A Social Instrument

By Stephen Rosen
Béla Fleck, banjo virtuoso, has influences ranging from the musicians of Uganda to the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song.

What do Steve Martin, Pete Seeger, and Béla Fleck have in common? They could fire up audiences with their banjos. 

What is there about a banjo that invites such popular enthusiasm, musical intimacy, and political engagement? And how does politics — the art of the possible — come out of a banjo?

The banjo is a four, five, or six-stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity as a resonator, called the head, which is typically circular. The membrane is typically made of plastic, although animal skin is still occasionally but rarely used. Early forms of the instrument were fashioned by Africans in America, adapted from African instruments of similar design. The banjo is frequently associated with folk, Irish traditional, and country music. And social causes.

Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African-American traditional music before becoming popular in the minstrel shows of the 19th century. The banjo, with the fiddle, is a mainstay of American old-time music. It is also frequently used in traditional jazz.

The banjo arrived in America in the 18th century with African slaves, but whites co-opted it for their own purposes. Slaves may have used the instrument for expressing discontent, but banjos eventually became popular among whites — like Steve, Pete, and Béla.

Béla Fleck, a 16-time Grammy Award-winning banjoist, traveled to the African continent to study the instrument’s history and to collaborate with native musicians. Sascha Paladino, a filmmaker, joined Fleck for his journey, and “Throw Down Your Heart” is their memorable documentary film. It follows the banjo virtuoso as he travels through Gambia, Mali, Tanzania, and Uganda — meeting with historians and musicologists and making music with artists from all walks of life, ranging from world music stars like Bassekou Kouyate and Oumou Sangare to ordinary people who share the love and joy of making music. As a result, Fleck invited these contemporary African professionals as freedom-loving music makers to America to perform together. 

The film’s title refers to the slaves’ feelings of fear, dread, and impending tragedy when they were captured by slavers, and then saw the prison-like ships that would end their freedom and begin their bondage. Their last act before becoming slaves was to get rid of their feelings and “discard” their hearts.

“In making our movie,” Sascha Paladino said, “we learned that slaves on plantations were not allowed to play drums, because they could communicate with slaves on other plantations, but they were allowed to play their homemade versions of banjos, since these were considered harmless. We also learned that slave traders were likely to capture musicians first, because they realized that if a musician was on the slave ship, they would keep spirits up, which would lead to a lower mortality rate on the ship’s long journey. The history of the banjo in the United States is inextricably linked to our history of slavery.”

For many aspiring pickers coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s, Pete Seeger was the banjo, largely thanks to his remarkable banjo book. “How to Play the 5-String Banjo” is the banjo picker’s bible that launched a thousand fingers . . . and many banjo careers. He wrote the book to earn a living because he was blacklisted in the U.S. after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Seeger died in 2014 at age 94. He was a powerful musical and social presence who transformed music into political protest in the 1950s. His song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became an antiwar standard, and “We Shall Overcome,” adapted from an old spiritual, became a civil rights anthem. Pete’s words and banjo politics are simple: “Which side are you on, boys? / Which side are you on? / Which side are you on, boys? / Which side are you on?” (Where is he now that we need him?)

A banjo is a unique crossbreed, both a social and a musical instrument. Steve Martin once described what he loved about the banjo: “When you first hear it, it strikes many people as, ‘What’s that?’ There’s something very compelling about it. . . . That’s the way I was. . . . I’d like to think it’s because we’re Americans, the banjo is truly an American instrument, and it captures something about our past.”

Martin’s homage to the banjo, and a valentine to 20th-century small-town Americana, is his tuneful, folksy bluegrass musical “Bright Star.” His banjo became a social character on the Broadway stage, expressing a comfort-food commentary on its folkloric role in the lives of its characters and, by extension, us.

The banjo has an honorable and glorious tradition of offering us vivid musical and social affirmations. 

Because the banjo is not an orchestral instrument, it is considered an outcast. So when Béla Fleck composed his first concerto for banjo and orchestra, he called it “The Imposter.” Commissioned by the Nashville Symphony, it’s dedicated to the late great Earl Scruggs. Fleck also made a documentary film called “How to Write a Banjo Concerto.” Thanks to major U.S. orchestras, and thanks to Béla Fleck, three concertos for orchestra and banjo now flourish in international concert halls. 

Songs that address our treatment of migrants, unfair practices toward coal miners, and other current social causes can be heard on a new album, “Echo in the Valley,” performed by Béla and his charismatic wife, Abigail Washburn, herself a virtuoso banjoist.

So how does a kid from the Upper West Side of Manhattan end up as a banjo superstar? Composing banjo concertos? Performing Scarlatti on the banjo? Playing cool bluegrass, hot jazz, and jazz fusion on the banjo? Concertizing with Dave Matthews, Chick Corea, Joshua Bell? And having his own group, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, which recently packed Seiji Ozawa Hall at the Tanglewood Music Festival to overflow crowds and standing ovations?

While watching “The Beverly Hillbillies” as a young boy, the bluegrass sounds of Flatt and Scruggs flowed out of his TV set and became imprinted in his brain. “The banjo spoke to me . . . like sparks going off in my head.”

In 1973, when he entered New York City’s High School of Music and Art, his grandfather Mike Rosen gave him a small banjo, purchased for a few dollars at a yard sale. 

Clearly, I’m a big fan. And how do I know so much about him? (Hint: Mike Rosen was my father.) Full disclosure: I’m Béla Fleck’s uncle.

Béla Fleck will give a solo concert at Guild Hall on Sunday at 8 p.m. Stephen Rosen, a regular contributor to The Star who lives part time in East Hampton, will speak at the East Hampton Library on Aug. 31 at 5 p.m. on “Albert Einstein: Rock Star.”