For me it started with the instrument
rather than the music. The first time I heard the banjo, I fell in love with the
sound. This was in the folk music
revival era with musicians such as Pete Seeger playing the banjo.
Unlike today, where the world of music is only a click away, my exposure to the
banjo was limited to what was on radio and TV in southern Ontario. The first
bluegrass I heard came when Earl Scruggs played with Lestor Flatt for the TV
show "Beverly Hillbillies". His three finger style just blew me away. Doug
Dillard played banjo with the "Darlings Family" on the "Andy Griffith Show". The
odd movie, like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Deliverance", had banjo prominent theme
songs as well.
There were no record stores near where I lived that carried any bluegrass
material. There was very limited use of the banjo in music I was exposed to. On
occasion a banjo would show up in more popular music. I listened intently when
any music included anything on the banjo.
In 1973 I bought a Framus 5 string banjo and a Pete Seeger instruction book to
learn the 3 finger picking style that I loved. None of my friends played
instruments, so I was on my own. The book just didn't cut it for me. I needed to
hear what the sound should be. I did find a "play along" record but all tunes
were at performance speed. After attempting to figure it out, I gave up in
Many years later, my wife decided to learn to play the guitar. She took group
lessons at the local college and, through this, heard of a local banjo
player/instructor. I dusted off my (by now old) banjo and signed up for lessons.
From my instructor, I found out about the annual Tottenham Bluegrass Festival.
There, as well as seeing top calibre bluegrass bands, I was able to buy many
bluegrass tapes and CDís. My instructor taught me some 3 finger style basics and
had me learn tunes from tablature. In hind sight, it would have been better for
him to have taught me to recognize, in recorded tunes, the licks he had taught
me and then (by combining these licks) apply them to recreate these tunes on my
The lessons were short lived when work requirements combined with family
commitments all but eliminated any practise time that I had. The banjo gathered
A number of years later, Terry Calvert invited me to come out and jam with him
and other bluegrass musician. I had never played with anyone else (other than my
instructor) and had limited knowledge of chord formations, but decided to go and
see what went on at a jam.
This is where my learning really started. While I still didnít have much time to
practise, playing with others in a jam circle really helped with my timing,
hearing chord changes (and recognising the chord) and doing basic rolls as
backup to the lead instrument/singer. In addition, because of the regularity of
the jams (once a month at that time), it forced me to put in a reasonable amount
of practise time in between. The members of this group (Bluesky Bluegrass Club)
were very accommodating and understanding of my limited ability to play the
banjo. In spite of many of them being accomplished musicians, they offered
advice and encouragement and allowed me to struggle through when it was my turn
to take a break (and play the wrong chord/poor timing/etc. when they were taking
their break). They are a great group of people who add to the desire to attend
our jam sessions.
I sold my original banjo. I felt that, for me, the neck was a little too narrow
with the strings too close together. It had a mellow sound and I wanted a banjo
that had a deeper, more plunky sound. The one I have now is a 1970's Japanese
banjo with some of the parts changed out by the prior owner. I am still very
happy that I made the change.
Since joining Bluesky Bluegrass, I have retired. I now have more time to work on
my playing. In spite of my prior comments on how I should have been taught, I
did continue to learn to finger pick tunes from tablature (so much is available
on the internet). I felt I had to learn new tunes so I wouldnít continually
repeat tunes in subsequent jams. I am now in the long process of utilizing what
I have learned and attempting to apply that to play by ear. It's coming but will
Once I feel reasonably comfortable playing by ear, then I will consider myself a
Jo Ann Clark
I was one of those kids who grew up
with one ear glued to the radio as WWVA Wheeling West Virginia faded in and out
on Saturday night. My Dad played banjo and mando and I sang with him and his
friends when they jammed at our house. Later on, I drifted away to other music
forms, but came back a few years ago when I started singing with a bluegrass
band in Florida. The bass player offered to teach me his upright bass. Three
months later, I bought my own. It was a great instrument to start on, because
you can play 2 note chords, and you don't need to worry about minors, sevenths
etc. until you get into more advanced playing. The drawback was that still I
needed other players to back me up when I was singing, so a few months ago I got
a dobro, a type of steel guitar. I find it easier to chord with a metal bar than
to try to train my old fingers to twist into those weird guitar shapes.
I love bluegrass for a lot of reasons.
Harmony singing is one of the hallmarks of bluegrass and although I don't sing
harmony, I absolutely love listening to it. I love the unique sound of bluegrass
instruments, and I love the informal way of making bluegrass music. You don't
have to read music. You play mostly by ear. You never know what someone else is
going to sing; you play along if you know it, or just listen and watch for a
while until you catch on. Bluegrass players are easy to get along with and we
all learn from each other. We make mistakes, but we don't worry about it. We do
it for fun.
My introduction to Bluegrass was indirect. It came by means of folk music. I
remember as a young girl of seven, going to Mariposa Folk Festival for the first
time. Our family and a group of friends would ride the ferry over to Torontoís
Centre Island, and take in such acts as Ian and Sylvia Tyson, John Prine and Doc
Watson. My dadís interest in music ignited my interest first in Folk music with
its story-based ballads, sung by such singers as Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot,
Judy Collins, and Odetta to name a few. When you add to this repertoire the
harmonies of the Seeger Family, the Kingston Trio, as well as Peter Paul and
Mary, how could you not be entranced? Take the above and align them with
fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and throw in a story of love lost, found or
unrequited and Bluegrass naturally emerges.
As music evolved throughout the
80ís and 90ís, so did my fatherís musical tastes. Although his preferences were
eclectic at this time, we, (his children, family and friends), could see, and or
rather hear Bluegrass replacing the light rock and roll and pop music performed
by the Who, Genesis, Elton John and Billy Joel. He had always had a preference
to groups with strong harmonies. However, if you were with him and he heard a
fiddle, mandolin or banjo tune heíd grab one of us and start doing his two-step
jig. I may be mistaken but I think the pendulum swung back to its roots around
the time The Rankin Family took the national stage and that would have been
around in 1988 coinciding with The Traveling Wilburys' multifarious crew.
Whichever they seemed to be the catalyst that started him wanting to play an
instrument again and his genre preference was Bluegrass. Why, thatís a story for
him to tell.