Following up this excellent post by Susan, I thought I’d look at an underappreciated instrument: the banjo. Like Rock music itself, the banjo is uniquely American, both percussive and melodic, came out of Africa and then was quickly co-opted by American musicians across all genres of music, including jazz, folk and country. So maybe the question should really be, “Why isn’t there more banjo in rock music”? In any event, here are five songs that make good use of banjo.
1. R.E.M. – “I Believe”
Okay, so all the banjo in this song is in the bluegrass-style intro, but what an intro it is. And it also serves as a prompt to introduce R.E.M.’s fans to what the band was doing at this stage in its career. Notice how the banjo line meshes with Peter Buck’s rapid-fire arpeggio guitar jangle. This is a good example of what R.E.M. was doing in the mid 1980s—too earthy to be mistaken for other post-punk art rockers and too artsy to be mistaken for roots rockers. I just call it good.
Another fine example of R.E.M. banjo can be heard in “Wendell Gee,” off of Fables of the Reconstruction.
2. Sufjan Stevens – “Casmir Pulaski Day”
I haven’t given Sufjan Stevens’ new album The Age of Adz, officially released today, close attention yet. But my cursory listen tells me that it’s regretfully lacking in banjo. Stevens is a talented player who sometimes composes his brand of folk-pop on the banjo, meaning that it’s not just there for accompaniment, but is the lead instrument on the song. Maybe The Age of Adz will grow on me, but I’m skeptical it will contain anything as hauntingly beautiful as this.
3. The O’s – “California”
The audio quality isn’t the best in this video, but the banjo still sparkles. The O’s, based on Dallas, have a very direct approach to their music: often, it’s just a banjo, an acoustic guitar and a bass drum. Works for me.
4. Modest Mouse – “Satin in a Coffin”
Isaac Brock is unafraid to bust out the banjo, and it works well in some of Modest Mouses more angular, percussive songs. The effect is a nice marriage of Modest Mouse’s Northwestern indie-rock with the darker elements of folk and classic country. (An aside: ever notice how many references there are to death on Good News for People Who Love Bad News? A lot.)
5. Uncle Tupelo – “New Madrid”
I can’t imagine this song having nearly the same appeal without the mid-tempo banjo that serves, along with the solid, no-frills drumming, as the song’s backbone and anchors Jeff Tweedy’s vocals. Maybe it’s possible. This is my favorite Uncle Tupelo song and I wouldn’t change it.
Would’ve made the cut if I could find a relevant YouTube clip: The Old 97’s original version of “Doreen,” from their debut album. The driving banjo really propels the song, and complements the ferocious drumming. The band re-released the song on their second album, but I like the original version better. Because of the banjo.
Any songs you like that use banjo? Mention them in the comments below.