Though you’d be hard-pressed to swing a Stratocaster without hitting a guitar-player, that instrument still carries a certain exclusivity. It takes more than skill to be a guitarist: it takes attitude.
The banjo, on the other hand, might be a little bit corny, a little folksy and rough around the edges (it doesn’t know how to use its indoor voice), but it’s an equal opportunity instrument. So much so that banjo players are actively recruiting new members into the club.
“I think it would be fun to have more banjo players,” says Zhenya Gene Senyak, author of Banjo Camp! Learning, picking and jamming with bluegrass and old-time greats (Lark Books, 2008). “It’s like offering people a good, cheap drug,” he continues.” You get into a groove and you’re not bothering anybody. It’s social when you want and private when you want.”
In fact, Senyak’s book reads less like a bluegrass rendition of Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug” and more like a bluegrass rendition of Cosmo Kramer’s coffee table book. Remember that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer introduced morning talk show hosts Regis and Kathie Lee to his coffee table book about coffee tables that came complete with folding legs so it could be a coffee table? Well, Banjo is a book about Banjo Camps that is, in and of itself, a camp. Chapters include “Welcome Assembly,” “Camp Schedule” and “Campfire Conversations.” There are scrapbook pictures, doodles, coffee stains and swatted mosquitoes. And just when you think the book has met its kitschy-informative saturation point, there’s a companion disc affixed to the back cover so budding banjo enthusiasts can pick along. (It’s the next best thing to stringing the book’s cover with a handful of rubber bands and plucking a verse of “Cluck Old Hen.”)
But what is a banjo camp? Senyak, who signed up for a series of camps to hone his instrumental skill, describes the experience as a “sleep-away banjo theme park.” For adults who attended summer camp as children, the very mention probably conjures images of cabins, bunk beds and s’mores. A glance through Banjo reveals much is the same for these grown-up retreats. No mandatory “polar bear” swim, no boondoggle weaving, but there are bunks, roommates, campfires and – most importantly—workshops.
Senyak admits that some of the camps’ accommodations “really sucked” but “the people are really cool.” These overgrown campers are “adults in their 50s trooping around with banjos.”
It was the presence of virtuoso Tony Trischka (teacher to bluegrass-jazz innovator Bela Fleck) at Banjo Camp North near Groton, Mass., that first attracted Senyak to the sleep-away experience. An interview with Trischka appears in Banjo and Senyak insists that the legendary musician was not only an impressive picker but an astute instructor. However, he cautions, many of the camps’ teachers “don’t really care what you’re doing. These are big-name performers.”
He explains that while many students are, at first, star-struck by the instructor roster, the reality is that a crackerjack player doesn’t necessarily translate to a skilled tutor. “Phil Jamison [a local dance caller and the founding coordinator of Old-Time Music & Dance Week at the Swannanoa Gathering] said the interesting thing about the Swannanoa Gathering is that no one who teaches there learned that way,” Senyak points out.
In a way, that disconnect lends itself to a relaxed atmosphere. The beginning student needn’t worry about being laughed out of Banjo Camp by his more advanced bunkmates. “You could easily get lost in a class and never get called on to do anything,” Senyak reveals. “There are also jams and you can hang out on the edge and nobody can hear you.”
At the end of the day, he admits, “Banjo camp is great for getting inspiration but for learning, you’re better with a teacher or book.” And so the author did the mosquito-swatting, s’mores eating and bunk bed sleeping for you, the reader, so you can skip the sweatier, grimier aspects of camp and go right for the good stuff: The hammer-ons, and bum-diddy maneuvers (if those terms are Greek to you, you’ve only to crack this book).
In the intro chapter Senyak writes, “…if not for the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’ I wouldn’t have heard bluegrass banjo until I grew up and left town.” The same is not true for local music enthusiasts, as Western N.C. is the heart of mountain music. “The West coast actually has more interest,” the author explains. “In Japan there are big festivals. Tony Trischka left Banjo Camp for a big festival in the Netherlands.”
But, he continues, even the super-stars are focused on the Appalachian Mountains. “The big new music groups, like the Steep Canyon Rangers, are from here.” It’s a point of pride for the Banjo Camp! writer, but what he likes best about his instrument of choice is not its trendyness but it’s low-fidelity.
“These are simple songs, three chords over and over. You don’t need an expensive instrument,” he says. “The world is so electronic: This is the exact opposite. You can’t pervert it.”
Book launch events for Banjo Camp! take place at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Oct. 11 ( 7 p.m. Free, 254-6734) and The Grey Eagle on Tuesday, Oct. 14 (7 p.m. 232-5800). The Grey Eagle event includes performances by David Holt, Laura Boosinger, Bob Carlin, Bobby and the Bluegrass Tradition, David Mann and the Sawbilly Roosters, Ira Bernstein and surprise guests; and a special $6 banjo buffet dinner created by Chef Arthur.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter