It’s been my good fortune to get to work with scholar L. Marc Fields recently on the liner notes for the CD release of Archeophone Records’ Joe Weber and Lew Fields: The Mike and Meyer Files. In addition to his chops as a writer and researcher, Fields’ is Lew Fields’ great-nephew, and co-author of the book From the Bowery to Broadway: Lew Fields and the Birth of American Popular Theatre, which is on my short-list (top half dozen, easy) of favorite (and best) show biz history books. I call it “the Bible”. So it has been a thrill getting to know him and work with him.
But Marc is more than a Lew Fields factory. For the past decade or more he has helmed The Banjo Project. You may remember the 2011 PBS documentary Give Me the Banjo narrated by Steve Martin, which is the Project’s most prominent product and still gets shown all over the country. But the Banjo Project is also an on-going, open-ended endeavor, a digital museum you can visit here, featuring articles, clips, interviews and more about the great American instrument. If you read No Applause, you may recall that I devoted a couple of pages to the banjo. Today, it tends to get placed in a mental box by many, associated primarily with country, bluegrass, and folk music, the ultimate cracker instrument (I’m 100% cracker, so I get to put it like that). But back in the times I normally write about, the vaudeville era, the banjo was front and center mainstream, and a key element in the sound of early jazz. Far from being all about white noise, its origins go back to Africa, which is how it found its way to minstrelsy, and then on to 20th century music. I myself play a modified version of the instrument in my performances and shows (with nothing like the expertise of the folks Fields chronicles. I’m just a fan of the way it sounds.)
NPR did a piece on Marc’s work back in April. Listen to that here: https://www.wbur.org/artery/2019/04/17/banjo-project-digital-museum .
The best way to support the Banjo Project is to go to The Banjo Project digital museum —banjo.emerson.edu — and click the green “DONATE NOW” button. Please do so now!