“It blew me away. I was just bonkers about it,” said Tony Trischka, about falling in lifelong love with the banjo. It happened when he was a kid in the 1960s, listening to a recording of the Kingston Trio’s “Charlie on the M.T.A.”
“It’s hard to put into words, and people are drawn to words, but there was a connection that was made,” explained the consummate banjo artist who is, perhaps, the most influential player in the roots music world today. “It’s an exciting thing; there are bright flashes, a happy sound. But there are also mournful emotions.”
For more than 45 years, his stylings have inspired generations of bluegrass and acoustic musicians with the many voices he has brought to the instrument. The New York Times has called him “the godfather of what is sometimes called the new acoustic music.”
But long before Trischka started recording, and before he won awards and renown, he played with local bands like Country Cooking to find his place in the music world. Among the musicians who inspired him was folk legend Pete Seeger, who became a mentor and remained a close friend for a half a century.
That’s why, in January, a month before Seeger was to be honored with the first-ever Woody Guthrie Prize, Trischka received a phone call from Woody’s daughter, Nora. She invited him to play at the February event at Symphony Space in New York City.
“She asked if I was interested in performing with her brother Arlo, and I said yes, it would be great,” Trischka says. “Pete was such an influence on me early on, not only about the banjo, but also about the power of music to change the world.”
How appropriate, then, that Seeger would receive a prize designated “for artists who speak for the less fortunate, and serve as forces for positive social change,” says Deana McCloud, executive director of the new Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa. Located about 100 miles from Woody’s birthplace in Okemah, Oklahoma, the center promotes and celebrates Woody’s legacy.
Seeger did not live long enough to accept the award himself, although he knew he was getting it. He died January 28 at age 94 after a brief illness. About a week before he died, Trischka, who lives in New Jersey, traveled to Beacon in the Hudson Valley to visit Seeger at his home. He said his friend was “still burning bright.”
The two cozied up to the woodstove and traded stories. Ever the scholar, Seeger recited (correctly) Shakespeare’s 23rd Sonnet (As an unperfect actor on the stage, Who with his fear is put beside his part …) and then went on to recall “The Gettysburg Address.” He also grabbed his banjo and played one of Trischka’s favorites, “Quite Early Morning.”
Trischka loved him, he said, not just for his fine playing on a five-string banjo and 12-string guitar, or his raspy voice, or his bravery for standing up for social justice, or for helping to clean up the environment. And it wasn’t about his laundry list of awards, including the Grammy Awards he won at age 87 and 92.
“Pete was amazingly humble and he had a positive attitude about the world,” Trischka said.
Nora Guthrie introduced him by saying she was happy to bring out “an old dear family friend.”
“It’s a great honor to be here,” Trischka said to the sold-out crowd, and he meant it. After renditions of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and Woody’s “Do, Re, Mi” with guitarist and vocalist Michael Daves, who appears on Trischka’s recordings, Trischka brought out another guest. He introduced him simply as “a banjo player.”
It was actor Steve Martin with his five-string. “It’s an honor to be here to honor Pete,” he said. “I met Pete through Tony, and it was a huge thrill.”
He told a great story about learning to play from a book that Pete Seeger had written long ago called, appropriately, “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.” Trischka said he, too, has a treasured copy.
The surprise appearance really wasn’t that much of a surprise – Martin and Trischka regularly play on each other’s recordings. In fact, Martin’s latest effort was produced by Trischka, and he plays on Trischka’s new CD, “Great Big World” released February 5.
The two co-wrote the song “Promontory Point,” in which each man’s banjo takes on the role of locomotives that raced to Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. The trains touched cow catchers there as a symbol of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. “Promontory Point” is the kind of ditty that Seeger would have loved, because it celebrates history and the five-string banjo at the same time.
Arlo Guthrie almost hated to interrupt them when it was his turn to play. “Man, I didn’t want them to stop,” he said. “I love that.”
At the end of the show, he brought Trischka, Martin and Daves back on stage to join him in “This Land is Your Land.” The audience sang along, and when the number ended, Arlo wanted to keep playing. For an encore, they played “Good Night, Irene,” a song that Seeger made famous when he was a member of The Weavers in the late 1950s.
“Great Big World”
The concert fell in the middle of Trischka’s national tour to promote “Great Big World,” which features songs that he calls “progressive bluegrass, with a little gospel and lullaby music thrown in.” Steve Martin and banjo great Bella Fleck play on it, along with legendary guitarist Ramblin’ Jack Eliot. Actor John Goodman recites a spoken-word piece.
On May 16, Trischka will take the stage at May Memorial, a Unitarian-Universalist society on Genesee Street in Syracuse. He frequently performs and offers banjo workshops in Syracuse, Ithaca and other places in Central New York. The Syracuse University graduate who grew up on Greenwood place says, “Syracuse is still home and always will be. I have friends for life, and every time I come there, we get together. I still love it.”
by Louise Hoffman Broach