I was saved by Bob Webb’s banjo

 

I was working for The Times Record in 2007 when Bob Webb’s new CD Full Circle: The Solo Banjo Sessions” arrived at the arts desk. I’d been a banjo player myself at one time. I hadn’t really played in almost 10 years but I volunteered to write a story.

And boy, am I glad I did.

Bob received me with warmth. He plied me with outstanding coffee. He played tunes and evangelized all morning. By noon, I’d been saved. His enthusiasm, deep understanding of the banjo’s history and, most off all, his elegant playing brought me back to the flock of true believers. His touch was precise. He wrung notes from his banjos in gentle but commanding strokes. As someone said later, “when you hear the banjo played like that, it makes you wonder why anyone would play it any other way.”

His “Full Circle” CD, as well as his other albums, have never been out of rotation in my iTunes playlists. I only met him a handful of times but his albums are so honest and intimate it’s like he’s in the room with me when I listen. I’ve always felt like I knew Bob better than I actually did.

So, I was hit pretty hard when I heard the news: Bob was gone.

Bob died at home on Christmas day after struggling with complications of hereditary hemochromatosis. He was 66-years-old. He was a father and a husband, he’d been the curator at the Maine Maritime Museum and he wrote several books including “Ring the Banjar: The Banjo in America From Folklore to Factory” which was published in 1984 to accompany a ground-breaking exhibition on the history of the banjo in America at the MIT Museum. You can read his full obituary on his website.

In high school, in the 1980′s, I stuck out. My hero was Pete Seeger instead of Bob Seger. Other musician boys my age had electric guitars. My instrument case was shaped distinctly different. In my senior picture, I have a mullet, braces and a banjo. In my desperate, adolescent search for who I was, the banjo was my identity badge. When I was lost I could go to my room, shut the door, play the banjo and remember who I was.

Somewhere between there and 2007, when I met Bob, I’d lost my way. Jobs, girls and the guitar had gotten between me and the banjo. Bob’s joyous playing showed me the way back. I followed the twang and plunk of his instrument to the little room in my soul where the banjo was leaning up against the wall, waiting for me.

Bob Webb was lots of things, as all cool people are, but for me he’ll always be the man who reminded me I was a banjo player. I’d forgotten. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

This is the story I wrote in 2007

Bob Webb sits at his kitchen table barefoot with a mug of coffee in his hand. He sports a gray beard and a blue, button-down shirt. He says he just turned 60.

All the windows in his circa 1810 farmhouse are open. A slight breeze sneaks in with the sunshine through a window screen. Birds twitter outside among the day lilies. Cars whiz by, one at a time, on Route 209 as a chainsaw buzzes in the distance. But distractions evaporate when Webb picks up a banjo and strokes it to singing life.
Banjos surround him they stand in the corner, lounge on a nearby sofa and lay across the dark wood of the kitchen table where he puts on an impromptu, late-morning concert.

Each banjo is a recognizable variation of the familiar, round-bodied design. But each instrument has a singular look and voice. One is an intricately decorated replica of an 18th century gourd banjo strung with gut strings. It makes a quiet, earthy sound under Webb’s fingers. Another is a remake of a 19th century minstrel banjo. It is dressed with steel strings and announces its presence with more authority. He also gives attention to a simple, solid instrument made recently in Michigan. It rings with a more familiar, 20th century sound.

For a little more than three hours Webb holds forth in the kitchen concerning all things banjo. He plays, he sings, he relates its historic origins and talks about his new CD of banjo tunes. He tells banjo stories, too, like the one about the girl in San Francisco who said she was mesmerized by the way his right index finger waggled when he played.

It’s clear Bob Webb likes banjos. He must, he’s been playing them for more than 40 years.

Banjo beginnings

Bob Webb plays the banjo at a fiddle contest in San Diego in 1974.

Bob Webb plays the banjo at a fiddle contest in San Diego in 1974.

When Webb was a teenager he asked his parents for a clarinet and a guitar. They said he could have one or the other, but not both. So he picked the guitar. Being the beginning of the 1960s folk revival, it wasn’t long before he joined a folk group in the vein of the Kingston Trio. That’s when he met his first banjo.

“When I came across the five-string banjo, and heard how it was played in American folk music, I was just knocked over,” says Webb, who grew up in Southern California. “It was something I’d never heard before and I thought is was just the greatest sound.”

He was hooked, but the real addiction came a little later. By then he had formed his own folk band.

