Just Around the Bend: A Reflection

Mike-Seegers-Last-Documentary-1170x650

I’d like to start this entry by saying a few things upfront. First off, you might be thinking I’m about to give you an album/film review and that’s sort of true. My primary objective though is to discuss the impact this project, Just Around The Bend: Survival and Revival in Southern Banjo Sounds, had on me in just a short period of time. I’m also going to dive into an aspect of this historical work that causes it to greatly differ from similar Acoustic Roots projects. Before we go any further, I’d like to tell you just a little bit about the documentarian and the story behind this groundbreaking release.

Mike Seeger was a man who wore many different hats within his musical career. He was a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist, singer and instructor who was most widely known as a member of The New Lost City Ramblers, an Old Time music trio that found popularity during the Folk Revival of the 1950s and 1960s. His most important contribution however,  was his work as a musical historian. He interviewed and recorded many Roots music figures such as Dock Boggs, Wade Mainer and Elizabeth Cotten.

In 2009, Seeger along with filmmaker Yasha Aginsky, Slava Basovich and Seeger’s wife, Alexia Smith made two trips to interview and record various banjoists in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia. As the title aptly states, Mike’s vision for this project was to capture a documentary and two CD set that showed how the banjo was undergoing a survival and revival in modern times. Shortly after his second trip in June 2009, Seeger was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer called Multiple Myeloma. Even though treatment attempts had been done, the illness was very impervious to it. Ultimately Mike went into hospice care and passed away on August 7 at the age of 75. Before his passing, Seeger expressed that he wanted this project to be completed and eventually released. Yasha Aginsky saw to it that the documentary side of the project would be completed, banjoist and fellow historian Bob Carlin compiled the different audio recordings into two CDs while Alexia Smith worked diligently to see all of her husband’s wishes about the project through. For whatever reason, Seeger’s record label, Smithsonian Folkways didn’t release it until 10 years later. This is puzzling to me for many reasons, but I’m glad it finally made it’s way into the hands of the general public.

Even though mandolin is my primary instrument, I’ve always had a deep love for the banjo as that is what I heard my father play growing up. It was the first instrument I ever wanted to play. Two years after I began playing mandolin at age 15, I started listening to Mike Seeger along with various other old time banjo players. Through that I eventually figured out how to play Clawhammer style which is what I heard on those recordings. Since that time I’ve had an on again, off again relationship with the instrument. I had initially heard about Just Around the Bend around the time I began seriously paying attention to Seeger’s work. I along with many others had my fingers crossed that we would one day get to hear his final contribution to the music world. I’ll never forget the day I received an email from Smithsonian Folkways announcing the upcoming release of the project. I quickly realized it would be coming out close to my birthday, so it quickly made it’s way on to my wish list.

To make a long story short, I did it get it on my Birthday. I eventually popped the documentary into my DVD player and settled into my recliner. For the next hour, I was captivated by not just what I was hearing, but the players themselves. Over 20 banjoists were featured in total, a few of which were professional players I was familiar with such as Tina Steffey, Rhiannon Giddens, Matt Kinman, Robert Montgomery and Leroy Troy. Many of them however, were just common every day people that enjoy playing Old Time banjo and in several cases, lived in ways that generations before them had lived. The number one commonality with all of these people is each one shared a deep love for the instrument in a way that both was moving and inspiring to me. In true field recording fashion, all of the documentary segments and audio recordings were made in people’s homes as well as the Mt. Airy Fiddlers Convention. To me, this element added to the beauty of the overall project. In my opinion it captured the natural vibe of traditional Appalachian music.

I’ve seen many documentaries over the years similar to this one. While I have enjoyed them all, I always find myself a little bit frustrated by the overall conclusions that are made. Typically these films will acknowledge the fact that there is a new generation of people playing these music and that they are pushing it forward by continually bringing new things to the table. While I don’t necessarily mind this way of thinking, it’s bothered me that pretty much all of these works neglect to recognize that there are many young musicians devoted to playing the way generations before them did. Just Around the Bend is completely opposite of these conclusions as it is mostly centered around younger players who have complete devotion towards carrying on these unique musical traditions. It’s a refreshing view point for me.

Both discs that accompanied the DVD got my attention the same way that the documentary had when I first watched it. These three discs also gave a strong urge to get my banjo out and learn these tunes. Whenever that happens, I know that I have come across something truly brilliant and remarkable.

Whether you love the sounds of the banjo or you’re wanting to learn more about Old Time music, I cannot recommend this set enough. It is a remarkable documentary and a wonderful reminder of Mike Seeger’s rich legacy.

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