Arts & Culture

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Tony Trischka performs at the Abbey Bar, "Give Me the Banjo"

Written by Cary Burkett, Arts & Culture Desk and WITF Host | Feb 16, 2016 11:50 AM


Give Me the Banjo is a PBS documentary hosted by Steve Martin, which narrates the history of the instrument, profiles great banjo players past and present, and explores the unique place the banjo occupies in American music and social history.

The title comes from lines written by Mark Twain in 1865:  "Give me the banjo when you want genuine music. Music that will come right home to you, suffuse your system like strychnine whiskey, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like pin-feather pimples on a picked goose! When you want all this, just smash your piano and invoke the glory-beaming banjo! "

Tony Trischka was the Music Director for the documentary. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential banjo players of today. Among his many students is the banjo phenom,  Bela Fleck. And he's the recipient of a Lifetime achievement award from the International Bluegrass Music association.

Tony Trischka and his band Territory will be appearing in a Susquehanna Folk Music concert on Sunday, Feb 21 at the Abbey Bar in Harrisburg. The event begins with a screening of the PBS documentary, Give Me the Banjo at 3:30 p.m., followed by a meet and greet, and a concert that begins at 7:30.

Trischka explains that the roots of the banjo began in Africa, brought to this country by slaves.  "They would take a gourd and fashion a crude neck of some sort ,"  he says,  "and then they would twine horses hair together with beeswax to make strings."

The instrument was alternately known as the banza or the banjar.  In the 1840's a Flemish drum maker in Baltimore by the name of Bouchet got the idea to take the banjar neck and put it on a drum. That essentially became the banjo we know today.

"The banjo was a key part of the minstrel show," says Trischka. "There would be a banjo, fiddle, bones, tambourine, maybe a concertina. It was a combination really of Celtic and African styles. It was an interesting hybrid."

Tony Trishka personally took notice of the banjo for the first time in the early '60's, when he heard a recording by the Kingston Trio called MTA. A banjo solo on the recording "drove me wild" he says, and "made me have to play the banjo".  

Trischka is intimately familiar with banjo playing of many styles and periods. And he's known for bringing his own innovations into the music, drawing from such wide-ranging influences as the Beatles, Jimmi Hendrix and Miles Davis.

Trischka:    I wasn't trying to be weird or different, but on my first album I had more of a "rock-star" thing going on in a couple of tunes - bass clarinet, electric guitar, drums - that kind of thing.  I just was hearing different chord progressions. Rather than the 3 or 4 chords you would find in almost all bluegrass songs there would be more chords than that. That was just what I was hearing. And it reflected the music I was listening to."

Trischka promises that the upcoming Susquehanna Folk Music Concert will include traditional bluegrass banjo tunes, as well as some more modern pieces, and some of his original songs.



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