If you thought — as I did — that all the banjo was good for was a trebly twang, then you don’t know banjos.
“There are so many different sounds you can get from a banjo,” said Kevin Enoch, a banjo maker in Beltsville, Md., known for his finely crafted instruments. “Different types of banjos are played different ways. If you take a gourd banjo, with skin stretched over it and gut strings, you get this really deep, tubby, guttural sound that’s really primitive. Then you can go through various stages up to what most people are used to hearing: bluegrass banjo that’s very bright and crisp and cuts through.”
Sunday at the Birchmere in Alexandria , it will be the so-called “old time” banjo that will be in the spotlight. It’s likely that some of Enoch’s banjos will be, too. Cathy Fink , one of the evening’s performers, owns several.
Cathy, why the banjo?
“You know, that is a mystery question of my entire life,” Fink said. She lives in Silver Spring, Md., but was on the phone from Tennessee, where she was teaching at an acoustic music camp.
Fink played guitar by age 12. She took up the Appalachian dulcimer because Richard Farina and Joni Mitchell played it. Then she picked up the banjo — and put it down again.
“Around 1974, an old high school buddy of mine was selling a banjo for 85 bucks,” she said. “I thought, ‘What the hell, I’m gonna buy that thing.’ I fooled around. Nothing special happened. I put it away.”
It wasn’t until a few months later when she was in Calgary, Alberta, and met folk musician Barry Luft that Fink got actual lessons. Luft had himself had to persevere. In the 1960s, he hadn’t been able to find anyone in Calgary to teach him the banjo, so he wrote to folkie Pete Seeger for help.
“Pete sent him a signed copy of his book ‘How to Play the 5-String Banjo,’ ” Fink said. It was those methods that Luft passed to Fink — and that she passes to her students.
Sunday’s event is held in honor of Seeger’s late brother, Mike, a banjo proselytizer who coined the term “old time” banjo to describe a pre-bluegrass, clawhammer style.
“Mike Seeger did three amazing instructional DVDs on Southern banjo styles,” Fink said. “Most are styles you rarely see people play. If he had not done that, they’d be lost. . . . Mike played the festival with us the first three years we had it. Then he passed away, and we felt like keeping it going and remembering and honoring Mike for everything he’s given to this music.”
The 12th annual Mike Seeger Commemorative Old Time Banjo Festival will feature Fink, Marxer, Gleaves, a group that includes Fink, her longtime partner, Marcy Marxer, and Sam Gleaves; Dom Flemons, co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; the Ken & Brad Kolodner Quartet ; Evie Ladin; and Greg C. Adams. (For information, visit birchmere.com.)
Fink said there are a couple of reasons Washington has a strong banjo scene. One is the inspiring collection of instruments at the National Museum of American History. Another are banjo makers like Enoch.
Originally from Ohio, Enoch did woodworking with his father. He especially liked detailed trim work, such as the complicated angles where the molding on a stairway comes together.
He made guitars for a while, then was bitten by the banjo bug when he heard the old-time style at an arts festival.
Enoch moved to this area in 1991, following his future wife, the banjo-playing Kate Brett.
“I always liked precision,” he said. The care required to frame a house or build a cabinet is one thing, but a musical instrument required precision of a different order. Enoch relishes the fine tolerances that go into one.
“The other thing that drew me in was the ornamentation,” Enoch said. “Guitars tend to be pretty plain, whereas banjos from the turn of the century are gorgeous. They were works of art.”
That’s what Enoch tries to replicate, with handsomely carved headstocks and fine mother-of-pearl details on the fretboards. He wants an Enoch banjo to feel good in the hands, sound good to the ears and look good to the eyes.
You can do a lot with a banjo.
“There have been collected over 80 different ways to tune those five strings, and every one of those tunings has its own mood, its own vibe,” Fink said. “Some tunings have only one thing that’s played in them. I don’t know all 80, but I probably know 25, and they make the banjo an extremely unique instrument.”
And it’s a uniquely American instrument, its design brought to these shores by slaves, then developed over the decades to play all sorts of music, from minstrel songs to rags to jazz and bluegrass.
Said Fink: “To me, the banjo is the centerpiece of Appalachian soul.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.