Folklore and/or Fakelore

Yesterday I upset a few people on Facebook when I joked about my possible future legacy by writing:

It hit me today that when I shuffle off this mortal coil I will not be remembered for the thousands upon thousands of people making music because of my work.

I will instead be bitched about because I have never found a use for drop-thumb.

I love the banjo, but the “banjo scene” sucks.

Somebody was quick to point out that I do teach drop-thumb, but that is beside the point.

Most of what we know about history is wrong in one way or another. The George Washington cherry tree story or the story of Johnny Appleseed are perfect examples.

George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree or confessed the deed to his father saying, “I cannot tell a lie”. The story was made up by Mason Locke Weems as a morally instructive lesson. A fable. Somewhere along the way, people liked the lie so much it became part of history. I was taught the cherry tree nonsense as fact – and got slapped across the face by a mean nun for pointing out it was a lie!

I was also taught in school that Johnny Appleseed gave away apple trees to promote good nutrition. The historical truth is that John Chapman planted trees with sour apples. Not to be eaten, but to be used in hard cider. Booze. He did not give trees away, but planted acres of orchards to claim homestead land that he later sold to settlers. His roughshod lifestyle was due to his working in the wilderness to claim land before settlers got their mitts on it.

This happens in folk music all the time. Galax, VA is an easy example. The average phony banjo expert today would have you believe that a couple of old guys in that area influenced all of American banjo playing. The truth is that the average banjo player before the Internet age rarely heard of any of this music unless they went to the Galax festival at some point. When I finally did hear round peak style banjo I thought it was a struggling banjo student! I sat there and said, “What the hell is this?” Imagine my surprise years later when one of the folks marketing the majesty of Round Peak (let’s call him “Bob”) would pop out of the woodwork threatening to destroy me with the help of Banjo Newsletter.

I should tell you all that story. . . It’s really funny.

We were just starting to build banjos when “Bob and Dan” contacted us. They wanted us to give one or both of them a Somerset banjo to “evaluate” before deciding if the instrument was worthy of a review that we neither solicited nor wanted. They also wanted details about our capacity and projected build numbers.

Trying to sleaze a banjo off of us was irritating, but the request for information on our business was a shock because “Bob and Dan” were both endorsing different banjo brands. How can you give an honest review of an instrument when you are being compensated to endorse an instrument from a competing builder?

The whole thing stank to high heaven and we were busy, so we replied with one word. That word was, “Nuts.”

History lovers will know where we got that one.

“Dan” had previously contacted me offering to write a nice review of The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo in exchange for a nice review of his book. I pointed out that I had not read his book. He said that it did not matter.

Isn’t show-biz glamorous?

We figured that saying nuts would make these guys go away . . . we were wrong. The craftsman who was building the first run of Somerset banjos started getting calls from “Bob” (a man we had never met) who began asking for details about our business while (you guessed it) warning him about us.

So I called “Bob”.

I dialed the phone. He answers and I say, “Hi Bob, this is Patrick Costello.”

I didn’t get the chance to say anything more. “Bob” starts shouting and cursing me. I mean he is in a frenzy. A hate-fest right out of 1984.

I tried a couple of times to talk to him but he kept on yelling, screaming and cursing.

Then “Bob” says, “I am going to use Banjo Newsletter to tell everybody what you are. I am going to ruin you!” He was still going when I said a few things that shut him up.

Then I hung up and Dear Old Dad and I called Banjo Newsletter.

I still have the written apology from “Bob” that we told Banjo Newsletter we needed to see. it’s one of those little things I keep to remind myself of the true nature of the business end of folk music.

Needless to say, we will never in a million years be mentioned in Banjo Newsletter. I am OK with that, but I am also aware that there is a double edge to this in that, from the magazine’s perspective I do not exist.

This is much like the scene in The Ten Commandments where Seti I declares:

Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet. Stricken from every pylon and obelisk of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of man, for all time.

I am not comparing myself to Moses. Moses was a great man who pissed off the Pharaoh and led his people to freedom. I am simply a musician who can inspire and piss people off in the same breath.

The same erasing from the obelisks is happening on the Internet. Mention my name in the wrong place and you run the chance of cult indoctrination style pressuring to convince you that I am wrong or evil or the harbinger of the apocalypse.

You will be told that I don’t teach drop-thumb, in spite of the fact that I do.

You will be told I don’t teach alternate tunings, that my rhythm instruction will make it IMPOSSIBLE to progress, that the basic frailing strum is not traditional and/or that “bum ditty” will make it IMPOSSIBLE to progress, jam with other musicians or ever fit in with the beautiful people.

Truth has nothing to do with these weird antics. It’s all about money.

When we posted my first banjo workshops through a dial-up modem in 1997 there were arguments concerning whether or not Dear Old and I should be allowed to give away what music teachers sold for a profit.

