Magazine Tunes In To The Banjo

Annapolis Family Publishes Monthly Devoted To The Quintessential Folk Instrument

July 12, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,

He bends over the old instrument, his eyes narrowed, the tortoise-shell pick in his right hand working rapid runs up and down a fretboard that's as black as an old peat bog.

The sounds are tuneful yet melancholy, sunlit tones weaving through a fog of minor chords. In Spencer Nitchie's hands, on his handmade tenor banjo, the tune "Fisherman's Island" somehow evokes the smell of turf fires in Ireland, the downing of pints, the migration of an oppressed people to an uncertain new life across the Atlantic.

Nitchie, 45, of Annapolis, hits a clunker or two on the strings - he never claimed to be Mick Moloney, after all - but that's OK. He's more educator than virtuoso on the banjo, an instrument many associate with "car chase music," or the movie Deliverance, but that has also helped people from around the world express their emotions for 5,000 years.

"It's got a certain sound, and you either get it or you don't," says Nitchie, who in his professional life is business manager of The Banjo Newsletter, an Annapolis-based monthly that has served as a clearinghouse of information, instruction, gossip and lore for banjo players around the world for more than three decades.

"BNL is a forum and unifying force for the extremely diverse and geographically widespread banjo community," says Pete Wernick, one of the instrument's most renowned players, teachers and authors, and a BNL contributor.

Nitchie and his brother, Donald, a Massachusetts poet, have helped make the publication a true family affair. Founded in 1973 by their father, Hubbard "Hub" Nitchie, an Annapolis school librarian, it began as a sort of letter to like-minded friends. Hub Nitchie grew its readership to nearly 10,000 at its peak. When he died 16 years ago, Spencer and Donald took over as manager and editor, respectively. Last year, its 35th in operation, BNL won a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in Nashville.

Like most things folk, the newsletter had humble beginnings. Exposed to banjo playing by an uncle, Hub Nitchie was librarian at Annapolis' Bates Junior High in the late 1960s when he began to use a good portion of his time trying to research his favorite instrument.

There was little written on the banjo - mostly just Pete Seeger's How to Play the 5-String Banjo.

"As recently as 1973, banjo playing was an oral tradition, taught almost exclusively within families and communities," Spencer Nitchie says.

That struck Hub as odd at a time when folk music, driven by stars like Seeger and Bob Dylan, was taking urban America by storm, including the Baltimore-Washington area, where thriving clubs such as The Cellar Door in Washington and Charlie's West Side in Annapolis made it a hotbed.

In 1972, Hub sent a letter to every banjo aficionado he knew of, asking where to buy parts, how newbies could learn, who the emerging stars might be. He got so many replies that he turned his mimeographed letter into a full-fledged monthly, quitting his job a year later.

"For the next 10 years, he disappeared into the basement," Spencer says.

The magazine, which eventually became a 48-page publication, featured regular columnists (most of them players), profiles of prominent pickers, reviews and song tablatures, as it still does today.

"The five-string community is a diverse group, and one of the things I love most about BNL is that it embraces all of us, from part-time pickers to professionals," says Alison Brown, a multiple Grammy nominee famed for performing with Alison Krauss and pushing the five-string banjo into unfamiliar musical terrain, including jazz.

In his one-story home in Annapolis, Spencer Nitchie contemplates the instrument's colorful history as he sits amid a harp, an Irish-made Clareen tenor banjo, a West African kora (a stringed instrument whose drum is stretched over a halved gourd), several guitars and mandolins, and Hub's old five-stringer, a handcrafted beauty made and etched by a local gunsmith.

Debates rage over where the instrument began, Nitchie says, some arguing that banjo precursors were born in China 5,000 years ago, others that it stems from western Africa, where the akonting, a folk lute with a skin-headed gourd body, has been in use for centuries.

To Nitchie, it doesn't matter. "There are instruments with skins, or drums, on them all over the world," he says. "You put a string on a drum and it sounds better. The banjo is part of that."

Enslaved Africans in America developed the banjo by fashioning instruments that reminded them of the gourd versions of their native lands, and minstrel performers - white comedian-musicians wearing blackface - popularized it in the U.S. and England. They also cemented the banjo's enduring status as a sort of comic prop, a tradition that continues to this day. (Steve Martin, a talented bluegrass player who recently released a new album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, still works the banjo into his stand-up act.)

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