Taking a look at this year’s Spoleto and Piccolo lineups, Steve Rosenberg makes an apt observation: “There’s a lot of banjo.” Between Abigail Washburn, the Punch Brothers, and Asheville-based bluegrass act Buncombe Turnpike, fans of the banjo will be able to get their fill of twang. But this year’s most anthropologically interesting banjo show will be Rosenberg’s collection of English folks songs from the Renaissance and earlier, played in an Appalachian style on a classic African instrument.
“The banjo was an instrument brought by the slaves, played around Charleston on plantations, and then it was used by minstrels. How it got up to the mountains we don’t know exactly, but it’s America’s unique instrument,” says Rosenberg, a lifelong banjoist and recorder player who is chairman of the music department at the College of Charleston. It was in the Appalachian Mountains, Rosenberg explains, that the banjo first crossed paths with old English folk traditions. “The last few years, I’ve just been exploring a lot of the old ballads, music that has its origins in the British Isles in the 16th and 17th century and made its way to our country. So I wanted to do something a little bit different and put together a program of these old ballads using America’s instrument.” Rosenberg’s Old Time Banjo Ballads set at Piccolo will include very old tunes like “The Railroad Boy,” “The Cuckoo,” and “Tom Dooley.”
This concert is just the latest in a long series of in-depth musical studies for Rosenberg, whose musical career has included a stint with the early folk revivalist group Les Menestriers as well as solo performances of Sephardic, Baroque, and Renaissance music. Don’t miss this chance to hear a master at work, combining a profound academic understanding of the material with some serious clawhammer banjo chops. —Paul Bowers