When we started filming interviews for The Down Neck Gazette we occasionally had to contend with the folks we were traveling cross-country to visit meeting us with a frown because some banjo vigilante had called or emailed them ahead of our arrival warning them about us.

I’ll ask you again, aint’ show-biz glamorous?

When I wrote The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo publishing people laughed at me. They said it would never sell. So we started our own publishing company. We printed and distributed the book ourselves. As it started selling people began demanding free copies to evaluate in order to decide if the book was good enough to pass on to a (prepare yourself for stupidity) a “banjoista” for review. When I did not play any of their games some people in the “banjo scene” got mad.

When I gave away The How and the Tao of Old TIme Banjo freely to the world under a Creative Commons license banjo people went nuts. Somebody actually wrote me the day I gave the book away saying, “You can’t do this!” I wrote back with the same reply my grandfather gave the day he punched our monsignor in the face, “I can do any
God-dammed thing I want to!” The angry banjo person never wrote back.

Then my father and I were both banned from the banjo forums. Once in a while we were allowed back in, but the same idiots who harassed us in 1997 were always messing with us. They could say things to us. They could write horrible hate-mail and send it to my email account. If I defended myself or got exasperated the ban would recommence and my name would get dragged through the mud for days.

When I came up with the braille-friendly banjo tab system the banjo forums destroyed public support for the project. I have had other breakthroughs since then, but I’m cagey about sharing them. People love to claim my ideas or trash them. Hell, as soon as I launched the Sing The Banjo series someone started a Facebook Group to poach the idea for himself.

This is noting new. When I was starting out I was told that Lead Belly wrote Irene Goodnight. He did not. It shows up as a traditional tune in 1927’s American Songbag, collected by Carl Sandburg.

I was also told that Lead Belly, through the help of the Lomax family, used Irene to get early release from his prison sentence. This never happened. he was released early for good behavior.

The truth, as I know it, is that Huddie William Ledbetter hated being called Lead Belly. The truth is that Huddie Leadbetter played the twelve string guitar as well as piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin and accordion. He was an amazing but flawed personality who died in poverty while the Lomax family kept the money from his recordings and appearances.

The Lomax family is accredited for saving folk songs by working with the Library of Congress, but they copyrighted every song they recorded for themselves. They even have a claim on songs like Cripple Creek!

See how easy it is for a victim to be turned into someone who had been lifted up? See how easy it is for a carpetbagger to turned into a benefactor?

Somewhere along the line folk music became a business. When I was starting out people still shared for the love of the art. Today it’s all about the money. Workshops become performances. Lessons become dysfunctional memorization of tunes rather than learning to communicate and create with the language of music. Hell, banjo camps all feature Little Rascals style shows where the gurus play weakly and the
shell-shocked students sit in weary silence – convinced they will never be as wonderful as the bush-league talent on shameless display.

I wouldn’t mind it so much if I was working against strong musicians. Most of the time the crap smeared on my name and on my work is by people with no way to stand out on their own. There is nothing compelling in their music or message, so they try to gin up business by scaring students away from teachers who will help them learn basic skills.

So much has been said and done to my name that it borders on the comic. I would have thrown my computer and my instruments in the bin twenty years ago, but I do love the craft. I love working with my dad. I also love watching my students grow as musicians.

I am not perfect. I am not always right – but I am never in doubt. I do have a failed fund-raiser for a banjo blues album. I trusted the wrong people, got ripped off and I am working to this very day to finish the project. It will be released as time, my health and funds allow.

In spite of my faults and missteps, I have helped an astonishing number of people. In the end I am not working for any kind of legacy or to have flowery words written about me by stupid people.

My job, as I see it, is to be replaced. This approach to music is not a business or intellectual property. It is a gift. A treasure. Even with nothing a good musician can sing, clap hands and stomp out a rhythm to make music. More than writers, poets, photographers or painters, a good folk musician can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary. We throw what we do into the air and change every person that hears us in profound ways.

My hope is that I fade away Jedi-style. Leaving room for the next teacher to step forward – and maybe leave a couple of funny stories for those new teachers to share between the songs.

Maybe my views on this will change down the road, but right now with my 49th birthday weeks away, I am content to help my students and aggravate the charlatans. People like “Bob and Dan” always get what is coming to them. Karma is a bitch.

Learning Old-Time Banjo

We get a lot of mail and comments asking where to get started on the banjo. Here is my reply to a note I received over the weekend while I was fighting through a five-day migraine headache.

I am aware that I am the rare dissenting voice in this era of banjo gurus who can’t really play pushing banjo tab in place of instruction. The people I learned from expected an old-time banjo player to be able to sing, to fit in with any musical situation and to be able to improvise. Fiddle tunes rarely came up. Even when I played for dances the dance callers and instructors wanted songs rather than tunes. This fiddle tune only routine is as traditional as a rubber tomahawk and the people claiming otherwise are hiding their inability to do anything beyond brainlessly running through a memorized melody line.

