I am thought of by some as a ranter. It is indeed true that many things do cheese me off but really I just like discussion and find it interesting and worthwhile to analyse and question rather than simply accept things how they are. There’s one area I’ve largely kept quiet about but I thought maybe it might be time for a confession and it’s a while since I wrote an ‘article’ on this blog rather than my regular gig updates and silly stories. I get unbelievably bored, irritated and drained by the endless apparent need to justify the instrument. There, I said it. I’m bloody sick of banjo jokes, I’m bloody sick of most radio interviews turning into a ‘justify why you play a weird instrument that was in that film’ session, I’m bloody sick of hearing that it takes a lot of persuading people to come to a gig where it’s just one guy, a voice and a banjo (with a bit of guitar) for 2 hours rather than a more ‘normal’ instrument. Yes, it drives me mad.
Some may be saying, well yes of course it would. Some may be saying chill out man it’s all a joke. Some may say get over yourself. I’m not saying any of them are wrong either and the whole reason I’ve never had this rant, other than with people I know well of course, is because I do understand. Whether people like my music or not I think most would admit that my show is not a usual banjoist’s concert. But I completely get that that is hard to explain to people. Whether I like it or not, the banjo does have its reputations and I don’t often experience the equivalent as a punter but I did once. My legendary banjo teacher George told me about a Croatian didgeridoo player coming to do a concert. I’ve nothing against the didg of course and always thought it was fine for what it did but I couldn’t for the life of me imagine a whole evening of one guy and a didg being enjoyable or varied. If I’d just seen it advertised rather than told by the single biggest influence on my musical life, I’m sure I would never have bothered to check him out. But I did, and he is utterly incomparable to any musician I’ve ever come across and anyone who goes to a gig of his is going to come away feeling amazed and enthused. His name’s Dubravko Lapaine by the way I should of course mention that!
So I have been on the other side and do understand. Furthermore I understand that to many music is not their priority in life and checking out new music and different genres to what they’re used to does not rank high on their list of things to do. I relate it to my relationship with films – if someone puts a film on in front of me I’ll watch it or if someone says let’s go to the cinema and see this I’ll go and I’ll probably enjoy it. But I possess neither expertise on the films I’m watching nor particular enthusiasm to check out new films and keep up with what’s going on in the film world. So again, I understand that people who don’t prioritise music don’t feel a particular need to hear anything but what is on the radio or what they’ve always been into.
You may be wondering where I’m going with all this. Well to explain that I probably need to clarify and qualify my original rant. There’s a difference between things that annoy me but are as it were morally understandable and things that annoy me and to my mind seem to indicate someone who is ignorant and narrow minded. I intensely dislike being almost mocked for simply doing something different. It might be the banjo, it might be anything in the case of some people. The dreaded Duelling Banjos is not a bad piece of music at all and I get that people love it and want to hear it when they see the banjo because they know it. But when people are basically laughing at me for playing the instrument that the weird inbred boy in the film where a tourist gets anally raped that crosses the line. If you don’t know about banjos or hear it and associate it with what might be your one reference point then that’s fine, indeed positively understandable. But are you really so narrow minded and ignorant that you assume that a FICTIONAL use of the instrument must indicate its entire musical capability and exactly what kind of person plays it and where? If you can’t be arsed to hear what else the banjo might do I can happily forgive that but it’s when people argue as if from a point of knowledge that the banjo is the instrument that strange hillbillies play and that it only does bluegrass. You don’t possess the knowledge, you’re just defensively claiming you do rather than admit there is something in life you don’t know about. This has happened many times, including live on radio, and it never fails to rankle.
Anyway, that all sounds a bit heated. My main point is this: take a chance on things and open your mind. This isn’t just meant to be a whiny musician’s rant about the perils of being a professional banjoist. It could apply to anything in life. I remember being in the pub a while ago and someone was trying to tell me about how they feel the presence of people who have passed only to be shot down as a weirdo by some of those present. We eventually resumed the conversation. Did I come away convinced? Probably not, but she deserved to be heard and I found it interesting to hear what others feel they experience – who am I to say she’s lying or wrong? It’s the same with religion. I have always intensely disliked both militant atheism and evangelical religion – I would almost call both conversionism. I lived with two Christians and thoroughly enjoyed some in depth discussions about faith and non-faith. No-one was trying to convert the other and no-one was making any judgement on character, it was simply discussion. I’m not religious, I don’t believe I ever will be and I certainly don’t believe that the law should ever reflect a faith over the will of the overall popuation (probably a bigger discussion for another blog, which I have done somewhere down the years). But does that mean I laugh at people who are, scorn them or refuse to hear their point of view and simply stick with my instinct for all its worth? No. No. No. I feel more knowledgable and better placed to decide what I think for listening to others. I’m not claiming I’m innocent of hypocrisy of course – if you want to find examples you’ll find them. I can be the most insufferable judgemental snob despite preaching equality, anti-class and tolerance I know that. No-one can be whiter than white and I think the key is to acknowledge that these thought processes undoubtedly happen but shouldn’t ever actually influence your decision making, particularly about people.
I remember vividly someone saying to me before I started a pub gig – can you play ones I know? My response was ‘you didn’t know the song you know once’. I really want to make that into a song but that time will come. At the end of the gig that same person said they had a really good time, that they would check out a few of the artists I’d covered and would pay to see me again. The only ‘well known’ song I’d done was Call Me Al. This isn’t supposed to be a self congratulatory thing (although it probably sounds like it) but I can’t deny I always feel rather proud of opening people’s eyes to the banjo and folk music in general from my pub gig days, particularly in Stafford. It could have been me, it could have been a stunning fiddle player, it could have been Dubravko and his didgeridoo. I’m not claiming it was particularly down to special talent of mine, simply just introducing people to music they hadn’t heard. I suppose in a way I trade off the fact that my music, whether people like it or not, is different and thus totally contradicting my opening rant. I sell myself as different with the emphasis on the banjo, so people are bound to focus on that instead of just analysing me like they would any other performer. I suppose I just wish that more people regarded that difference as an attraction rather than something to fear. But as I have admitted, in many instances in life just like everyone else I’m just as bad and especially when I was younger I was appallingly dismissive of things I assumed I wouldn’t like. I suppose my only message is next time you see an advert for a gig that sounds like it won’t be your bag, if it’s down the road and won’t cost you much give it a go. Being proved wrong is not something to fear but something to relish.