Is there a more polarizing musical instrument than the banjo? It elicits strong feelings. You either love it or you hate it. I freaking love the banjo. I remember tuning in to Hee Haw as a kid and thinking that whatever world these people lived in, it was far away from my world in the suburbs of Rochester, NY. It was like a foreign land, where people wore overalls and sat on hay bails while playing the banjo. I would occasionally watch the show but only for the music. The humor was beyond me, as a suburban kid from the North. But the music! Watching Roy Clark on Hee Haw was my first exposure to the banjo and he and Buck Owens were mesmerizing. If it was only an instrument used in super twangy, hillbilly, country music, I would still love it. The banjo, however, is much more than that. It’s been used effectively in all manner of rock and folk songs. Hey, maybe we should make a list?
First up is Squeezebox by The Who. Who doesn’t love a funny, double entendre? Clearly, The Who do.
We’re going back to Zeppelin III again, this time for the mighty “Gallows Pole”. I love the pace of this song. It starts off tamely and just builds into this acoustic fury. In its way, it’s just as aggressive as Whole Lotta Love or any of the songs from Zeppelin II, just with different instrumentation. This was probably my first exposure to the banjo being used in a non country song. Love it.
Is “Old Man” Neil’s biggest hit? I’m adding it to this list because it has a prominent banjo but I confess it’s not close to my favorite Neil song(favorite Neil Young songs would be a fun, future blog entry). Maybe because it’s been so played out over the years? I don’t know, but it’s pretty far down my list of favorites.
Let’s go back to one of Neil’s old bands, Buffalo Springfield, for our next entry, “Bluebird”. This one is from Stephen Stills. It has some scorching guitar on it, a great vocal from Stills, and a strange and unexpected banjo interlude near the end of the song. Weird but it works.
Next up, we’re going off the popular music rails and into a couple of folk songs. “House Carpenter” by Pentangle opens with a creepy, haunting banjo that fits the equally haunting lyrics of the song perfectly, as Jacqui Mcshee and Bert Jansch sing to each other. This song also has some great sitar action. Off of their most commercially successful album, Basket of Light, this is Pentangle at the height of their powers.
Last but certainly not least for me, is Richard & Linda Thompson with Dimming of the Day/Dargai. I’ve been an RT fanatic for many years now and would be hard pressed to single out only one favorite song. If someone really put my feet to the fire though, I’d probably pick this. The banjo on Dimming is subtle and understated. Together with Dargai, it’s about as “spiritual” as this non-believer will ever get.