Arts & Entertainment

Press Pass: The Old Time Banjo Festival

If you ask Grammy-winning folk musician Cathy Fink what draws her to banjo music, she’ll say it’s a mystery. 

The Baltimore native, half of the folk duo Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, didn’t grow up with the twangy sounds of the mainstay folk and bluegrass instrument. She didn’t even hear the banjo played live until after moving to Canada, where relocated to in the 1970s and embarked upon her music career. But still, she was inexplicably drawn to it.

“One day I just said I have to play the banjo,” Fink said. “I don’t have any idea why that happened to me. It’s kind of like something was flying around and it dropped on my head. And from that point on, I have been attached to the banjo.”

The instrument was the centerpiece of the duo’s 2007 album Old Time Banjo Festival, which gathered 21 banjo players of the day to record on the compilation album. Banjo songs new and old are featured, from Bob Smakula’s take on the Merle Haggard standard “Mama Tried” to more traditional tracks. It was a dream project to work on, Fink said, and it resulted in a dream show that Fink has enjoyed for the past six years.

The sixth annual Old Time Banjo Festival, which will be coming to The Birchmere July 14, began as a way to celebrate the release of the recording, but has since become a way for Fink and Marxer to bring a genre-spanning collective of banjo players to the stage every year.

This year’s show marks the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie. The folk legend, father of the American classic “This Land Is Your Land” and hundreds of other folk pieces, was born 100 years ago to the very day of the concert, and this year’s Old Time Banjo Festival will be paying tribute.

“It would literally be impossible to ignore Woody Guthrie’s birthday,” Fink said, adding that much of Guthrie’s music has been played on banjo. “It’s so interwoven in the fabric of American music that it is a very natural fit to do some of that music on the banjo.”

Though Guthrie produced a profound catalog of folk music in the 55 years he lived, there still remain lyrics penned by the songwriter that were never set to music. Fink and Marxer have worked with Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, who manages the vast collection of lyrics, to bring sound to some of the late songwriter’s words.

“We were honored to be offered some of those lyrics, and have recorded some music that is collaborative between Woody Guthrie and ourselves,” Fink said.

While this year’s concert will have a Guthrie flair, with the lineup of artists planning to play arrangements of his songs for banjo, the festival has been named for another late folk artist, Mike Seeger, since his death in 2009.

“He was a phenomenal collector and disseminator of old-time banjo music,” Fink said. “Mike was not only a very good friend to us, but a very good friend to the whole old-time music community. He spent a ton of time driving around the South with a tape machine, recording and collecting some of the most fabulous American traditional music there ever was. He was helpful in the launch of this festival, he performed at the first three years of the festival, and by putting his name to the festival, it gives us an opportunity to both remember and honor him.”

Not unlike Seeger, Fink noted, her role in producing the festival and bringing banjo players together each year lets her promote the music she feels so passionately about.

In addition to the folk stylings of Fink and Marxer, this year’s lineup includes a variety of acts interpreting the instrument and its music in their own ways. The Old 78’s will return to play their arrangements of ragtime and classical banjo ensemble pieces from the early 1900s, with banjos of all shapes, sizes and sounds. Longtime festival performer Adam Hurt will play the clawhammer banjo. So too will Evie Laden, a newcomer to the festival who incorporates dance and voice in her performance. Another first-timer at the festival, bluegrass musician Bill Evans, will take audiences on an historical journey following banjo music from its early origins in West Africa to its roots in minstrel shows.

“All of the people in this festival are people who have gone and sat at the feet of the masters, listened to them play, learned from them, and want to carry on the tradition at the same time as they feel like they can be creative with carrying on that tradition,” Fink said.

All will perform separate sets, but when musicians come together as friends by virtue of their shared love of banjo music, unique collaborations often take shape. From those interesting intersections, to the way each act puts their own spin on banjo music, and from the fun and energetic way it is played to the “heart and soul” that music can convey, Fink says audiences are in for a display of the craft of impassioned musicians, and will certainly be entertained.

“The ability to take it to a concert stage and say to the world, ‘my goodness this is beautiful music, and we’re going to play it for you,’ that’s a great thing,” Fink said.

• For more information about the Old Time Banjo Festival, visit oldtimebanjofestival.com.

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