The banjo was developed by African slaves who fashioned gourd-bodied instruments similar to ones used in Africa. One of the most likely direct ancestors of the modern banjo is the akonting, found in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. The name “banjo” is believed to be derived from the Kimbundu word mbanza, which may have referred to the bamboo stick used for the instrument’s neck. Early observers transcribed the name of the instrument as bangie, banza, banjer and banjar.
While the banjo was exclusively associated with African-American music in the beginning, it soon found its way into the hands of white musicians, originally through blackface minstrelsy, which was the first American mass entertainment. Through minstrelsy, the banjo was introduced to Britain where it became hugely popular. Minstrelsy eventually fed the various streams and tributaries of American music, contributing equally to the development of ragtime, jazz, blues, and country music. Today it is almost exclusively connected to folk, country, and—most importantly for our purposes—bluegrass.
Which brings us to Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Martin, who has been playing the banjo for 50 years, clearly knows his way around this instrument. He knows its lore and history. For the last five years Martin has been performing original music, often written in collaboration with singer Edie Brickell, with the crack bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers. The combination of these ingredients on stage is explosive. Martin’s expert picking is exquisitely complimented by the guitar and vocals of Woody Platt, the mandolin of Mike Guggino, the five-string banjo of Graham Sharp, the bass of Charles R. Humphrey III, the percussion of Mike Ashworth, and particularly the fiddle of Nicky Sanders, who is—frankly—a revelation. We would be remiss to overlook the vocals of Ms. Brickell. She is clearly at home playing this kind of music.
But this is Steve Martin’s show, and his showmanship is always front and center. The show Martin and company brought to the Palace Theater on Friday night was as much comedy as music (and sometimes both at the same time). It is fitting, since this instrument was so central to the tradition of minstrelsy.
Our modern sensibilities might shrink from the comparison, but it is apt. Behind the paint and the ugly racial characterizations, a minstrel show was—at bottom—comedy and music. Martin’s show even reproduces the roles of the minstrel stage. Martin takes the role of the Interlocutor, the central figure of the minstrel show who usually played the banjo. The Interlocutor acted as straight man, setting up jokes for the two “end men” (usually on tambourine and bones). In Martin’s show, the role of the end men is shared by all of the musicians on stage. At one point, Martin reveals that Platt is a licensed fly-fishing guide in his native North Carolina.
“Woody, I understand that you once took my wife and her family out into the woods for some fly-fishing before I met her,” Martin deadpans.
“Actually, Steve, I just took your wife into the woods,” Platt replies. It’s not too much of a reach to compare that to the old “Who-was-that-lady-I-saw-you-with” joke.
None of this is to excuse the uglier aspects of minstrelsy, nor is it to accuse Martin of doing something shameful. The show was uproariously funny and full of amazing musical performances. The final number, “Auden’s Train”—which featured lyrics from a poem by W.H. Auden set to Martin’s music—was a tour de force. Sanders took a long fiddle solo, playing at lightning speed, and incorporated snatches of popular and classical tunes, including “Norwegian Wood,” War’s “Low Rider,” Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” and Rossini’s “Barber of Seville Overture.” The crowd whooped and cheered. There was nothing condescending nor offensive in the whole thing. Most of the audience was doubtless unaware of the parallels noted above. Nevertheless, they were there, and for those with eyes to see, it was illuminating.