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Musical pioneers profiled in entertaining 'Give Me the Banjo'

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Nov. 3 2011 5:54 p.m. MDT

Steve Martin, narrator of the PBS documentary "Give Me the Banjo," performs with the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Stephanie Berger

The “checkered and complicated” history of the banjo is reviewed in “Give Me the Banjo,” and it’s a fascinating view into the development of American music.

Airing Friday on KUED at 8 p.m., the 82-minute documentary spans 300 years of American history and popular culture and dramatically shows how the banjo influenced many forms of music — ragtime and early jazz, blues, old-time, Dixieland, folk and bluegrass.

Much to its credit, the program doesn’t shy away from the historical background of the banjo that includes “racism, slavery and exploitation.” While the banjo is quintessentially American, the instrument was brought to this country early in the 17th century by Africans in slavery. The music was then popularized by minstrel and blackface entertainers, a largely forgotten yet vital part of American music.

“Give Me the Banjo” is narrated by Steve Martin, who has brought banjo music to the forefront since his “wild and crazy guy” days as a standup comic. The banjo has been part of his shtick since he rode his bicycle from his Garden Grove, Calif., home to his early jobs at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Acknowledging that he is being called “Hollywood’s ambassador of the banjo,” the actor-comedian says, in his deadpan humor, “That’s right. It was between me and Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

A former member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin is a banjo virtuoso. And when his name is associated with a documentary on the subject, it could easily be assumed that the program is a long commercial for his Steep Canyon Rangers group — whose tours have included a performance at Utah’s Red Butte Garden concert series — or his Grammy-winning CD, “The Crow.” But his touring group only opens the documentary with a brief performance, one among the rollicking examples of live banjo playing in the program.

Part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival, the documentary is broken into chapters covering the innovators of banjo music, from its early pioneers to contemporary performers. The compelling background of each of these musicians is entertainingly told.

The Virginia Minstrels was the first blackface performing group and performed highly popular, elaborate stage shows in the 1840s. It is credited with the song “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Gus Cannon wrote “Walk Right In,” recorded by his Jug Stompers in 1929. The song became an international hit when the Rooftop Singers re-recorded it 33 years later during a period when Cannon sold his banjo for coal to heat his home.

Other banjo masters profiled include Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger (“the Johnny Appleseed of folk music”) and the performing groups the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Taj Mahal.

Emmy Award-winning Marc Fields produced and directed “Give Me the Banjo” with co-producer and music director Tony Trischka, an acclaimed acoustic musician. The nine-year project was obviously a labor of love for the collaborators, and the 400 hours of interviews and performances are included in the web-based archive called the Banjo Project.

Fields explains, “The project is a look at American culture through the banjo.”

Titled after a Mark Twain quote — “The piano may do for love-sick girls. But give me the banjo when you want genuine music … just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!” — “Give Me the Banjo” is a must-see for anyone with an interest in American music and culture.

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