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Painting: The Old Plantation
From the decks of slave ships and plantation porches…

Ethiopian Serenaders
To the blackface minstrel show…

Painting: The Old Plantation
From Fifth Avenue parlor…

Painting: The Old Plantation
And the vaudeville house…

Painting: The Old Plantation
From the jazz clubs of Storyville, South Side and Harlem…

Painting: The Old Plantation
Across mountain hollows…

Painting: The Old Plantation
From The Grand Ole Opry…

Painting: The Old Plantation
And the folk scenes in Cambridge, Old Town and Greenwich Village…

Painting: The Old Plantation
The banjo's been part of the American soundscape since before the nation was born, and its history has some intriguing things to say about who we are and how we got that way.

If any musical instrument can be said to be quintessentially American, it is the banjo. Even in its construction, it tells a story of cultural exchange: the banjo is a drum with strings, a symbolic blending of African and European musical identities. Brought to the New World in the memories and traditions of enslaved Africans, repeatedly re-invented by African- and European-Americans, the banjo has shaped most American musical forms: the minstrel show (the dominant popular entertainment in the US in the19th century), ragtime and early jazz, old-time folk and the folk revival, as well as blues, bluegrass, country, and new hybrids yet to be labeled.

The Banjo Project is a musical odyssey through 300 years of American history and culture, featuring contemporary banjo masters such as Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Mike Seeger, Alison Brown, Sonny Osborn, Don Vappie, Cynthia Sayer and Abby Washburn in interviews and performances, combined with rare archival footage, stills, recordings and first-hand narratives.

Using the banjo's diverse musical styles, rich social history and colorful players as our narrative "thread," The Banjo Project highlights many of the issues at the heart of American culture today. In its long history, the banjo has symbolized patriotism and protest, pain and pleasure, low entertainment and sophisticated leisure. It's been a black instrument, a white instrument, a laborer's pastime and a socialite's diversion, a young person's fad and an old-timer's friend. But mostly it's been a snubbed instrument. Whether it's Dan Emmett in blackface, the Jazz Age flapper whamming on a 4-string or Pete Seeger leading an anti-war rally with his long-necked Vega, the banjo has been the symbolic prop for stereotypes about race, class, gender, region and political persuasion right up to the present day.

With contemporary banjo masters providing the commentary, The Banjo Project documentary weaves together rare archival footage and recordings with the narratives of historic banjo figures such as Joel Walker Sweeney, Lotta Crabtree, S.S. Stewart, Vess Ossman, Gus Cannon, Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, Elmer Snowden, Eddie Peabody, Dock Boggs, and Etta Baker. Throughout the program, experts in cultural history, folklore, popular music and instrument design supply additional analysis and historical context: Mike Seeger, Kip Lornell, Neil Rosenberg, Joe Wilson, Tony Thomas, Lowell Schreyer, Cece Conway, Bob Winans, Sule Greg Wilson, Pete Ross and George Wunderlich.

Of course, there's too much good music, too many good stories and colorful characters to fit into a standalone broadcast program.. We're also planning a comprehensive DVD, to include additional performances, historical profiles, interviews and archival footage. And this website will be expanded into a virtual cultural resource and an online archive for banjo history, with educational material, downloads, an interactive timeline and user-generated content.

The Music Director for The Banjo Project is Rounder recording artist Tony Trischka, one of the most acclaimed acoustic musicians of his generation (IBMA 2007 Instrumentalist of the Year and Grammy nominee). The Writer/Producer/Director is Marc Fields, whose recent work includes two scripts for the Emmy-winning PBS series, Broadway: The American Musical, and as writer-producer, Willie the Lion (regional Emmy), a musical biography of the forgotten jazz giant Willie the Lion Smith, featuring Artie Shaw, Dr. Billy Taylor and Dick Hyman.

WHAT'S WE'VE DONE SO FAR (as of September 2010): Over 350 hours of interviews, performances, events and places, including:

Eddie Adcock
Greg Adams
Ray Alden
Stevie Barr
Riley Baugus
Mac Benford
Alison Brown
Clarke Buehling
Bob Carlin
The Carolina Chocolate Drops
Bruce Clark
John Cohen
Eddy Davis
Cheick Hamala Diabate
Tony Ellis
Bill Evans
Bela Fleck
Dom Flemons
Geoff Freed
George Gibson
Wayne Henderson
David Holt
Steve Huber
Daniel Jatta
Bill Keith
Trish Kilby-Fore
Rhiannon Laffan
Dave Landreth
James Leva
Greg Liszt
Taj Mahal
Steve Martin
Jimmy McCown
John McEuen
Bruce Molsky
Carrie Norris
No Speed Limit
Sonny Osborne (interview only)
Noam Pikelny
Kinney Rorrer
Allison Russell
Cynthia Sayer
Earl Scruggs
Curly Seckler (interview only)
Mike Seeger
Pete Seeger
Mark Simos (interview only)
Christopher Smith
Mac Snow (performance only)
Ralph Stanley
Richie Stearns (performance only)
Jeremy Stephens (performance only)
Kirk Sutphin (performance only)
Joe Thompson
Tony Trischka
Leroy Troy
Uncle Earl
Don Vappie
Buddy Wachter
Abigail Washburn
Eric Weissberg
Pete Wernick
Sule Greg Wilson
Dave Winston
Mac Wiseman (interview only)
Charles Wood
George Wunderlich

