Professor Banjo

Notes on Music, Dance, and Community.

Just for fun…

My website allows me to see what words and phrases people put into search engines that lead them to my website. Most are straight forward like “Professor Banjo” or “Square Dance Party.” But some… well, see for yourself. Here are the best, strangest, and 100% true web searches that have led someone to my website:

“a bango [sic] player with a beard” – that’s me!

“guy from kids show that played a banjo” – Yup, me again.

“kids show banjo beard canadian” – Wow, that’s really specific.

“kazoo man” – Alter ego?

“hipster square dance caller” – Um, I guess so… maybe.

“the most talented banjo player” – I wish!

“tall square dancer” – Hmmm, not me.

“nigerian lesbians phone number midnight callers” – DEFINITELY not me.

“square dancing tattoo ideas” – My face!

“how do i square dance by myself” – Maybe Billy Idol knows.

“i just called to say i love you square dance calls” – Good idea! I’ll call up Stevie and we’ll get right on this.

“fighting square dance calls” – Better idea.

“dirty square dance calls” – Awesome idea!

“sand on the floor for square dancing old times” – Not such a good idea…

“starts the day in my car square dance” – Like clowns in a VW at the circus?

“square dance get on my love train” – Huh?

“what is it called when people are in the mosh pit and socking each other?” – WHAT?????

Music Community in Action!

I’ve just witnessed a powerful display of community in the world of old-time music. My friend Chris Suen, a professional musician, was in a serious car accident this past summer. As a result, he incurred significant hospital debt, and lost his livelihood. Happily, Chris is recovering, he’s been out playing here and there, but his recovery is slow.

However, music is an amazing thing; it bonds people together. Jamming and dancing are short-cuts to building relationships. Old time players and dancers see each other at festivals, concerts, dances, and house parties. And even if they only see each other once or twice a year, a connection is made and maintained. And if someone needs help, we’re sort of like church, or a neighbourhood, or a family. The striking thing is how many people feel connected through our shared musical experiences.

When Chris was in the hospital, people kept asking how they could help. We did a fundraiser square dance, and asked for donations at a music camp that Chris had been scheduled to teach at. People gave generously, but not everyone who wanted to help was able to come. So some of Chris’ friends set up a crowd-funding campaign for him. This way his friends from all over North America could pitch in. And boy did they! The campaign’s original goal was $6000 to begin covering living expenses, and the cost of the damaged car. That goal was met in less than 48 hours, and went on to raise twice that amount for Chris.

Community is about way more than money, but this story is a rare chance to see the capacity for a community to step in and help one of their own. You can read more here:

Growing Old Time Music in Vancouver

I’m excited to be meeting new musicians here in Vancouver, but I’ve discovered that the sense of connection and community is not as strong as it was back in Portland. Happily, I’ve been able to set up a series of monthly jams in East Van. These jams are open to beginners, experienced players, and listeners! Come on out!

*Sunday December 9th 1pm-4pm at the Commercial St. Cafe (3599 Commercial st.)

*Thursday January 10th, 7-10pm at the Rhizome Cafe (317 E. Broadway)

*Thursday February 7th, 7-10pm at the Rhizome

Hornby Island Fest

I just got back from the Hornby Island Festival and boy did I have fun! First of all the location is stunning. Hornby is a small island off of Vancouver Island. To get there from Vancouver you take the ferry from the mainland, drive halfway up Vancouver Island, take a ferry to Denman Island, then take another ferry to Hornby. The locals are warm and friendly, the visitors are happy, and the beaches are sandy and warm. My first performance for the festival was a family show under some beautiful trees on a farm by the water. Then I found the house I was staying at – a lovely house owned by a lovely couple just a walk from the beach. Here’s a photo from the edge of the property:

The next day I called a short dance on the beach as a preview of the big dance. There were 50 ready dancers in bare feet and flip-flops having a grand time right on the sand. Here’s a video: Hornby Beach Dance

Then the next night was the big dance that ended the outdoor portion of the festival. Here’s a picture at the farm from behind the stage:

The dance was a blast! It looked like there may have been 500 people at the show, and most of them were dancing. The dance is a long-standing tradition at the festival and it drew enthusiastic dancers of all ages. Jayme Stone and his ensemble, and Adrian Dolan provided the great soundtrack as everyone did the figures in the warm salty air. Check it out here: Hornby Square Dance. Later on, Adrian and Jayme were joined by the students of the Hornby Island Fiddle camp (kids as young as 6 years old!) while I called a virginia reel. And later still Ruth Moody, of the Wailin’ Jennys, sang us a lovely waltz under the moonlight.
It was a magical couple of days. Thanks to Marc and Adrian for having me, and Sabine and Robin for their hospitality!

Reflecting on Bill Martin’s legacy.

In 2002 I picked up the banjo for the first time and started to get interested in old-time stringband music. There was a resurgence of interest in old-time music then, and I got swept up in it. Bill Martin (AKA King Bubba) was, and is, the overall clad father figure of the old-time community here in Portland.

