Yesterday, after following up on an assortment of leads, I happened across a website named Folkstreams.net. This website is truly a web treasure. It contains dozens of documentary films related to folklore, including a lot of music-related pictures. It’s a great site to watch a broad spectrum of films, some made more than 50 years ago, along with many wonderful contemporary studies. There is no charge, except for your time and attention.
One 30-minute film I enjoyed greatly was “Banjo Spirits”
[ John Paulson, 1998, http://www.folkstreams.net/film,183 ],
featuring Stephen Wade and one of my all-time favorites, Don Stover. Don shows off some fine banjo playing, as does Stephen Ward, who also conducts us on a mini-tour behind the scenes at the Smithsonian Institute, for a look at a whole room full of historic banjos, some dating back to the early nineteenth century. Take a look at the film when you get a chance, and let me know what you think.
PS – One minor note. In the film, Don retells the story of a man, Joel Sweeny, and the “invention” of the banjo fifth string. Don has got the Joel Walker Sweeny story a little off.
Sweeny was a big-time promoter – of himself. His story of adding the 5th string is pure fabrication, since banjos in the mid 19th century had various numbers of strings, from 3 to 7+. Certainly the so-called “fifth string” or thumb string was not Sweeny’s idea: they had been used long before, and really come from their use on several instruments in Central Asia – the Middle and Far East. For example, that shortened string is called the “Chikari” string in India, and is used to help set the mode on the tune being played. When banjos were adapted to be used in city music (as mainly rhythm instruments, to provide chords and compete with the horn section, since acoustic guitars lacked the necessary volume), that shortened string was *removed* to enable the banjoist to modulate keys, which is never done in eastern music – or in the older forms of rural music in the USA.