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Arts & Culture

Give Me The Banjo

Courtesy of Stephanie Berger
Banjoist and narrator, Steve Martin performs with the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Airs Friday, November 22, 2013 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Narrated by Steve Martin, a banjoist himself, the film explores the roots of American music — the minstrel show, ragtime and early jazz, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and country.

It is a story of America’s quintessential musical instrument from its African slavery roots to the 21st century, featuring performances and commentary from contemporary folk musicians such as Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Taj Mahal, Béla Fleck and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, as well as from leading music historians, instrument builders and collectors.

Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash hosts. "Give Me The Banjo" is produced and directed by Marc Fields with Michael Kantor as executive producer. Tony Trischka is co-producer and music director.


The evening’s presentation is in collaboration with PBS member station UNC-TV (North Carolina). This program originally aired in 2011.

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Watch Give Me the Banjo: Finding the Real Thing on PBS. See more from PBS.

David Holt is a multi-instrumentalist, storyteller, a regular on "Hee Haw" and host of the public TV show "Folkways." In the late 1960s, Holt began searching out old time banjoists throughout the mountain south, hoping to learn from the last authentic folk survivors untouched by modern media. But, "authenticity" in folk music proved to be difficult to define.
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Watch Give Me the Banjo: Taj Mahal Performs Slow Drag on PBS. See more from PBS.

Taj told us about the old country juke joints: "A lot of places musicians would play all night long, and basically play the popular airs and tunes and so forth. But toward the end of the night, the fellows know they want to take the girls home. So this is like one of them tunes that they used to play at the end of the night."
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Watch Give Me the Banjo: Rhiannon Giddens Performs "Gonna Write Me a Letter" on PBS. See more from PBS.

Rhiannon Giddens is a member of the Grammy-winning string band The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Here she performs a song by the great North Carolina banjoist Ola Belle Reed: "Gonna write me a letter/Gonna send it on the foam/Gonna send it to my baby/Gonna beg him to come home." The sorrowful surging of her clawhammer banjo underscores the image of a love letter sent via sea foam.
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Watch Give Me the Banjo: 4-String Swing on PBS. See more from PBS.

The 4-string tenor and plectrum banjos came to the fore in vaudeville, early dance bands and jazz around WWI. Its heyday barely lasted through the Twenties, however, and it survived mostly among hobbyists and nostalgia purveyors like Shakey's Pizza Parlors. Breaking the mold is New Jersey-born Cynthia Sayer who plays hot, swinging jazz on the plectrum banjo and performed with Woody Allen's band.