Bill taught me and a few others to call square dances during the summer of 2002. He saw that interest in traditional stringband music was growing and he wanted to be sure that square dancing would be part of the wave. He took it upon himself to teach us the calls, and along the way he also imparted a strong philosophy – square dancing is not a recreated moment in history, it is a living tradition that is best served by having a warm and welcoming attitude.

Bill’s dances, and as a result, the dances of those who learned from him, have always been beginner-friendly affairs with lots of energy. They are famously inter-generational. Bill never wanted an elitist crowd to develop, and never wanted new dancers to feel excluded. The amazing thing is that he achieved this goal while still introducing a high level of dancing. His focus on teaching clearly and his constant assertion that our events were “parties first, and dances second” made everyone feel welcome and sent everyone home happy. The ripple effect of these dances was amazing. People from all over the country began to hear about the great old-time scene in Portland. As people visited and brought reports back home to their friends they got up the gumption to revive square dances in their own towns. I don’t think it’s too much to say that Bill had a direct impact on the growth of square dancing across the country.

But Bill wasn’t just a dance caller and  teacher. He was also a community ring leader. His website and weekly e-mails kept everyone up to date on shows, dances, workshops, festivals, new recordings, and documentaries. He wasn’t afraid to use his forum as a bully pulpit either – urging the community to learn to play Schottisches, embrace early bluegrass and jug band music as part of the old-time repertoire, and even chastise folks for missing a good show now and then. He was active on internet groups on traditional dancing, wrote articles for the Old Time Herald, and was featured on OPB’s Art Beat.

Everything that Bill did, he did with delight, a sense of humor, and genuine enjoyment. As I write this Bill is in hospice, valiantly greeting friends, playing music, and organizing his affairs while trying to mitigate the growing pain from cancer. I’ve been very fortunate to know Bill, and to learn about square dances, music, and community from him. My life, and the lives of many others, wouldn’t have been the same without him.

Self promotion, an icky little chore.

I’ve been aware for a while now about the limits of my ability to self-promote. Though I’m able to send out e-mails and press releases, update my website, and use social media to some degree, I steer clear of really “selling” myself to others. It’s hard to do. Those of you who have ever geared up for a job interview may have some idea of what it feels like. But as a musician I have to do it all the time! The result is that I often under-sell myself and my music.

I have one saving grace. You. The community of friends and audiences (you see how I even avoid using the word “fans?”) who love what I do. The people who come out to my shows and dances are my biggest asset, because it’s you who tell your friends and draw in new folks. I can’t tell you how much it means to me, and how much it helps my career, and therefore my ability to keep doing what I’m doing.

I guess what I wanted to say is that I’m grateful. The more you share my music with your friends, the less time I have to spend self-promoting.


Dances come in all flavors…

I had quite a busy trip down to Seattle and Portland last weekend. It reminded me how dances all have their own unique tone and feeling.

On Friday night I called at the Gypsy Cafe in Seattle. This monthly dance is all ages, but since it starts at 8pm the kindergarten-and-younger crowd are nowhere to be seen. This leaves the floor open for tweens and teens to dance along side the adults – which I find very satisfying. It has the feeling of being a small town dance, in the middle of a very big city.

On Sunday night I called the “Every Sunday Square Dance” at the Village Ballroom in Portland. Portland’s square dance scene thrived for years at the McMenamin’s Kennedy School, where a monthly dance (that was free and all ages) was an overwhelming success and helped spur on the old-time revival in town. But the loss of that venue 5 or so years back was quite a blow. The full impact wasn’t felt for a few years, but after efforts by myself and others to start other dances fell flat, the hole was obvious. Happily, a large group of callers and musicians have pooled their resources and found a great venue. They went for broke and decided to put on a weekly dance, and the result has been great! The Sunday evening dances are also all ages, and once a month the evening is dedicated to gender-free dance calls. That means no “Gents” or “Ladies” designations. A gender-free dance makes a clear statement to dancers that couples can be any combination of people whether they are (or look like) a man and a women, or not. This inclusive and welcoming gesture is important, because the dance community thrives when it is diverse. I also found that, while I think that using gents and ladies calls makes for smoother dancing, I was able to call a surprising number of my dances without them.

Lastly, I called at the Tractor Tavern Monday night square dance. A twice monthly affair that the Tallboys have been hosting for years now. In stark contrast to the Gypsy dance, and the Sunday dance, this dance is 21+ and  strongly heterosexual. It has a decidedly young and boozy feeling, with a little bit of meat market around the edges. Though I love the family friendliness of the other dances, I’m glad that old-time music can be energetic enough for young people’s courting purposes. After all, you get to meet lots of folks, hold hands, spin around, and act silly. The event is wholesome – but not too wholesome. And everyone leaves with a smile on their face.

As the community of square dancers is just beginning to establish itself here in Vancouver, my trip south and back makes me wonder what things will look like up here. I have some control, as the caller, in crafting a welcoming and exciting environment, but the dancers, venues, and intangible influences have just as much say in how it all works out. I’m hoping for the best!

