Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Tag: banjo

Songs over notes: in praise of The Okee Dokee Brothers

Had the pleasure of seeing The Okee Dokee Brothers in concert at Lincoln Hall. My little niece is a superfan of the folk duo, which is how I got turned onto them. And since they are a kid-centric act, I got to experience the glories of an 11 a.m. concert start time. I’d go to so many more concerts if they happened in the morning.

Though my exposure to children’s music is limited, none of what I have heard is as broadly appealing as The Okee Dokee Brothers. It’s just straight-up good roots, bluegrass, and folk music. Can You Canoe?, Saddle Up, and Through the Woods are all excellent albums for all ages. (They said their next album, out in October, will be all about winter—as if I needed another reason to love them!)

They also solved a problem I’d stumbled into ever since picking up the banjo and exploring bluegrass music. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment but I promise it’s just a plain compliment: the Okee Dokee Brothers don’t seem focused on being impressive.

They very well could be savants on the guitar and banjo, but unlike some artists they don’t waste time trying to prove how amazing instrumentalists they are through a fusillade of notes. A round of applause for those virtuosos—but I’m much more interested in being taken on a good musical storytelling journey.

The Okee Dokee Brothers demonstrated this (inadvertently) during their show, playfully hyping up their soloing abilities only to reveal some fairly pedestrian two-bar or one-note licks. Meanwhile, songs like “Through the Woods” and “Hillbilly Willy” and “Walking With Spring”, seemingly straightforward folk songs “for kids”, boast strong narrative arcs, clever lyrics, and beautiful musical craftsmanship. And all without punching listeners in the ear with a barrage of frailin’ and fingerpickin’.

In other words: Songs over notes. I know what you can do with all those notes, but what about what you can do with only some of them?

Mark Twain on the ‘glory-beaming banjo’

Courtesy of the Steve Martin-narrated documentary Give Me The Banjo about “America’s Instrument”, here’s Mark Twain on the banjo:

The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. … When you want genuine music—music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose,—when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!

Also by Twain:

A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo and doesn’t.

There’s a reason Mark Twain is quoted so often; it’s because he’s so damn quotable.

Since getting a banjo for my birthday I’ve been on the lookout for banjo-related movies and such. I watched Bela Fleck’s documentary How to Write a Banjo Concerto, and then just this week discovered Give Me The Banjo at my library. What else is good?

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