Hero Worship

I just realized an important clarification that I need to make. I talk a lot about being able to play like Reser, Bechtel, and Peabody (et al) as a means of mastering the banjo and moving on (regardless of whether you like them or if they represent your personal style or not). This is not due to any “idolization” of them on my part; it is due to the fact that they represent the best template for the four-string banjo and its unique music. It is literally “how the banjo is played.”

That doesn’t mean that the banjo should never be played in any other way (I would never say that). On the contrary; mastering them will ultimately allow you to “go beyond” their historical influence (and keep the banjo recognizable as a banjo). That’s how progress and evolution happens—something the banjo has done precious little of since the 1920s.

I do not have posters or autographed pictures of any of them on my music room walls (my Father’s picture is the only exception. I have to dig deep in my archives to find a picture of me with Buddy); I do not maintain an alter with their pictures where I burn incense and pray for enlightenment; I rarely play recordings of their music, except when I am trying to learn (steal?) something from them; I don’t own a Vegavox or B&D banjo; etc.

What I worship is the skill that makes their music possible; they are simply a personification of those skills. I guarantee, just about anything that is currently being done by you or I on the banjo—the skills that we utilize—can be traced to a few historic greats, whether you care to admit it or not! It’s the same as speaking your primary language; the skill can be traced to the first people who spoke that language.

Hero worship can blind you, and lead you to believe that they could never be matched by us mere mortals. An awful lot of people around the world idolized Louis Armstrong, but instead of being blinded and/or cowed by his brilliance, they copied his licks and fairly quickly surpassed him. As Dizzy Gillespie famously said, “no Louis, no me”; he knew he wasn’t inherently “better” than Louis, just that he had the benefit of learning from his music and then going beyond. Heck, even Django Reinhardt was beholden to Louis, and wasn’t afraid to admit it or to credit him! If Jazz is indeed a language, Louis was the dictionary’s first and primary author.

The history of Classical music is also a study in evolution, starting in Medieval times (when music was first written down, making it teachable/learnable) and continuing today, each generation standing on the shoulders of their teachers, and in their turn taking music to the next step. In short, “no Bach, no. . .well. . .us!” Really; he codified the rules of harmony as we know them today, at least in the West (Euro-American music). You can be excused for worshipping him.

Frankly, very few players have gone beyond the technical banjo mold that Reser, Bechtel, and Peabody (et al) made in the 1920s! Part of the reason for this is that very few have taken the time to master their styles and thus climb up on their shoulders. This is a big part of the reason for the four-string banjo’s decline; we have failed to develop and standardize an easily recognizable banjo style that might capture the attention of the general public (like Bluegrass has done for the 5-string). Presenting the historical greats as our role models (which they are) would personify the banjo, and might lead a curious young person to delve deeper into that player’s history (good luck with that; Wikipedia hardly mentions any of them), and lead to a renaissance for young people.

I don’t have any answers to our dilemma, except: Lets start to develop a collection of mini-lessons that will allow a player to “play it like Reser (or. . .).” If you specialize in a particular style, please share some of your thoughts on how the rest of us can do it too; if you’re not a teacher, show me, and I’ll do my best to develop it into a lesson (and you know I’m not in this for the money). Hero worship is not required; only the learnable/teachable methods to their greatness.   

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