At fifty, Willis is what I think of as a real musician. He plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. But as good as he is on each instrument, he often prefers to let other musicians take the lead while he plays the bones, rattling out a sinuous rhythm on what may be the oldest instrument of all. Willis calls bluegrass the heavy metal of folk music, and he's more interested in the way old-time can transport you back through history. "It's amazing," he once told me, "how a simple slide, bend, or hammer-on can connect me to the past."

I remember mentioning to Willis in an e-mail that I thought a certain Guy Clark song reminded me of the appreciation for folk music I'd seen among the musicians at the Costellos' retreats--"I have seen the David, / Seen the Mona Lisa too, /And I have heard Doc Watson / Play 'Columbus Stockade Blues"--and his reply pinpointed part of what makes those affairs so exceptional. He hadn't heard the song before, but he liked it. And like me, he was interested in learning to play it on the guitar. Having heard it once, he mentioned offhand that Clark had his E string tuned down to D. When I read that something hit me: this guy has absolutely no reason to waste his time playing music with someone like me. I can't even tell what my own E string is tuned to, let alone hear the difference on a recording. Willis not only heard what Clark was doing, but within a few days he was able to play a version of the song that was almost better than the original. And the Costellos have nurtured an environment where Willis and I don't just play together; we both learn things we need from the retreats. It's the people they've drawn around them that make it work.

If there's a ringleader in the group of regulars who show up for every retreat, it's Fred Crouse, known as Fred from Baltimore. Fred is--there's no other way to say it--something else. A drywall hanger by trade and a network technician if you judge by his current employment, Fred has done a little bit of everything, from driving a cab to selling hats. He has a verbal style like no one else I've ever met. It's not just the Baltimore accent either. There's an idiosyncratic worldview implied in the way he chooses to say things. Fred doesn't sleep at his campsite, he'd say he was "jungled up" there. People who put him off are "pie wagons." Even serious matters become somehow more poignant when Fred applies his characteristic touch to them. His ailing father died a few days after one of the retreats, and Fred wrote me saying, "He stepped off peaceful, and I was glad that I could be there with him so he didn't go in solitude."

In the workshops he leads, Fred cranks the whole Fred-thing up a couple of notches. So you're basically getting a free floorshow while you learn a few licks on the five-string. He's a connoisseur of the sort of banjo-player jokes I mentioned before. "What's the difference between a delivery pizza and a banjo player?" Fred once asked the group assembled for a beginning frailing workshop. "The pizza can feed a family of four." But you'll also hear him inject a few lines of Coleridge into a ramble about how he learned a particular banjo lick from some "gray-beard loon" or another.

He has a philosophical streak too. Fred's workshops are as much about how you approach music as how you actually play it. Folk music Fred-style is all in the interactions with other pickers--transmitting a tradition from hand to hand, but also making it your own. The etiquette of the jam session is a typical subject for him. Fred likes to explain what you should do when someone else is taking a solo, or how you signal the last verse of the song you're playing. (You lift up one foot.) He's also a fine banjo player, and his enthusiasm for the music, and more or less everything else, is contagious. Outside the workshops he's usually to be found calling the shots in one jam session or another. And as much as there is to learn from the workshops, it was one of those informal jams that gave me my first first-person musical watershed.

The Janes Island retreats are now alcohol-flee affairs, mostly because the Costellos want to create a comfortable atmosphere for anyone who'd like to take part in them. It makes sense. And the policy is pretty much universally respected--with a little good-natured grousing about how well a cold beer would go down around sunset. But there was one evening at the first retreat I attended when, long after anyone who was likely to be offended had gone to bed, a couple of the musicians broke out jars of what I'm going to call handcrafted, small-batch corn liquor. (I'm avoiding the more familiar term because I don't want to slip back into banjo-player stereotypes.)

The jars went around a few times and the music kept going. My own frailing started to sound, to me at least, a little less discordant than it normally did. Before long we drifted, as is inevitable in a situation like this, into "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." We had a fiddle, a guitar, and maybe a half-dozen banjos huddled around a campfire. Fred from Baltimore was singing the verses with everyone else joining in on the chorus:
    Will the circle be unbroken
   By and by, Lord, by and by?
   There's a better home awaiting
   In the sky, Lord, in the sky. 


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It would be fair to say I've heard the song performed better. (If you slip me a couple of those jars, I'll give you the YouTube link so you can judge for yourself.) But what I can also say without reservation is that, while you're doing it, there's really nothing quite as satisfying as playing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"--yourself--around a campfire in a pine forest beside a tidal river ... to a hiccup backbeat. As the credit card commercials put it: priceless.

I think that was the moment I became, for better or worse, a banjo player. It wasn't the mason jar of what old-timers called "fiddler's dram" or "string grease" that did the trick either. What happened was that the whole scene distracted my attention from myself long enough to let me start ... picking. Patrick says something about that in The How and the Tao. The biggest thing preventing you from playing better than you do, he says, "is being focused on you instead of the music." I saw what he meant. After that night I wasn't afraid to play with other people. Or if I was uneasy, I didn't let it hamstring me. Even in front of what I'd always thought of as real musicians. A month or so later I wound up playing banjo with a stand-up bass player who was so much better than me he was basically a different species. My banjo was out of tune, and my rhythm was all screwed up. When I sang, sang, it was off-key. But we both enjoyed ourselves. The people listening were either complimentary or they kept quiet about the debacle they had witnessed. (Did you get that? There were people listening.) Instead of being intimidated by the musicianship of other players, I was starting to see music as something that might actually make it easier to connect with other humans.

