Stories from Summer Vacation: “Too Big to Frail: My Banjo Summer,” by Dr. Randy Lewis

Enjoy this piece from Dr. Randy Lewis, who writes about playing the banjo this summer:

I consider myself a rather dusty, low-rent semi-professional musician. I’ve been paid to play in clubs over the years, but seldom enough to buy a new pair of shoes, and usually not enough to buy a pair of socks at the Dollar Store. I once played nine straight shows at an outdoor medieval fair with a Pirate band in sweaty nautical attire, which, if you look in the dictionary, is the definition of stupid. However, I learned an important life lesson that day: you can’t please an audience hell bent on mixing funnel cake and beer.

Yet I keep plucking away at all things musical in my few moments of freedom, occasionally adding something new to the mix. I’m passable on mandolin, guitar, piano, bass, walking dulcimer, accordion, clarinet, and sax, but only recently came into possession of an old Harmony banjo that became a little summer project. Even for a guitar player accustomed to finger picking, banjo is a strange but wonderful beast. While I was able to teach myself the classic three-finger roll that Earl Scruggs made famous in the 1940s, I really wanted to learn the older technique of “clawhammer” banjo, also known as “frailing”. I quickly realized that I needed lessons to learn how to shape my hand into a “claw,” before striking down on the strings with my fingernails, alternating melody, rhythm and drone attacks to produce the classic “bum-ditty” pattern. When you do it right, it feels like your fingers are dancing on a tambourine covered in baling wire—and you understand why clawhammer banjo propelled so many rural dances across the American South more than a century ago.


A wonderful bit of Steve Martin demonstrating clawhammer

After some lessons from one the best old-time banjo players in Texas (Jerry Hagins at Fiddler’s Green), I discovered that even at my age, I wasn’t too big to frail. With Jerry’s help, I’ve been clawing away at “Cluck Old Hen,” “Big Leg Ida,” and other musical relics that Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga will never cover. Also, somewhat dementedly, I’ve also been working on frailing versions of Led Zep, Jimi Hendrix, and The Meat Puppets. I’m hoping the video of me playing “Kashmir” will go viral and thus immortalize me on Youtube alongside the Segway-riding Chimpanzee and other luminaries of the digital age. (I’ll post it soon).

I should share one other bit of summer news. I was pleased as punch that a new CD was released from my freak folk band Anvil Salute, a small ensemble that plays somewhat “difficult,” droning, experimental music. I play a rather spaced out accordion with this wild improv band, whose members range across the southwest from LA to Oklahoma. You can hear a sample of the new album on the website of our distributor, Pennsylvania-based Deep Water Acres, which is promoting our new CD entitled “Black Bear Rug.”

So that’s something non-bookish that I did this summer. Perhaps it doesn’t connect directly to my work as an American Studies scholar, but maybe it has an indirect connection of some sort. As someone interested in the role of artists in American society, I love to try on various hats and see what can be learned from inside a particular creative process. It’s an experiential kind of learning that I relish, and in the case of frailing, I’ve already started to ask questions that come out of my old time banjo playing: Where did the songs come from? Why these tunings? Why an open back banjo? How much does frailing connect to African banjo traditions? (the answer: A LOT!) Why the drone string? Did women frail? Why did frailing almost disappear? Why are people recovering this style today? Once you start asking a million questions about the deep weirdness and haunting beauty of old time Americana, you’ve probably started doing an organic form of American Studies—and that’s a pretty cool thing.

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