What About the Banjo?


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The banjo has been seen as the characteristic instrument of bluegrass music. For 70 years, it wasn’t bluegrass unless it featured a banjo. Many suggest that’s still true, that bluegrass has lost its way when it plugs in, uses other instruments than the five (mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass) that Bill Monroe had in the Blue Grass Boys or the six (add the Dobro) Lester & Earl used in The Foggy Mountain Boys. Hardcore traditionalists maintain that music without the syncopated, three-finger style of Earl Scruggs cannot be bluegrass. Others hold that music, like all of life, progresses, evolves, changes, morphs. While, as musical genres go, bluegrass is a hoary 70 years old, the issue of WIBA (What Is Bluegrass Anyway) will continue to be revisited. Meanwhile, the banjo itself has proven its own ability to change.


The banjo developed through the 19th century, mostly in the South, as an instrument played by slaves in a dance situation or in minstrel shows. Here, Dom Flemmons and Rhiannon Giddens perform a square dance call.

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