The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 11

Trends in Old-Time Five-String Banjo Playing
By Ray Alden
Fred and Eva Cockerham. Photo: Ray Alden

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

—William Shakespeare, Act 1 scene 5 of Hamlet

Any attempt to encapsulate from tip to toe all the ways in which old-time five-string banjo is played today, or predict precisely the direction in which it will be headed, is likely to be as frustrating as trying to forecast which clothing will be in vogue or what popular musical style will be the rage ten years from now. In one respect, old-time banjo players stand apart from most other fad-driven interests in that they have a noticeable fidelity to the past. This is in part because of the realization that older musicians had already found solutions for many of the rhythmic puzzles of the five-string banjo. Nonetheless, creative people will always find a way to produce new techniques so as to express themselves in ways that put a stamp on their playing, reflecting abilities, personalities, and the milieu in which they learned. Perhaps this tug-of-war characterizes most artistic human endeavors: on one side an adherence to tradition, on the other new, creative ideas coming from inventive individuals. In this article, the goal is to explore both sides of the coin, mostly through interviews with a variety of old-time five-string banjo players.

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