The Banjo Project plucks at the strings

by Shannon O'Connor / Beacon Correspondent • October 25, 2012

Banjoproject courtesy
Seated from right to left: Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka.
Courtesy of Marc Fields
Seated from right to left: Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka.
Courtesy of Marc Fields

Emerson College’s visual and media arts professor Marc Fields’ documentary, Give Me the Banjo, archives the turbulent yet rich history of the stringed instrument.

Give Me the Banjo is a small part of Fields’ bigger “cross-media cultural odyssey” about the stringed instrument. According to the film’s website, The Banjo Project is a collaboration project between Fields and the five string banjo player, Tony Trischka, involving documentary, live performance, and a website that chronicles the instrument’s original African roots to its current 21st century standing.

“[The banjo] has gone through a lot of different changes, and it’s been a symbol or a stereotype for much of that time,” said Fields. “It’s got a lot of baggage and it’s also involved in a lot of different styles we have come to recognize as being a part of American music.”

Narrated by banjo enthusiast and actor Steve Martin, Give Me the Banjo documents the history of the instrument by tying together current folk musicians with the genre’s historic roots, seasoned performers, historians, instrument makers, and banjo amateurs.

“It’s been said, the more you dig deeper into any local tradition the more you find something global,” Martin said in the film’s narration.

Fields’ initial inspiration for creating the film stems from the influence of Trischka’s musical stylings. 

“I checked out [Tony Trischka’s] CD that he released in ’93 called ‘World Turning,’ and on that he plays in all the different historical styles – kind of like a history of the banjo through combining older songs with older material,” Fields said. “That’s what did it for me, that was the ‘Eureka’ moment.”

After spending 10 years in production, conducting in-depth research on the instrument, shooting interviews and musical segments with musicians, and attending festivals; Give Me the Banjo was broadcast on PBS Nov. 7, 2011. 

“[I hope] it opens [the audience’s] eyes to [not only]  the banjo’s incredible diversity and its rich history, but also to how something as humble and perhaps as disrespected as its been is actually a very potent symbol of American identity,” said Fields. “I want people to recognize the musical value of it, but I also want them to begin to see the social significance of the instrument.” 

While the film is complete and the website is fully functional, The Banjo Project is far from over.  in April 6, 2013, Fields, along with Trischk, will present a live stage presentation complete with musical ensembles, dances, and video projections. The show is hosted by the Portland Ovations, a non-profit performing arts organization that gathers artists from around the globe to the Maine community. 

“[The website] right now is being developed into a cultural resource website that will be a place for people to find out about banjo history,” said Fields. “[It has] all of the material I shot and collected that is not in the film, which is over 350 hours of material.”

Jaclyn Diaz and Jason Madanjian contributed to this report.