Sights & Sounds

gourd banjoVisit the banjo jokes page and you’ll find at least 271 zingers aimed squarely at this beloved and much-maligned instrument, which is so closely associated with the South. Typically, the gems on this list exploit the stereotype of the banjo (or “banjer,” depending on your preference) as a jarring, inelegant noise-maker. Here are a couple of examples…

Q: What’s the difference between a banjo and a South American macaw?

A: One is loud, obnoxious and noisy; the other is a bird.

Q: What’s the difference between a banjo and a trampoline?

A: You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

Fair enough. As played in the blisteringly fast, three-finger picking style made famous by the legendary bluegrasser Earl Scruggs, the banjo can indeed be an acquired taste. But believe it or not, the banjer does have a kindler, gentler side. Take off the sound-amplifying resonator used by most bluegrass pickers, for example, and you’ve just turned the volume knob from “11” down to something much more reasonable. Replace the steel strings with catgut and you’ve basically taken the punch line out of those 271 banjo jokes—the metallic ring and sharp attack give way to a warm, friendly tone.

Anti-banjer bias is fairly well entrenched, but if you are open-minded and really want to hear another side of the instrument, you might consider picking up Adam Hurt’s “Earth Tones” (Ubiquitone 2010), a solo CD played in the old-time “clawhammer” style—and on a fretless banjo made out of a dried-out gourd to boot.

I buy a lot of old-time CDs, but when I popped “Earth Tones” into the dashboard of my VW Jetta and headed down Roswell Road earlier this week, I wanted to pull over and just listen. Even my eight-year-old twin boys, whose noise-making capacity easily rivals that of the most resonant prewar Gibson, fell silent. They seemed entranced by the eerie sound of the gourd banjo (this one created by luthier David G. Hyatt of Fayetteville, Ark.) and by Hurt’s masterful playing.

Adam HurtIn the world of old-time music, Hurt, who is just 27 years old, is well-known for dominating old-time banjo and fiddle competitions in places like Clifftop, W. Va., and Galax, Va., over the past few years. Indeed, his past accomplishments include winning the state banjo championships of Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio, as well as the state fiddle championships of Virginia and Maryland. On “Earth Tones,” this virtuoso of the old-time clawhammer style plays a total of 12 traditional tunes and medleys, including “Fortune” (Surry County, N.C.), Art Stamper’s “Josie-O” (Knott County, Kentucky) and Buddy Thomas’ “Old Beech Leaves/Sheep and Hogs Walking Through the Pasture” (Lewis County, Kentucky).

The CD is aptly named. The earthy tones of Hyatt’s gourd banjo, which is a work of visual art unto itself, are instantly compelling. On the luthier’s Web site is an eight-part article titled “Gourd Banjos: From Africa to the Appalachians” by George R. Gibson, who traces the history of these mellow instruments as they traveled from Africa to the West Indies, Colonial America, the frontier and, finally, the Appalachians. Early European accounts of African gourd instruments, Gibson notes, date to at least the 1600s in Gambia, where today the gourd banjo-like akonting is still played.

Of course, the only way to truly understand the mystique of the gourd banjo is to hear one for yourself. “Earth Tones” is an excellent place to start.

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Gourd banjo photo: D. Hyatt. Other photos: Andy Edmonson
Joel Groover

Joel Groover

Joel Groover is an Atlanta-based freelance writer whose past glories include writing obits at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, enduring a stint as a beat reporter at The Marietta Daily Journal and taking in some culture as a senior editor at Art & Antiques. He earned his journalism degree at The University of Georgia.