The Flying Banjo Squadron Keeps Old-Time Music Alive

Parlor Picking

Hugh Davis taps out an old-time tune at Lichgate Cottage.

Scott holstein

Walk right in and walk
right in, walk right in I say

Walk right in … hear my banjo play

Walk into the parlor, and hear my banjo ring

See my lightnin’ fingers as they go across the string.

 

Walk into the parlor of Laura Jepsen’s tiny Lichgate cottage on any third Thursday and you will see musical sleight of hand as members of the Flying Banjo Squadron lay down some old-time melodies on vintage, open-back banjos.

These aren’t “grassers,” the nickname given by some old-timey artists to their up-tempo bluegrass kin. These men and women are “clawhammer” players, and that’s a whole ’nother kettle of fish.

“I came up with the name (for the group),” said Bob Jones, 60, a historian with the state Bureau of Historic Preservation. Jones was a founding member of the Flying Banjos, a collection of hobbyist musicians who have been meeting monthly since 2003. He said he just threw the name out there but everybody liked it.

“I thought it was appropriate considering the airfield that was here during World War II,” Jones said.

About seven or eight banjo players come to the gatherings on a regular basis, although larger groups aren’t uncommon. Members keep in touch about gatherings via e-mail.

The Flying Banjos don’t meet to rehearse public performances, although every now and then some members will be asked to play at a dance. Mostly, they play just for fun and recreation, much like their old-time predecessors in the Appalachian Mountains.

“Mostly it’s a small community event where people enjoy the music, camaraderie, and learn something new about the instrument,” said Howard Pardue, 66, who works in route planning and acquisition for the Florida Trails Association.

“I started playing consistently six or seven years ago,” said John Flynn, 64, an instructional project manager at the Florida State University Center for Teaching and Learning. “They really give me encouragement to stick with it. It can be frustrating trying to play some of these tunes.”

Old-time banjo playing goes by many names: Thumping. Thumb-knocking. Tapping. Frailing. Stroke. Rapping. Clawhammer. But they all describe the same way of banjo playing that began long ago. “Clawhammer,” so named because of the clawlike way the hand is held while playing, shouldn’t be confused with the fast and furious three-finger picking style made famous by Earl Scruggs’ “Beverly Hillbillies” theme. It’s a much older style, first heard on the plantations of the Old South.

 

Noah built an ark, and filled it full of sausage

And all the animals they took the cabin passage

And the elephant he come at last and Noah says “You’re drunk,”

“No,” says he, “It took me all this time to pack my trunk.”

 

“Clawhammer is described as a downstroke style,” said Flynn, who studies the banjo’s role in the “minstrel” era of the mid-1840s. “Whether it’s called clawhammer, tapping or frailing, what all those terms have in common is the same downstroke style. That’s where you’re hitting a string on the downstroke with either the index or middle finger (of the right hand) and even ‘drop-thumbing,’ and double-thumbing, and hitting the melody on the downbeat, followed by some kind of thumb note on either the fifth string or one of the other strings. You’ll find variations, but that’s just a general description.”

 

“The stroke style may have come from the African form of playing,” said Pardue, alluding to the fact that the banjo itself is of African origin. It started out as a gourd-bodied folk instrument with three or four gut strings. But like just about everything else that has arrived on U.S. shores, it evolved over time into an Americanized art form.

“We significantly changed it once it became established,” Pardue said. “The white culture became interested in it, improved the construction, and it emerged as an American instrument. The guitar is America’s most popular instrument, but the banjo has a special place in America’s culture.”

Back in the antebellum South, the banjo was mostly frowned upon by whites, but that changed when a white man named Joel Sweeney came along. The story goes that as a young boy, Sweeney would spend his days on his father’s farm listening to the black men play the “banjar” and soon built his own. Legend has it that Sweeney is the one who added the short fifth string, but that’s incorrect. The “drone” string already existed.

“He gets credited with adding the short string, but he really created the bass string, to accommodate Irish tunes,” Flynn said.

From there, the banjo — and the stroke style — took off. Sweeney became a traveling minstrel, going from place to place playing the songs he had learned and even throwing in some comedy for good measure. By the mid-1840s, minstrel groups were a big hit across the nation — although their “blackface” component is generally looked back on with disgust today.

Pardue said that over time, the banjo generally fell out of favor among blacks. He said he has been told by African-American banjo players (“And there are not a lot of them out there; it’s become more a white-dominated industry”) that perhaps this loss of cultural interest had less to do with its association with minstrelsy than with the notion of blacks moving to the cities to look for a new life.

“The guitar became the instrument of innovation (for black musicians), unless you were left in the rural South in the culture that still played string band music,” he said. “You were trying to progress and improve your life, and the guitar would have become the instrument of choice, and the banjo sort of got left behind.”

However, just the opposite was happening in the white culture. The banjo went west with the “Forty-Niners” and had a large presence during the Civil War, Flynn said. Toward the end of the 19th century, banjo makers such as S.S. Stewart and A.C. Fairbanks started mass-producing the instrument, making it better and stronger – and fancier. It changed from a simple handmade gourd to a manufactured instrument with an “open back,” followed by the more recognizable “resonator” banjo of modern times.

“What they were doing was taking a rough-hewn, homemade instrument and manufacturing it with a pre-Henry Ford type of production-line method, and they were implementing the tone ring, and steel strings had become available because the instruments were stronger,” Flynn said. “Banjos are becoming more ornate, with inlays on the head, stock and neck, and moving away from fretless to having frets.”

 

Noah sent a bird out to look
for dry land

And when he come back he had a banjo in his hand

I took up the banjo and played this little tune

And all the other animals
they fell into a swoon.

 

At the same time banjo makers were creating instruments for the parlor, the style of playing was changing as well. Although the old-timey stroke style wasn’t going away, musicians trained in the art of classical guitar started applying finger picking to the banjo.

“It was an attempt to gentrify the instrument as a parlor instrument,” Flynn said. “And move it in some cases to the three-finger style, divorcing it from its plantation roots. There were full orchestras of banjos, so it was quite a phenomenon.”

The Flying Banjos aren’t quite an orchestra, but that’s not what they’re after. They preserve the “recreational” aspect of the classic clawhammer period.

“The old-time style has a sense of community,” Pardue said. “To me, what you get with old-time is a direct tie to the old community traditions, part of the country since its founding.”

“I think everybody that is part of the group brings a slightly different sensibility to what they’re doing, and the sound of it,” Jones said. “It reinforces the resolve to learn more. It really provides a way to play with other people. Within a year we were playing better, and our playing with others improved. We learn from being with each other, and a lot of mutual respect and friendship has grown out of it, too.”

 

So walk right in and walk right in, walk right in I say

Walk right in, hear my banjo play

Walk into the parlor, hear my banjo ring

See my nimble fingers as they go across the string.

 

(“Walk into the Parlor,” traditional banjo song, circa 1860s) 

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