“Late in 1963 or early in 1964 a mutual friend of ours came around one evening with an Appalachian-style fretless banjo, a homemade banjo that his father had built in the garage,” Webb remembers more than 40 years later. “That was a kind of turning point for me. I held that thing in my hands and it was all wood. It didn’t have a fancy finish on it; it didn’t have a fancy resonator on the back. It was just pieces of wood with an animal skin head of some kind probably calfskin and I plunked around on it a little bit and I thought, ‘This is really cool, I have got to play this instrument.’”

Kinder, gentler banjo?
When Webb was younger in California the only banjos he heard had four strings and were played with a flat pick loud enough for Dixieland jazz bands and orchestras. These days, most people associate banjos with rapid-fire, high-and-lonesome bluegrass music.

Both styles of playing are relatively modern. Earl Scruggs developed the five-string, bluegrass banjo method in the 1940s. Four-string, or tenor, banjo playing is an invention of the jazz age.

Bob Webb and Helen Richmond Webb at their home in Phippsburg.

Bob Webb and Helen Richmond Webb at their home in Phippsburg.

“My style is an older style for the five-string banjo, the one with the drone string on the side of the neck and it’s called frailing or clawhammer banjo,” explains Webb between sips of coffee and the sound of Navy plane flyovers.

Instead of picking his banjo with three, metal-clad fingers like Scruggs, or with a hard plastic flat pick like a jazz player, the nail of Webb’s right index finger strokes down over the strings before his thumb catches the short drone string on top. Then the operation is repeated. All movement is toward the floor. Occasionally his thumb sneaks down to strike another string. His right hand only moves a few inches up and down and it’s not easy to see just what is happening at first glance.

“This old-time style evolved in the southern mountains at the end of the 19th century,” Webb says, “and I still try and keep up that style today.”

For Webb, the older style is more personal than either jazz or bluegrass. He says it developed in isolated pockets of Appalachia as a form of personal expression where it often was played as a solo instrument.

“I think it carries a lot more emotion,” he says. “There’s a lot more range of feeling. You can play it really loud, you can play it really softly. I like to play softly. I’m a soft, sort of introspective banjo player.”

The phrase “soft, introspective banjo player” might sound like an oxymoron, but only to those who have never heard Webb play. In his hands the banjo is an expressive singer. He swerves between plaintive melodies on his gut-strung, fretless banjo and festive rollers on his more modern instrument. The clawhammer style allows him to strum a danceable rhythm while also picking out a melody. On top of that, Webb often sings, making it a triple-layered audio experience.

“I think the five-string is the most soulful of all the banjo instruments,” he says a little later. “It has a terrific range of expression.”

Coming full circle
As if to prove his point that the banjo can be a soulful, expressive instrument, Webb just recorded a new CD of banjo tunes called Full Circle: The Solo Banjo Sessions.” It contains 21 sparkling tracks of nothing but banjo and his occasional resonating voice. He employs several historic banjos and gut-strung replicas, some of which dot his kitchen.

Bob Webb at Fort Western in Augusta in 2007

Bob Webb plays and sings at Fort Western in Augusta in 2007.

He says he called the disc full circle because part of the banjo is circular. But he also wanted to represent the circle of folk tradition in which he now finds himself. He wanted an audio record of the lifetime of collected tunes in his head. And he also wanted to make sure he shared them with others, in the folk ritual of passing on what you know.

“Some of these tunes I have played for almost all the 40-some-years I’ve been playing, and I’d let a lot of them go,” he says. “I’d put them aside. There wasn’t anybody playing them and there wasn’t anybody to play them with. I was on the edge of forgetting them.”

Webb recorded more than 70 of the 150 or so banjo tunes he knows. At first, it was solely a personal project, made at a friend’s studio in Winsdor. He had no intention of releasing anything on a CD.

“But when we got into it about 60 tunes worth, we looked back at what we’d done and thought ‘wait a minute, it’s better than that,’’’ he says. “I think one of the things that catalyzed me at this point in time is my age. I just turned 60.”

He remembered, out loud in his subterraneanly deep speaking voice, the old days when young folkies sought out aging banjo players to learn their tunes. But the old-time players were often past their playing prime by the time younger musicians found them.

“A great many of them had lost much of their technical facility because of their advancing age,” he says, against an outside motorcycle rumble. “And I thought, it may be vain, but I better put this music down before I get to the point where I can’t play it anymore.”

Webb says he has a touch of arthritis in his hands now, but listening to him play in his kitchen you might not believe him. The tunes just keep coming.

Though I can’t match his subtle playing and light touch, here are two tunes for Bob on my James Morrison banjo from the late 1800s.

To read even more about Bob, check out this memorial thread at Mudcat Cafe.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.