Later that summer my family and I spent a month on the island of Crete, where I was doing research for a book. On one of our last nights there, my four-year-old daughter and I stayed up past her bedtime to watch the sun go down and see the Milky Way from the patio of a taverna in the mountain village where we had been living. Just as we were getting ready to call it a night, we heard the sound of a guitar drifting out of the room behind the kitchen. When we went in to investigate, we saw it was being played by a man I recognized as the village housepainter. (There were only about a dozen residents, so you got to know the village's cast of characters.) We sat down to listen. And then I remembered that I had a harmonica in my pocket.

At the retreat, Kelly Griner had given me a couple of tips on how to blow some notes to accompany a song's chord changes, and I had experimented a little on my own later. Now I pulled the harmonica out and started, quietly at first, to test out a few notes. When the guitar player heard what I was doing, he kicked into a three-chord, country blues song in the right key for my harp. He didn't know any English to speak of, and I didn't speak enough modern Greek to do anything besides order another round of beer. Even worse, I didn't really know how to play the harmonica. But we managed to work our way toward a pretty funky sounding song. Once we hit the right groove, we just kept playing it over and over--both beaming like we were the new Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

And then suddenly Willa, my daughter, joined in. She had picked up an iron stirrup from an old donkey saddle she found hanging on the wall and was playing it like a triangle, tapping out the beat with a screwdriver. Clink, clink, clink. The look on her face, joyful yet serious because she was really doing her part, is still etched in my memory. I was in raptures. We're not just in another country, we're in a region of that country that's so remote the natives of its own cities would feel off-kilter. It's late at night, we don't speak the language. I'm practically tone deaf, and my daughter is four years old. We're in the backroom of a mountaintop taverna with a housepainter who immigrated to Greece from Bulgaria. And we're jamming.

There's a story in The How and the Tao about how strange and affecting it is, after years of learning music from old-timers, to realize you've become one yourself. It has nothing to do with age. For Patrick, the moment came on an August afternoon at a festival he attended in Pennsylvania, years after he first picked up a banjo. He was sitting in the shade and picking with Dear Old Dad when he saw that a crowd had gathered around. "Kids were creeping up, fighting their shyness to see my guitar or get a closer look at my banjo," he recalls. Before long they were peppering him with questions about how to play this or that lick. "A lot of them," it finally hit him, "were looking at me like I was some kind of old-timer."

My banjo playing hasn't hit the old-timer stage yet. But when I played a couple of tunes for my father a few weeks after that jam session in Crete, I experienced a little bit of the feeling Patrick is describing. I knew that my dad had played banjo for a while. There's a photo of him from around the time I was born in which he's holding a Kay resonator banjo, the sort of instrument used for bluegrass. He has just the right look, the banjo-player curve in his posture. You can tell he knows what he's doing. He never played banjo when I was growing up, but I knew he had some talent because he would occasionally sit down with my guitar and pick out a nice "Wildwood Flower" in the Carter Family style.

When I pulled out the banjo and ran through "Whitehouse Blues" and "Wreck of the Old '97" he listened as if I was really picking. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was impressed.

It was all I could do to make it through the last instrumental break on "Whitehouse Blues," a song we used to listen to Flatt and Scruggs play on a recording of their 1962 Carnegie Hall concert. I limped through it, at best, at a third the tempo Earl Scruggs had given it. But my dad tilted his head to the side and said, "Boy, that's more than I could ever do."

He wound up telling me that he had never made much progress back in his banjo days. Back then he was trying to play bluegrass, which employs picks that you attach to your thumb and first two fingers. He said he kept getting the picks stuck under the strings, and he finally just gave up.

I mentioned that in the clawhammer style I'd been learning, you didn't have to worry about picks. And somehow it felt like our roles had gotten reversed when he replied, "There's a lot more to clawhammer than most people think."

Later that afternoon we looked around in the garage and dug up an old Harmony banjo that had belonged to somebody in my stepmother's family. We took it inside and cleaned it up. It had a bakelite rim and gut strings that had remained intact over the years. After tuning it up, I played a few licks and couldn't believe how good it sounded. I handed it to my father to try and went off to check on my daughters. When I came back, I saw that my father had taken the resonator off the back of the banjo. It wasn't surprising really. We had been cleaning it up, and it made sense to brush out any dust or spiderwebs that might have gotten inside. Maybe he just wanted to get a look at the nuts and bolts. But it struck me that there might be something else going on. Resonators were added to banjos used for bluegrass to give them some extra oomph for cutting through the mix of other instruments. Old-time is generally played on a simpler, open-back banjo.

My dad, I couldn't help thinking, was getting his banjo all set up to pick a little of that old clawhammer.
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Title Annotation:Style as Performance/Performance as Style
Author:Davis, Wes
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:12119
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