A chicken-scratch banjo opens “Bright Sunny South” with Dock Boggs’ plucking out a mournful melody that sounds like it’s emanating from some dark holler miles from the nearest soul. Boggs sings with a weary resignation as he bids farewell to his family and heads to war. The banjo hints that he will not see them again.
Boggs, who died in 1971, had been singing the song for most of his life when he recorded it for Mike Seeger in the 1960s. That version is included on the new 30-track collection Classic Banjo From Smithsonian Folkways.
“Bright Sunny South,” along with the other songs on Classic Banjo, has proved immensely influential for subsequent generations of folk musicians, especially those who play the banjo. But Classic Banjo is only one chapter in the instrument’s long history, from its associations with blackface minstrelsy throughout the 1800s to its re-evaluation by jazz bands and folk artists in the 20th century.
In the 21st century, the banjo continues to hold immense sway in the American roots and bluegrass scenes as a new generation of players is finding new ways to use the instrument and interpret the traditions surrounding it.
In alphabetical order by artist, here are 10 tracks from the last five years that show the banjo’s vitality and range, from solitary folk tunes to grandiose orchestrations.
Sam Amidon, “As I Roved Out”
In the hands of American-born, London-based Amidon, the banjo becomes an almost human, even menacing character on this standout from his 2013 album, Bright Sunny South. As it shuffles alongside that battered snare drum, Amidon taunts it almost cruelly — “What is it, banjo?” he demands — and the instrument sounds like it’s trying to wrestle itself free of his grip.
Alison Brown, “Crazy Ivan”
Best known for her work with Alison Krauss & Union Station in the 1980s, Brown has had a long and storied solo career exploring the overlap between bluegrass, jazz and Celtic traditions. On the opening track from her 2009 album, The Company You Keep, she delivers an agile and adventurous performance, savoring the odd meter while holding her own against John Burr’s accelerated piano.
Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Hit ‘Em Up Style”
The Chocolate Drops draw from the instrument’s long association with African-American musical expression, strumming it percussively rather than picking it in the bluegrass style. The result is spryly jazzy and urbane — fitting for a cover of a contemporary R&B tune, in this case the 2001 Blu Cantrell hit.
Béla Fleck, “Tulinesangala”
For Throw Down Your Heart, the third installment in his Tales From the Acoustic Planet series, Fleck plumbs the banjo’s origins in Africa and emerges with a record that sounds like nothing in his estimable catalog. For “Tulinesangala,” the opening track, he not only recorded with the Nakisenyi Women’s Group in Uganda but let them take lead. The musicians’ intensity and excitement builds with each measure as they find new possibilities in the combination of old traditions.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, “Shawnee”
Who knew that one of the foremost banjo players of the 21st century would be one of the foremost comedians of the late 20th century? Martin has been using the instrument as a stage prop since before his hair went gray, but the punch line was that the wild and crazy guy could actually play the thing. On “Shawnee,” a standout on Love Will Come for You, his collaboration with Brickell, he adapts a Scruggs style but emphasizes melody and whimsy for this tale of a colorful family reunion.
Van Dyke Parks, “Dreaming of Paris”
The man who included a banjo on the Beach Boys’ infamous Smile album retains the instrument in his well-stocked arsenal 40 years later. On this orchestral cut from his Parks’ album, Songs Cycled, it’s impossible to determine if the defiantly eclectic arranger is alluding to its African origins, referencing its use by American jazz bands, or simply enjoying the sound of its curious strums.
Noam Pikelny, “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer”
Stepping easily between rhythm and lead, the Punch Brothers banjoist shows a light touch on the frets (his notes bend seemingly of their own accord), a startling facility for M.C. Escher-esque melodies and a keen sense of humor that extends well beyond that excellent song title.
Tony Trischka (With Pete Seeger), “Leatherwing Bat”
A player of unmatched dexterity, Trischka has been one of the most exciting banjo innovators of the past 40 years. On this cut from his 2008 album Territory, his spiky plucking provides a perfect backdrop for Seeger’s still-spry vocals, injecting the song with a palpable sense of wonder.
Stephen Wade, “Train 45”
A historian whose 2012 book The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience is essential for understanding the everyday lives that produce lasting music, Wade has long been a student of banjo traditions and techniques. On this cut from last year’s Banjo Diary, he displays a fluid style bolstered by the slight roomy reverb created by Danny Knicely’s upright bass.
Abigail Washburn, “City of Refuge”
Who else but Washburn would even think to bring members of American rock bands My Morning Jacket and the Decemberists together on the same record with Mongolian throat singers Hanggai? Washburn has studied the banjo’s Asian equivalents for years, and on “City of Refuge,” the instrument adds new and evocative textures to the indie rock palette.