COMMENTATORS—Interviews only:
Chris Albertson
Jim Bollman
Cece Conway
Joan Dickerson
Laurent Dubois
Philip Gura
Ulf Jagfors
Eli Kauffman
Darcy Kuronen
Kip Lornell
Wayne Martin
Roddy Moore
Neil Rosenberg
Pete Ross
Howard Sacks
Judy Sacks
Henry Sapoznik
Betsy Siggins Schmidt
Lowell Schreyer
Peter Szego
Tony Thomas
Joe Wilson
Robert Winans
Marshall Wyatt


It's a rhythmic instrument. The banjo is a rhythmic instrument. […] This banjo can do things that the guitar can't do. You can get these needle points of time, needle points like a star in the sky. And here's what a banjo does with a melody. You know there's thousands of stars out there, but you can pick out a constellation among them. So here you're hearing a lot of notes but somehow there's a melody to them.

~ Pete Seeger Interview with M. Fields, Beacon, NY; August 2003

photo of the filmmakers empty
Director of Photography Bruce Petschek, his son Jules, Pete Seeger, and The Banjo Project Producer, Marc Fields Taj Mahal with (left to right) camera operator Lynn Weinstein, producer Marc Fields and director of photography Bruce Petschek, after an interview and performance at the home of Jim Bollman
Carolina Chocolate Drops + Joe + Crew
Joe Thompson with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Banjo Project crew, in Joe's backyard in Mebane, NC
The Banjo Project team with Alison Brown, in the studios of Compass Records
empty
Seated: Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka. Standing: Marc Fields, Richard Battaglia, Bruce Petschek and Robert Battaglia

MARC FIELDS—PROJECT DIRECTOR/WRITER/PRODUCER

Marc Fields is a five-time Emmy winner whose public television documentaries on the arts and humanities have been funded by the CPB, the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the New Jersey Council on the Arts, the New York Council for the Humanities, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. His most recent documentary is Willie the Lion, a one-hour musical biography of jazz piano legend Willie "the Lion" Smith, featuring Artie Shaw, Dr. Billy Taylor, Dick Hyman and narrated by Joe Morton. Willie the Lion aired on over 50 PBS stations nationwide; it received a regional Emmy for Outstanding Cultural Program and a CINE Golden Eagle, and it was screened at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in April 2002. Willie the Lion is available on DVD from Shanachie Entertainment. Previously, Marc was Series Producer for State of the Arts, a weekly arts magazine produced by New Jersey Public Television, for whom he produced over 80 shows.

He is the co-author of the biography/theater history From the Bowery to Broadway: Lew Fields and the Roots of American Popular Theater, with a foreword by Helen Hayes (Oxford University Press, 1993). From the Bowery to Broadway won the first Kurt Weill Prize, an award recognizing "distinguished scholarship in the field of 20th century musical theater and opera." Because of his expertise on this subject, he has been a consultant for the National Portrait Gallery exhibit Red, Hot and Blue: A Smithsonian Salute to the Musical and for the PBS American Masters program, "Vaudeville USA." He is the writer for two episodes of the six-part PBS series, Broadway: The American Musical produced by WNET/Thirteen, nationally broadcast in October 2004. In 2005, Broadway: The American Musical received a primetime Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Series.

Tony TrischkaTONY TRISCHKA—MUSIC DIRECTOR

Banjo virtuoso TONY TRISCHKA is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and accomplished instrumentalists on the scene today. To date, he has recorded seventeen albums under his name, featuring such folks as Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger, Steve Martin, David Grisman, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, William S. Burroughs, Alison Krauss, members of REM, Charles Osgood and the Turtle Island String Quartet. Trischka's World Turning CD (Rounder, 1994) traced the banjo's evolution from Africa to contemporary jazz and crossover, and was an inspiration for The Banjo Project. His radio appearances have included A Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage, and Weekend Edition; for television he recently performed on the Ellen DeGeneris show and Late Night with David Letterman. Tony's 2007 Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular was nominated for a Grammy and won three IBMA awards including Instrumental Performer of the Year. His new CD, Territory, was released in Spring 2008 by Smithsonian Folkways.

In an interview with Marc Fields, Tony's former student Bela Fleck said, "You think about somebody like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, people who learned everything about jazz and then digested it and it came out a new way. I think Tony's very similar; he's that kind of figure in the banjo world…"

Funding provided through the generous support of:

SOUTHERN HUMANITIES MEDIA FUND
SOUTHERN HUMANITIES MEDIA FUND
THE TIDES FOUNDATION
 
Emerson College
EMERSON COLLEGE FACULTY ADVANCEMENT FUNDING GRANT
& HURET GRANT
MASSACHUSETTS FOUNDATION FOR THE HUMANITIES
 
NEW ENGLAND FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS
CONCORD ACADEMY & THE KATHERINE CARTON HAMMER ENDOWED FACULTY CHAIR