Otis Taylor: Recapturing The Banjo

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Multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor has been playing the banjo since childhood.  His recent release, Recapturing The Banjo, aims to reconnect the instrument with its African heritage via an all-star cast of African American banjo players consisting of Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, ‘Keb ‘Mo, Corey Harris, Don Vappie and Guy Davis.  It is a celebration of various styles of banjo performance that shows reverence for the past while insisting on modern day relevance.


Though it is often thought of as a bluegrass instrument – suggesting roots in Appalachia – the banjo actually hails from Africa.  Brought to North America by African slaves as early as the 18th century, it was adopted by white musicians who shared a folk song repertoire with black performers, and incorporated into Dixieland Jazz.  But when it became integral to the minstrel shows of the 19th century, shows that degraded black culture by featuring white players in black-face, it was all but dropped from use by African Americans.

Two instances – decades apart – led this project to its culmination. The first came when Otis, then just 16, was so highly regarded for his skill as a banjoist that he was encouraged to attend a banjo festival in the Deep South.  This was 1964, and the prospect of an African American traveling to such a hostile and racially divisive environment sufficiently “freaked out” Taylor to the extent that he practically set the banjo aside, focusing instead on the guitar and harmonica as his primary instruments.

“I didn’t know the banjo was of African origin when I was a kid,” Taylor says. "[My father] was a painter and wanted me to be a musician. But he didn’t think much of the blues.  He thought it was country.  He was part of the black intelligentsia and most of them left the South.  It was a social thing, like: ‘Why would you want to play this country music that’s so old-fashioned and by these ignorant people who stay down South and get hung and lynched.’ 

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"My father was a big jazz fanatic," Taylor states.  "Jazz was for the progressive black man who was defiant.  He really wanted me to be a jazz musician but it just wasn’t really in the cards.” In time, Taylor developed an accomplished career as a heralded blues musician.  He grew up in Denver and helmed various bands in the late 1960s, including T&O Short Line with Deep Purple’s Tommy Bolin.  However, by 1977, he quit the music business to become, of all things, an antiques dealer. 

“I just wasn’t happy,”Taylor says. “I didn’t financially need to do it, so I just stopped.  It just wasn’t happening for me.  I know a lot of great musicians who got married, had kids and became carpenters.  I was heading that way and it was just a fluke that I came back and got into it. I dropped out and never thought I was coming back.”

A friend in need finally got Taylor back on stage.  He was called on to help open the friend’s coffee house, and offered to perform a few songs to celebrate, which led to a full-fledged return to music.  Since 1995, he’s released eight CDs, all heralded by the blues press for their stark directness.  This year, OME Banjos named one of their signature models –“The Otis”— after him, built according to his specifications.{mospagebreak}

The second incident that would spark Recapturing The Banjo came decades later as Taylor was watching the movie "Songcatcher."  The movie featured a scene of a white banjoist teaching a character, played by Taj Mahal, how to play.

“It seemed like it should be the reverse or something,” he says.  “Something was strange about it.  Like Taj should have been showing him the song.  Something bugged me about it.  It should have been the reverse.”

The final impetus came in 1999 at a chance meeting between Taylor and Alvin Youngblood Hart.

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“We did a workshop with black banjo players and so it was sort of in my head then,” Taylor says.  “I asked Alvin about it, it was right after 9/11, at the Telluride Blues Festival.  I asked him if he wanted to do this project and he said yes.  So he was on board.  I asked Taj Mahal and he said he wanted to do it with white people too.  So I couldn’t get him on board because I wanted to do the first one with just black people.”

Then the ball began rolling at full steam.  Everyone he asked said yes.  He brought in Corey Harris because of Harris’ connections to African music.  Don Vappie was recommended to him by the folks who make his banjos.  Guy Davis was a long time cohort, and he signed up.  Keb Mo also said yes when he was asked.

With a skilled cast of characters, they traversed the history of the banjo in an effort to educate and entertain.  The album comes with extensive liner notes tracking the history of the banjo, written by folklorist Dick Weismann.  It also includes a suggested list of other albums by black banjoists and even a bibliography!

But don’t think of this as a mere exercise in ethno-musicology.  It’s not a history lesson. 

“I’m not a historian,” says Taylor.  “I’m not even good with dates.  But I’m good with concepts.  Like, the banjo came from Africa.  That’s a concept.  I wanted to recapture the banjo historically and for modern times too.  I wanted to put out an album that would make people think: I dig Belà Fleck but this is pretty tripped out.  I wanted to show people that we were modern progressive people too.  I didn’t want to just drudge up old traditions.  I wanted to show who we are right now.”

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The album is at once vibrant and haunting, with Taylor’s trademark penchant for vivid storytelling and hypnotic drone beat intact.   Every track is backed by Taylor’s daughter Cassie on bass and her backup vocals provide a ethereal backdrop to stories both dire and playful.  Each of the players contributes an original tune or a traditional tune, and as a group they track the various styles of banjo that were common to black performers for decades.

Hart’s “Prophet’s Mission” is intoxicating in its repetition that delves deeply in the gut.  The more upbeat tunes include inventive takes on the traditional “Little Liza Jane” and “Deep Blue Sea,” as well as jug band pioneer Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In.”  And the cover of “Hey Joe” (yes, the one made popular by Jimi Hendrix) is big fun.

But it is Taylor’s original story-songs that chill the spine with a wicked eye for focused description.  “Ran So Hard The Sun Went Down” recalls a man running from a racist lynch mob as the overlapping banjos evoking the hurried and frantic escape of the protagonist; “Bow Legged Charlie” is a murder ballad involving an African American cowboy in the old West.

With so many musicians and so many schedules to juggle, a full tour to support the album is all but impossible.  But Taylor will be touring with Don Vappie this summer, and hopefully bringing on as many of the other players as possible when schedules collide.

For Recapturing the Banjo, the group recorded more than 18 songs, but scaled it back to 14 for the record.  As for continuing the project with another record down the line, Taylor says “You just never know. There could be a Banjo 14. It just depends on how it does.”

Studio photo & photo of Otis, Carrie Taylor, and Don Vappie by Stacy Moore

Photos of Otis (green jacket) by Josh Mintz 

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