Death of the banjo?

Back in early November, a minor fury was generated by a press release issued to announce the release of a new book by Carole Wade. The book is entitled, The Death Throes and Demise of the Banjo, and the press release opened with this provocative statement:

Today’s banjo musicians have become boring. They talk excessively throughout their performances, grabbing one banjo to pick for a few minutes and then sharply turn around on stage to “hype” another banjo while at the same time same time “foot-stomping” frenetically. They repeat the same tired outdated story about themselves as they “skip-through” their alleged education from long-deceased traditional banjo musicians. Today’s best known banjo players have never even taken the time to learn to read music!

Needless to say, banjo players took exception to this characterization, and posters on the popular banjo web forum, Banjo Hangout, spent several days voicing their rebuttals.

The full press release that started the war of words can be found at PRWeb.com.

Our first impulse was to ignore this episode, suspecting that the press release was intended with this very purpose in mind, generating talk about a book that might otherwise have received scant attention. When the controversy was first swirling, however, we sought to contact the author of the book, hoping to get her feedback and perspective on the reactions in the banjo world, and we just recently heard back from her.

Carole Wade’s response, including her comments to some non-banjo critique, follows:

After weeks of reading hundreds of E-mails, letters, and notes responding to the initial announcement of “The Death Throes and Demise of the Banjo,” I want to assure everyone that I do grasp where the much-loved banjo fits into today’s popular culture. With new-age music, rap/hip-hop, country turned rock, and classical music/opera making a resurgence with twenty-year-olds, the banjo seems to be sitting still: silent in today’s high volume of “new-century” music.

One example: this is the 21st Century and rap/hip-hop music is ascending. Rap is very democratic for it encourages new musicians to rise up to financial success very rapidly. By contrast, the banjo seems to favor one or two musicians becoming successful — making huge sums of money for themselves — while everyone else is reduced to “hobbyist” stature … and practically broke. And the few banjo players today who are earning large sums have had serious money backing them up — enabling them to wine and dine newspaper reporters and theater critics.

Since I was a little girl, I have listened to, thought about, and collected materials about banjo players. At age seven, I traveled with my 4-H Club to Charleston, West Virginia, where we won the Statewide 4-H Championship dancing contest. We danced perfectly (for children) to the “grand trail eight” and “do-si-do” barn dance calls in homemade period outfits. Our 4-H Club considered ourselves to be just like the “West Virginia Mountaineers” folk dancers before us. Like them we even danced The Virginia Reel. That 4-H Championship was an important moment in my life. Later, I was a member of the band throughout high school and college in West Virginia.

Finally, regrettably some of you think that I do not care for pet-dogs. This is absolutely untrue. Read my book “Is Pet Ownership Destroying the Lives of Americans?” It focuses on the greedy Fifty-Billion-Dollars-a-Year Pet Industry and explores the growing “pet-dog as love-child” culture. My own little beloved pet-dog is pictured on the cover of the book with me.

Dozens upon dozens of photographs form a time-line of my thoughts about the banjo. Here are some of the photographs which linger in my mind as I write my book:

Carole WadeThe author (me) with my husband and a banjo player taken at my wedding dinner at The Plaza Hotel in New York City in the mid-’70s. Following the ceremony, the wedding party flew to Chicago for a lavish celebration which included the Governor of Illinois, the Chairman of the Art Institute, the President of the Lyric Opera, and many other Lake Shore Drive socialites.

Carole WadeThe author (standing) and my husband (getting a banjo lesson), and a banjo player with his first wife, an actress, taken in the early ’80s at a family-owned lakefront fifteen-room apartment on North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

wade3.jpgMy husband’s parents — taken by the author — on the opening night of a banjo player’s Broadway show in New York City before dining and celebrating at famed Sardi’s theatrical restaurant. My mother-in-law’s family music distribution business is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

wade5.jpgThe author, my husband, a banjo player, and a banjo player’s soon-to-be second wife, an artist, taken at the Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C., at their pre-wedding dinner.

wade4.jpgThe author and a banjo player — taken by my husband — backstage at a theater on the East Coast.

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Carole Wade’s response has also been posted on Banjo Hangout, where it generated a good bit of comment, much of it unkind.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.

  • Carole Wade’s authority on the subject seems to have been enough to persuade one publisher and everyone is entitled to have an opinion. However, it is interesting that Carole Wade’s “I do grasp” arguments in her response would nicely support the following title’s as well:
    “The Death Throes and Demise of the Bongo Drums”
    “The Death Throes and Demise of the Harp”
    “The Death Throes and Demise of the Ukelele”
    “The Death Throes and Demise of the Hurdi-Gurdi”
    “The Death Throes and Demise of all accoustic instruments not regularly seen on MTV”