To Kindie, or not to Kindie…

I’m connected with lots of great kids musicians, particularly in Portland. And if you don’t know already there’s something of a phenomenon growing lately around “Kindie” music. (Get it? Kids + Indie = Kindie.) As it’s name implies, it’s related to the Indie music scene, hip, contemporary music written for parents as much as for kids. In fact, this new breed of kids music is one of the fastest growing sectors of the music industry right now. As a musician who stays largely in the traditional realm, I’m sort of in the periphery of the larger scene. Luckily for me, the musicians I’m connected to are just as supportive of banjo music for kids as they are punk music for kids.

The Kindie scene has a lot going for it: It gives parents and kids common ground to share music together, it introduces kids to live music, and it gives kids musicians a higher cultural profile than they’ve had in the past. All great things in my book. But there are some points against Kindie, too. Kids albums are analogous to Christmas albums in the industry, it seems like lots of successful artists are trying to cash in by recording one. And some artists assume that performing kids music is a cinch. I heard one interview recently where a songwriter claimed that her inspiration for recording an album of traditional kids songs was because she was too tired as a new parent to be creative. She goes on further to say that kids aren’t discerning audiences. Kids may not be discerning, exactly, but they aren’t pushovers either, and this attitude that you can just knock out a kids album when you’re feeling tired shows a lack of respect to kids musicians, and the kids themselves.

Playing music for kids, and especially playing music that kids and parents can enjoy together, is an art form. And like all art forms, in the rush to create the newest thing, artists can throw the baby out with the bathwater. But people who play and record music for kids need to remember that the baby is the one we’re playing for in the first place.


I love calling small community dances!

I just got back from Lillooet BC, (a small town about 4 hours from Vancouver) where I called a dance with Pharis and Jason Romero at the local Elk’s Hall. What a treat! From the beginning it was a special night: An info board had been made featuring the band biographies, the poster for the evening, and the article from the local paper.  Another resident had donated old square dance records and dresses for display. The community turned out in droves and many old-timers came up to me afterwards recalling the good old days of town dances, and commenting with enthusiasm about the number of young people who came out. Over the course of the night someone made a sign-up list for folks interested in doing more dancing in town, and we were entreated to come back again sometime.

The event made me recall fond memories: Calling dances with my mentor Bill Martin at the Netel Grange in Astoria, OR. The warm reception I’ve received in Hood River, OR where I once signed a birthday card the community sends annually to Pete Seeger. A sweet little dance at the Grange Hall in Skamokawa, WA, where the tall, young, well dressed Grange Master turned out to be Krist Novoselic from Nirvana. And the dances I called for the Church of the Annunciation in Milwaukie, OR where the Priest routinely danced in his many-buttoned robe.

Getting to call in small communities makes me feel like an honored guest, where my job is to help people celebrate themselves. It’s a job I love and hope to keep doing for years to come!

R-E-S-P-E-C-T (found out what it means to me!)

I had a dream last night that I was attending some kind of social justice forum. Without warning, someone turned to me and asked how my work calling dances and teaching kids related to social justice. Taken off guard I rattled something off about respect being at the center of what I do. When I woke up from the dream at 5 in the morning, I scribbled some notes thinking I could flesh out this idea… so here goes!

In my life I’ve done a few different things that I’ve considered important work: assisting people with developmental disabilities, teaching children, and playing music and calling dances. And, as my dream suggested, I think that respect is at the heart of them all. It may seem obvious (though it is often neglected in practice) that to work with kids, and people with disabilities, you need to respect both the needs and the capabilities of the people you are working with. You need to respect everyone as an autonomous individual and strive to meet them where they are. I could go on, but what I think is interesting is how this level of respect translates to my music.

In performing for kids and their families I need understand and respect that kids’ attention can wander, that they need to fidget, and that they have a need for connection. Even though I interact with the audience a lot, sometimes the need for connection is so strong that kids walk right up to the stage mid-song, and start a conversation! I do my best to give that child some eye-contact and make as much of a connection as I can while still performing. At my shows I also respect that the parents have needs for some adult connection. They want to be seen, too, and have a little of the content geared toward them, which is why I go out of my way to talk to parents from the stage, and pick material that they can enjoy along with their kids.

Respect comes up at square dances too! I need to respect the needs of the crowd I’m calling for and meet them where they’re at. Often there are lots of beginners, and they need to be led through the dances in a way that doesn’t insult their intelligence, and lets them dance and have a good time as quickly as possible.  This respect for new dancers is a hallmark of the contemporary old-time dance community that was drilled into my head by my mentor, Bill Martin. It’s also vital that dancers respect each other – they’re touching and holding each other, and that requires trust, which is born out of mutual respect. Beyond that, good dancers can meet new dancers with grace, maybe share a tip (but don’t give them a whole lesson!), and then enjoy the dance. New dancers can respect the experience of seasoned dancers and learn from them in the process.

Respect – Sock it to me!

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