4 Feb 2018

New Horizons: nine great banjo tracks

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 4 February 2018

English banjo player and songwriter Dan Walsh is currently touring NZ: he’s playing 21 small venues across the county, so William Dart thought this week’s New Horizons just had to be... Banjo week.

Dan Walsh

Dan Walsh Photo: Supplied

Here are nine of William's hand-picked banjo-inspired tracks:

1. Louis Moreau Gottschalk – ‘Le Banjo, Op. 15’

Why is our first track a piano opus? Well, going back to 1853, while the young Brahms was immersed in the worthy world of the piano sonata, American composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk was ensnared by the banjomania in the US of his day.

Gottschalk took the spiky, early ragtime shuffle of the Christie Minstrel shows into the concert hall with this Opus 15 showpiece ‘The Banjo’.

2. Bela Fleck – ‘Three-Part Invention (Sinfonia) No. 15’

In his 2001 album Perpetual Motion, banjoist Bela Fleck made his classical outing with a team effort, calling on cohorts from violinist Joshua Bell to bass man Edgar Meyer. And the Bach three-part Inventions, with Bell’s fiddle and the marimba of Evelyn Glennie, almost seem shot through with the gleam of gamelan.

3. Bela Fleck ft. Sam Bush - ‘Growling Old Man and the Grumbling Old Woman’

Bela Fleck was the hipster banjoist of the nineties. The titles of his albums with his group The Flecktones say it all — from Flight of the Cosmic Hippy to Three Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Little wonder that Rounder Records eventually re-released his 1979 debut recording to show just where he’d come from.

My favourite track from this debut is the earthy, traditionally fuelled duet with fiddler Sam Bush. Running at well under two minutes with a title that resonates more and more with every passing year — ‘Growling Old Man and the Grumbling Old Woman’.

4. Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn – ‘Take Me to Harlan’

Bela Fleck’s last three albums have seen him partnered by his wife Abigail Washburn, who also happens to be a banjo player. For aficionados there’s much to enjoy in their music-making, calling on an impressive range of different instruments.

For me, it’s the sparseness of their musical palette that most appeals. The song ‘Take me to Harlan’, from last year’s Echo in the Valley, has its own quiet, understated virtuosity. Fleck is on banjo and Washburn sings and provides percussion with leather soles on wooden floor.

5. John Hartford – ‘Gentle on my Mind’

How could I overlook John Hartford, best known for kick-starting Glen Campbell’s career with his song ‘Gentle on my Mind’. These days I find myself actively preferring Hartford’s own version of it, with the subtle tint of banjo in its backing and Hartford’s dry, laconic vocals.

6. John Hartford – ‘Back in the Goodle Days’

Hartford, who passed away in 2001, left a heritage behind him as songwriter, banjoist and fiddler. He was one of the musicians featured in the Coen Brother’s movie O Brother Where Art Thou and its subsequent music documentary, Down from the Mountain. But it’s his two Warner albums of the early 70s that inevitably lure me back again and again.

The wry nostalgia of a song like ‘Back in the Goodle Days’ is poignantly dealt out by Hartford and his banjo, in the bluegrassy company of guitarist Norman Blake, fiddler Vassar Clements and bass man Randy Scruggs.

7. Dan Walsh – ‘Funky Haystack’

And now, Kiwi banjophiles from Tauranga to Queenstown can enjoy 21 performances by Dan Walsh, the Brit banjoman who takes his instrument so seriously that he signs his blogs Danjo.

And we’re in for some frisky plucking, if his new album, Verging on the Perpendicular, is anything to go by, especially if we’re given a taste of his ‘Funky Haystack’

8. Dan Walsh – ‘Going to the USA’

You get the feeling that Dan Walsh is very wedded to the lot of a touring musician and more than one song lays out the joys and frustrations of life on the road. Picking up a guitar, he remembers the frustrations of even trying to get in the country in the case of the USA.

9. Dan Walsh – ‘Leaving This Land’

Walsh is returning to us for the third time and it seems he’s rather fond of what he describes as his second home, far away. He remembers crowd surfing in Onekaka’s Mussel Inn and one wonders whether the same will happen when he plays there on Monday the 12th. He also recalls our breakfast TV shows and selling out his then new album at his first gig.

And I think it’s us that he’s tributing in the song 'Leaving This Land', which may well be almost unbearably poignant if he sings it at his final concert, at Auckland’s The Bunker on March the 5th.  A show to catch I’d say.

For full details of Dan Walsh’s tour, which begins in Tauranga on Sunday, February 4th, head to Under The Radar.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'The Banjo' (Gottschalk) – Alan Marks (piano)
Gottschalk: Piano Music for 2 and 4 Hands

'Pomp and Circumstance March No 1' (Elgar) – Orchestra, cond Maurice Peress
The Birth of Rhapsody in Blue

'Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor' (Donizetti arr Peabody) –  Eddie Peabody
The King of the Banjo: Original Recordings from the 1920s and 30s Vol 2
(no label)

'3-Part Invention No 15' (Bach arr Fleck) – Béla Fleck, feat Joshua Bell & Evelyn Glennie
Perpetual Motion

'Growling Old Man and the Grumbling Old Woman' (Trad arr Fleck) – Béla Fleck
Crossing The Tracks

'Take Me to Harlan' (Fleck/Washburn) – Béla Fleck, Abigail Washburn
Echo in the Valley

'Gentle on my Mind' (Hartford) – John Hartford
RCA Country Legends: John Hartford

'Back in the Goodle Days' (Hartford) – John Hartford
Aereo Plain

'The Boatman’s Dance' (Trad arr Trischka) – Tony Trischka
World Turning

'Funky Haystack' (Walsh) – Dan Walsh
Verging on the Perpendicular
(Rooksmere Records)

'Going to the USA' (Walsh) – Dan Walsh
Verging on the Perpendicular
(Rooksmere Records)

'Leave This Land' (Walsh) – Dan Walsh
Verging on the Perpendicular
(Rooksmere Records)

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes