Voyager Recordings & Publications

What the Reviewers Say

CD 368 Allen Hart: Old Time Banjo

I am an old-time banjo player. I appreciate a banjoist who is able to transcend the seemingly primitive style to create a work of true beauty. Allen Hart's Old-Time Banjo CD is a simple masterpiece. Allen's focus is on Round Peak and Cumberland Plateau players, and he is accompanied by Cliff "Ambassador of the Bones" Ervin on four selections.

The CD opens with "Davenport" from the playing of Doc Boggs. Allen originally played in a style that his Dad taught him. It involved up-picking the first 3 melody strings with the index finger and playing the bass and fifth strings with the thumb. In the late '60s he was informed by someone "in the know" that his playing was all wrong and was encouraged to learn the clawhammer style. At about the same time Allen heard a recording of Doc Boggs playing "Davenport" on which he plays the same sequence. Allen learned clawhammer but thankfully never abandoned his original style. "Marching Through Georgia" from the playing of Clyde Troxell follows and it bear little resemblance to the tune which is so detested throughout the South. Allen plays Wad Ward's "Chilly Winds" in true clawhammer style. Cliff's solid rhythm on the bones enhances the intensity of the tune.

In addition to his playing skills, Allen is also a fine maker of Boucher style banjos. He features the banjo on "Pretty Polly" from the playing of Virgil Anderson. The banjo is tuned down five steps, and this version is an much his as Virgil's. Allen learned "Last Chance" in two finger style from his Dad, but he plays it in clawhammer style on the CD.

Allen Hart is an exceptional banjo player and this his first CD featuring 20 selections should serve as an inspiration to all players of the instrument. His playing is extremely clean and precise with manageable rhythms. I think I'll get out my banjo and try to learn some new tunes. TD - Sing Out!)

*****

I wouldn't mind owning a time machine - solely for entertainment purposes. I have no burning desire to get all Bill & Ted and hoist tankards with Benjamin Franklin or anything as, you know, historic as all that. If offered the choice between a time machine and a new food processor, I'd pick the latter, but if H. G. Wells just left one on the sidewalk labeled "FREE," I'd drag it home.

Seattle banjo virtuoso Allen Hart - who is playing that the Rendezvous' Jewel Box Theater this Thursday, August 24, at 8:00 p.m. - who needs a time machine even less than me. Since he began to learn his instrument at the age of 7, Hart has made an extensive study of the history of the banjo and its repertoire, soaking up field recordings and vintage commercial releases, and, more importantly, gleaning songs and techniques from older players in their twilight years.

All of which, combined with Hart's consummate artistry, adds up to one hell of a listen on his new CD, Old-Time Banjo, released via the locals at Voyager Recordings & Publications. On these 20 selections, Hart breaths vibrant life into ditties that might otherwise have been lost in the backwoods of North Carolina and Kentucky, such as the sprightly "Cleveland's March to the White House."

Save for percussion by Clif "Ambassador of the Bones" Ervin on four cuts, the 38-minute program is just Hart and his banjos, but you'll not want for more. Fellow experts will undoubtedly marvel at the facility with which Hart changes playing styles: clawhammer, frailing, "up-picking," and "knock down." Those may sound like wrestling moves, but Hart executes them all with a delicate precision rarely displayed in the WWE.

One suspects that if Mr. Hart did have a time machine, he'd use it for shopping expeditions, to augment his collection of stringed instruments. On Old-Time Banjo, he relies primarily on a 1904 Whyte Laydie #7 - that's right, a banjo over a century old. A banjo maker as well as a performer, Hart also elicits lovely sounds from his own reproduction of a two-headed, fretless banjo from the mid-19th century (the original can be found at the Smithsonian Institute), and his wife's authentic Cole's Eclipse banjo, which is even older than his treasured Whyte Laydie.

Old-Time Banjo does make one modest concession to the 21st century: from a technical standpoint, the sound is remarkably sympathetic. Without intrusive ambient noise, Phil Williams' recording, editing, mastering, etc., picks up every nuance of what Hart does, till you can almost feel the firm calluses of his thumb and index finger plucking the strings on "Davenport." This subtle but crucial point goes a long way in lifting the CD above many offerings of a similar nature, ensuring a more pleasurable listening experience for the casual fan.

You know, forget about that time machine. Who needs it? If I want to be transported to another place and time, I'd just as soon entrust the music of Allen Hart to do the job for me. (The Stranger, Kurt B. Reighley)

*****

Come and listen to the story of a man named Hart
Played the banjo just as easy as lesser folks fart
And then one day he was pluckin' on the 'jo
When those Voyager folks said, "Go, Allen, Go!
Picking, that is...on the banjo...make a CD."

No, I'm not suffering heat stroke. I'm moved to wax eloquent about Seattle banjoist, Allen Hart, and his brand new CD on the Voyager label. I'm no expert, just a fan (from "fanatic", which is from "fan-attic", which means I like banjo music so I belong in the attic.) However, I do believe that this new recording is the best banjo record I've ever heard. And the jacket artwork is truly fine!

I put it on to listen to while washing the dishes, but by the third cut I was sitting down and r-e-a-l-l-y listening. Allen has mastered a number of historic banjo styles and sounds, the tunes are beautiful and sometimes mesmerizing in the way of so-called primitive ethnic music, and the execution is hair-raisingly gorgeous. It's a listening album the way a really good Scotch is sippin' whiskey. (Old-Time Music in Portland)

*****

For some years the contest organizers of Galax and Mt. Airy have divided the banjo contest into two categories - clawhammer and bluegrass. Allen Hart's wonderful new CD of mostly solo banjo instrumentals gives us the chance to hear many of the ways of playing oldtime banjo that do not fall neatly into the clawhammer category. On some cuts Clif Ervin plays bones, nicely adding percussion to the already percussive sound of the banjo.

Hart has sought out many older banjo players and learned tunes from them directly, as he describes in the excellent liner notes. These notes give the key and the banjo tuning, a description of the source and the style used, and finally the banjo that he used. Here's an abridged example: "'Marching through Georgia' (key of G, banjo gDGBD) I met Clyde Traxel (1911 - 1994, of Rocky Branch Kentucky) . . . at Port Townsend Clyde was about 80. . .His was strictly an up-picking style with the index finger playing the melody line, brushing down with the index finger and then thumb on the 5th string. . . .The banjo is a 1904 Whyte Lady #7."

Reading such detail may scare some people away, thinking that this recording would only be of interest to banjo scholars. That's not true. This is just plain good music, well-played. Very often the melody is so interwoven with the drone notes of some of the banjo styles that the traditional melody is transformed. For example, I would not have known that this was "Marching through Georgia" if the liner notes hadn't said so; it's very different from the tune that Henry Clay Work wrote. Same for "Alabama Gals" - it's not the melody I'm used to, but "that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.

There are two different cuts of "Coo Coo Bird" on this CD. Hart learned one from a recording of African American bandits Dank Reboots and the other from European American banjoist Clarence Ashley. He plays both versions in clawhammer style on a gut-strung Boucher reproduction banjo that he made. Are they the same tune? No way! Do they share a common ancestry? Very possibly. There are also tunes that he learned from recordings of African Americans Dribble, Dusk and York, and Josh Thomas, as well as from European Americans such as Wade Ward, Dock Boggs, Sidna Myers, and Clyd Davenport. It seems to me that one of the larger themes of this CD is the interplay between black and white musicians, although this may not be apparent on first listening or reading the liner notes, which are organized by tune.

The newest tune here is "Tailed," which Hank Bradley wrote in 1968, and which turns out not to be a version of "Tailed to the White House," but rather a celebration of Tailed Park in Berkeley, California. The second newest is probably Wade Ward's original composition "Peach Bottom Creek." As for which tune here is oldest, I couldn't even begin to guess. Old and new, the tunes here all make for wonderful listening. Recommended (Pete Peterson, The Old-Time Herald)

*****

We didn't know much about Mr. Hart, except that he took part in another record that we carried some time back (HART & BLECH, "Build Me A Boat, VOY-354, $ 13.50), but he has certainly produced a fine recording here, with a variety of very nicely played old-time banjo tunes. Judging from his playing—as well as the excellent notes—Hart has obviously learned well from some of the great banjo pickers of bygone years: Dock Boggs, Wade Ward, Virgil Anderson, Clarence Ashley and Sidna Myers among others. Hart provides tunings (an important bonus for banjo enthusiasts) and has put down some outstanding versions of CHILLY WINGS, TILDEN, ALTAMONT, GOODBYE OLD BOOZE, DAVENPORT, COAL CREEK MARCH and HOLLY DING, etc. Recommended. (County Sales Newsletter)

*****

Allen's dynamic and sensitive playing truly brings out the charm of the unaccompanied five string banjo and many of the styles in which it has been played over the past 150 or so years. The banjo became widely popular in America and Europe, and was a principal entertainment and dance instrument throughout the 19th century. It is to this day in the South and among banjo aficionados elsewhere. Except among those in the know, the tunes and playing styles that made the banjo so popular are not heard much today by the general public. This recording by Allen illustrates very well why the banjo was so well regarded in popular culture in past times, and deserves this recognition today. He grew up with banjo music, and started learning it from his father at an early age. In over 35 years of playing he has learned many great tunes in different playing styles from many well regarded traditional players. On this recording he uses several banjos, each with its own sound and playing characteristics, and each suiting well the tunes played on it. These include his 1904 Fairbanks #7 Whyte Ladie; an 1890s nylon strung Cole's Eclipse; a 20 pound Okie Adams; and a replica of an 1845 Boucher fretless banjo, presently in the Smithsonian collection, which he makes for present day really "old time" players. On four of the selections, Allen is accompanied by Clif Ervin, the "Ambassador of the Bones," who grew up in East Texas in the 1930s and started accompanying local banjo players on bones when he was seven years old. He is still providing great rhythm to old time banjo players today, on real "bones" he makes himself! While Allen is true to the traditions of old time banjo playing, this recording is far from being an "academic" recital of banjo traditions - it lends itself well to being played and enjoyed over and over again! It will give banjo players additional insights into the potential of the instrument and entertain those who have not yet brought the banjo into their lives. Allen, along with Clif, truly shows why the banjo became an entertainment mainstay in America and around the world. (Old Time Music News)

*****

Never has an album title been more descriptive of the music it delivers. This is truly "old time banjo" in a modern package - twenty instrumental pieces played on a variety of banjos in a variety of styles. The range of material presented reflects Allen Hart's experience of over 35 years as a banjo player. Serious students of the banjo will appreciate the detailed notes which describe each piece, including the tuning and instrument used. Those that don't need that much information will be glad just to listen and let the music speak for itself. Some of the instruments played are a 1904 Fairbanks Whyte Laydie #7, an 1890s nylon strung Cole's Eclipse, a 20 pound Okie Adams, and a reproduction of a circa 1845 Boucher Jr. gut string fretless banjo. While there are versions of a few familiar songs "Pretty Polly") most of the pieces will probably be unfamiliar to all but folk music aficionados, but this adds to the unique appeal of this album. The clarity of Phil Williams' recording puts the listener in the room with Hart and his banjos, and Hart's virtuosity and enthusiasm are unmistakable. Clif Ervin, the "Ambassador of the Bones," serves as an authentic rhythm section on four of the tunes. If you are interested in the banjo (or think you might be), this is definitely one for your collection. (Victory Review)

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