Bill Evans: The Banjo in America

Bill Evans with some of the instruments used on The Banjo in America tourKnown far and wide as a scholar specializing in banjo music, Bill Evans is bring the banjo to America.

Bill performs in variety of ensemble settings, including his band Rustler’s Moon, and shows with fiddler Megan Lynch. Bill also works as an instructor at many banjo camps and workshops, and he is an accomplished author. His most recently published work being the Banjo For Dummies book, available from Wiley Publishing.

In between all these other items on his busy schedule, Bill somehow finds time to perform as a soloist, in a format that could best be described as a concert/educational workshop called The Banjo in America. During the course of the presentation, Bill traces the banjo from its roots in West Africa to America, performing selections from the 1700’s forward on a variety of instruments in the banjo’s linage.

Bill recently visited me here at the studio and we filmed a few short video clips of select period performance pieces taken from The Banjo in America. I found the various instruments and tunes to quite fascinating, so I took the opportunity to speak with Bill about the tour and glean some information from him.

I inquired of Bill how long he had been pursuing this concept and what his inspiration had been.

I’ve been touring with “The Banjo in America” since the mid-1990’s but it’s something that I’ve often squeezed in between band performances, workshops and other shows. The initial inspiration for this concert format came from my participation in the Tennessee Banjo Institute and a couple of the Maryland Banjo Academy events in these years. These remarkable weekends brought banjo players together from all over the world who played in a variety of styles, including many of the historical styles I later incorporated into “The Banjo in America.” Also, as in so many things in my career, my buddy Tony Trischka was an inspiration to me. We were following similar paths in exploring these earlier historical styles. Joe Ayers, Clark Buehling, Eli Kaufman and Bob Carlin have also provided help and input along the way.

My work in American music history as a graduate student in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s also helped me as I developed the format for this show. The Kentucky Humanities Council provided tour support early on as well – I played just about every public library in that state between 1992 and 1994! I’ve also toured with “The Banjo In America” throughout Japan, I’ve showcased this concert at IBMA on several occasions and have performed “The Banjo in America” at Wintergrass, the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival and various festivals here in California and Colorado, among others. I completed a two week tour in Virginia last November, when these videos were taped. So the show has been out there for a long time – It’s just been under the radar!

A lot of people probably don’t realize the important role the banjo has served historically in the popular music of this country. Bill explained the banjo’s role and his goal for the concert.

It’s important to note that the more one looks into it, you find that the banjo has really been right in the center of many of the crucial developments in American music history for over 150 years now. From African music to United States 19th century minstrelsy – America’s first nationally popular music – to ragtime, early blues and country music and, of course, folk and bluegrass and beyond, the banjo has been right in the center of the most important musical achievements. Really! I’m not kidding!! While some folks view this concert as a kind of musical history lesson, my intent is to come up with something that’s just as entertaining as one of my bluegrass band performances. The variety of banjos that are seen and heard in these YouTube videos – each from a different historical era with different string configurations and tunings and radically different tones – keeps the show moving along. I also spice up the concert by playing some of my own tunes and reading quotes from everyone from Mark Twain and to S. S. Stewart to Laurie Anderson.

I found the unique sounds of these instruments very intriguing, but I wondered who the audience really was for this show. Was it targeted at a folk/bluegrass listener base, or did Bill have a broader target in mind.

The potential audience for this concert is anyone who is interested in American music history and the connections between these older styles and everything that we hear today – jazz, country, blues, rock’n’roll, you name it. The banjo is the “root of the root” of all of these styles.

Though the show is historical in nature, Bill continues to progress on the banjo, expanding its musical range so to speak. He includes his own modern, somewhat progressive compositions in the show, and I asked him to articulate his vision for the future of The Banjo in America.

My eventual goal is to record a project featuring selections from “The Banjo in America” and then market the concert a bit more aggressively than I have in the past. I’m always adding new playing styles, tunes and instruments to the show and occasionally I get to perform a similar kind of concert together with Jody Stecher. So, check out my touring schedule and catch a show when I’m in your area!

Here’s a link to Bill’s tour schedule.

You can view all six of the videos we edited, by visiting Bill’s YouTube Channel. I’ll include on of my favorites here.

This is Bill performing on a classic-era banjo from the 1890’s. Those are nyglut strings and a skin head on that instrument. The piece is from 1908. It’s almost hard to believe they were playing stuff this intricate on the banjo as early as the 1870’s!