Should Clawhammer Banjo Be A Technique Or A Genre

by Dan Walsh

When I first taught at Midwest Banjo Camp, I was sent the highly detailed timetable of classes and noted that they weren't split into 'clawhammer' and 'three-finger'. They were split in to 'old-time' and 'bluegrass'. The thought struck me then and still strikes me now – do people think of clawhammer as a genre or a technique? In truth, this thought had already been fuelled by the different reactions to my playing that I'd experienced throughout my career.I've written for Deering Banjos before about my own unusual background with the banjo but to recap briefly, I grew up listening to Irish folk music played on what I now know to be tenor banjo. As a teenager in England, I had no knowledge there were different banjos let alone different playing styles so I just took up banjo with the only teacher within a sensible distance and he taught clawhammer banjo. I had never heard of old-time or bluegrass (I've subsequently discovered and grown to love them of course) so apart from the Irish music I was particularly keen to play, I thought of the banjo not as a genre-specific instrument but simply as a musical instrument. Twenty years of playing later and I haven't changed my mind!

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The reactions I referred to in my opening paragraph were I confess always quite baffling to me. Then, as now, I had absolutely no problem with anybody not liking my playing, critiquing my technique, questioning my tastefulness or thinking that I wasn't capturing the nuances of a genre. Frankly, those latter two points were well deserved at times during my early career! But no, the reactions that I found baffling were the accusations of 'not being proper clawhammer'. For starters, the concept of a 'proper' version of playing any instrument seemed a strange concept to me. Secondly, I realized when they said 'proper' they weren't referring to good or bad technique as such, but breaking the supposed rules of right and wrong in an almost moralistic sense.

My own ignorance of the history of clawhammer prevented me understanding any strand of this argument. To many, clawhammer banjo is a rhythmic and percussive technique where the role is to support the fiddle and melody notes can be added as a bonus only if they can be achieved without breaking the stride of the rhythm. As a side note, I learned greatly from Ken Perlman's famous 'Clawhammer Style Banjo' book and noticed that many of the guest players who had arranged tunes for the book and had written short blurbs shared this view of the banjo's role. At university I remember meeting another clawhammer player who said to me 'is that really clawhammer' when I played in a session. The aforementioned philosophy of clawhammer not being a 'notey' or melodic style is clearly felt quite strongly in some quarters. This is not a problem of course if they simply see it is as the most effective use of the style, although I do find the hostility to the melodic side of things a bit strange!

So this brings me to my main argument – clawhammer isn't a genre. It is a technique. It is a technique that can be used for whatever you like and I would argue it is extremely versatile and can perform a very wide range of genres effectively. A different question, and one that in my youthful ignorance I didn't appreciate, is whether the nuances of a genre are effectively captured in someone's playing. The question also depends greatly on what it is the player is claiming to present with their music. So for example, in my case I've been listening to Irish tunes all my life and on my album that I am currently recording (based on a book that has already been released) I am playing Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes which have been arranged according to the notation in O'Neill's Collection. It is therefore absolutely reasonable to assume that I am claiming to present Irish folk tunes and if I played them with a heavy bum-ditty feel more reminiscent of old-time tunes or if I played the hornpipes without a dotted feel...any criticism relating to not capturing the feel of the genre would be well deserved! I recall playing a Scottish strathspey at university and the legendary fiddler and course tutor Catriona MacDonald took me aside and said – clearly you can play, but you're not getting the nuances of a strathspey. I jumped at the chance to have a lesson with her and that hour's tuition was one of the most amazing educational experiences I have ever had! I felt that with her guidance, I was able to understand the intricacies of the tunes far more than ever before.WATCH OUR BEGINNING CLAWHAMMER BANJO VIDEO HERE!I was also able to think this way about every tune I was playing and around the same time I encountered Chick Corea's famous quote that there should be a reason behind every note of music you play. That isn't meant to sound intimidating or afraid of a mistake, quite the opposite in fact. I just think that so much can be gained from thinking about how you play a note and this can apply to whatever level you're at or whatever genre of music you're playing. What happens if that note is played with less sustain? What happens if that quaver is brought forward slightly? What happens if you flip the accent in that phrase? These are all things that can be thought about when playing and can significantly improve what comes out.

The point here is this has nothing to do with playing 'proper' clawhammer. This is about whether a genre, especially if it's what you're claiming to present, is well represented. I hasten to add this is in no way an implication that a genre can't be experimented with or combined with other influences. For example, I try to incorporate elements of more 'traditional' clawhammer in my Irish and Scottish tune playing such as use of the drone string, driving rhythm and perhaps some head percussion. I've written several tunes that, in my head, combine bluegrass and funk. But any arguments about the artistic merit of someone's output should not, for me, be centered around whether they are adhering to a 'right' or 'wrong' way to use clawhammer. If what they are claiming to present is old-time frailing, then of course the debate about whether a more rhythmic or more melodic approach is the right one is entirely relevant (although of course presenting old-time tunes as melodic arrangements is also not wrong, just different). But such a debate would be about capturing the feel of a genre using clawhammer technique, not trying to adhere to a 'clawhammer genre' which to my mind doesn't exist.

 

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