Talk about a long time in coming…
A book about the banjo music of Ben Eldridge is a great many years overdue. Since 1970, he has been among the most influential banjo pickers in the bluegrass world, through many years as a founding member of Seldom Scene, right up to his retirement in 2016. On top of that, this book, On Banjo – Recollection, Licks, and Solos, had been initially promised for a 2021 release, but delays have held it back until now, written by Ben himself with Randy Barrett, who transcribed the solos.
But it is available this week, and that’s all that matters for banjo lovers who have studied Ben’s playing this past five decades. It includes precisely what the title suggests. On Banjo begins with a Foreword written by Béla Fleck, who recalls that he obtained the classic Seldom Scene album, Live at the Cellar Door, just a year after he started playing banjo.
That is followed by a biographical section which Eldridge wrote about how he discovered music, and the banjo in particular, plus some of his remembrances of the 1960s music scene in the DC capital region. Among them is recalling that the first time he met John Duffey, the big man brushed him off. Priceless!
Other sections of the Recollections part of the book find Ben describing the genesis of Seldom Scene, and retailing its later years, along with his personal philosophy on playing the banjo, and the story of his 1928 Gibson banjo (9242-5), which he got from Bill Emerson, and how it got its nickname, Harvey.
For the pickers amongst us, however, the real meat and potatoes come next. Ben includes several pages of licks, kickoffs, and tags that are characteristic of his unique style. Coming of age as he did in the ’60s and ’70s, Eldridge served as a bridge of sorts between the early, more Scruggs-oriented type of banjo, and today’s sound which mixes the Scruggs rolls with melodic style picking, known back in the ’70s as “chromatic banjo.” Several examples are presented in tab.
The Solos section is where banjo players will really get down to work. 23 solos are transcribed, representing the breadth of Ben’s genius over many years. There are Seldom Scene gems like Appalachian Rain, Rider, My Little Georgia Rose, Pan American, Muddy Water, Last Train From Poor Valley, plus selections from Mike Auldridge’s iconic Dobro record, and Tony Rice’s California Autumn. You even get the banjo break from the Scene’s cut of Hail To The Redskins in 1973.
There isn’t a solo to be missed by any banjo player who loves Ben’s playing, or any newer picker wanting to complete their knowledge of the history of American banjo music. Eldridge also appends a comment to each solo, which add some insight into his thoughts. My favorite is for the instrumental, Smokin’ Hickory, from the Scene’s second release.
“I came up with this fun little tune and we put it on the Act Two album, and never played it again.”
Throughout, On Banjo is filled with a collection of wonderful photographs from Ben’s life, starting with his bare bottomed baby picture! Long time DC bluegrass folks will enjoy seeing some of the snaps from the ’60s and ’70s, and Seldom Scene fans will see images taken from all stages of their time in the spotlight.
Ben Eldridge has remained an underrated banjo man for most of his career, never receiving the credit as a distinctive stylist, and a picker of highly technical achievement from the wider world. This book is a major step towards correcting that oversight, even though he is already enshrined as a member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame with Seldom Scene.
On Banjo is a must for any banjo player, and will prove a delight to any Seldom Scene fans, whether they play or not. It is offered for sale on Amazon, where it lists as out of stock, though that should be corrected in the next few days.