Old-time banjo is not a style or a genre. It’s a craft that goes beyond just playing tunes.

Anyway, here’s my answer to the, “How do I get started?” email that came in over the weekend.

The way I play and the way I teach is based on the discipline I learned studying Kenpo Karate and Modern Arnis (a form of stick and knife fighting from the Philippine Islands). I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.

The trick is the basics. People usually take up an instrument and want to play cool licks in an hour. This is like decorating a house before the walls are up. Building without a foundation will always result in disappointment.

 What I did, and what I teach my students, is to go over the basic skill set relentlessly with no thought of progress. I don’t practice to get better or to reach a goal; I practice for the love of the craft.

In frailing banjo and fingerstyle guitar we must learn to perform several complex actions unconsciously. Rhythm, melody, harmony and percussion all at once. On the guitar our percussion turns into bass lines. On the banjo the thumb on the head provides a percussive effect.

Pick up your banjo. Tune it to open G. Take out any stuffing you may have put in the pot and work with these videos:

Old Time Banjo

Basic Frailing Techniques

Download a free copy of Mechanics of Frailing Banjo The web audio is no longer active, but the text will get you started on the right foot.

Once you can play the basic frailing pattern, start adding chords and sing folk songs.

Then go to a folk jam. Play and sing with musicians who are better than you. Don’t sit on the outskirts. Get involved.

If you can’t find a jam, start one of your own.

Play in the community. Nursing homes, hospices, nursery schools. Make yourself part of your community. Inject yourself into its bloodstream

Practice every day. Forget all thoughts of progress. Just play for the love of the craft.

Forget drop thumb. Keep it simple. Strike strum-thumb. A quarter note and two eighth notes.

When you can hold your own at a jam start teaching. Don’t charge for the lesson because your students will teach you.

At some point you will realize that you have achieved your goal, but if you have learned the lessons of the craft it will not matter. Music will be an expression of who you are in this precious moment – and your music will change moment by moment with you. Do this and your light will shine through every song and note and chord.

It is not talent or mystic secrets. It’s just love. Love of the craft. Love of the music. Love of the community. Love of life.

I hope music brings you joy.

God bless,

The one thing I should have added is to be careful with the Internet. People tend to start browsing instead of practicing – and when your eyes are always locked on your phone you miss the countless opportunities to make music, to make contact, to make a friend surrounding you everywhere you go. I think one of the reasons folk music is on the decline is that people are too distracted to practice!

Goodbye Mac Wiseman

Mac Wiseman passed away today. He was, in my opinion, probably the greatest voice in the history of bluegrass and country music. When I was learning to play and sing his recordings always blew my mind. He made it look so easy,

He nice guy, too. I got to talk to him once, and if there had been a second season of The Eastern Shore Opry we would have worked together. Such is life.

Godspeed, Mac. You will be missed.

Bad Movies My Karate Teachers Made

When I was twelve my father put me into karate classes. I was the kid the people kept messing with, but instead of getting beat up I wound up putting bullies into the hospital.

In the 80’s karate schools could be dangerous places for a kid. I was put into adult classes and got hurt bad in three different schools before I found a real teacher.

The style of krate I wound up studying was called American Kenpo. It was unique in that it drew from all of the fighting styles – taking what worked and leaving the useless stuff behind.

I trained at the Kenpo studio four nights a week, and on Thursdays when there wasn’t a class I would mop the floors so that I could watch the black belts and Bando fighters train.

As time went by I got to meet and even train with three men who wound up having a profound impact on my life. Ed Parker, Remy Presas and Ted Vollrath.

In addition fo founding American Kenpo, Ed Parker was the first person to point our that my karate training was applicable to any discipline I chose to learn – even music. You could say that what I teach today could be called Kenpo Banjo.

All three of these men were in terrible, terrible movies. I like bad movies and I think these movies stink!

The good news is that two of those movies are streaming on YouTube!

Ed Parker stars as the bad guy in the 1979 crap-fest, Kill The Golden Goose. Parts of this movie are so weird it may induce hallucinations and/or complete bewilderment. There is a song that pops up mid-film with lines like “I want to climb all over you, and crawl inside your mind.” The song goes on to mention tangerines and limes. Yecch!

One word of caution, the film is violent, does not contain a single goose and is not for kids. The 70’s fashions alone could damage young minds.

Ted Vollrath is the titular villain in the 1978 film Mr. No Legs. This movie is directed by
Ricou Browning – the guy who played the Gill Man in the underwater scenes from The Creature From The Black Lagoon!

This is not a good movie, and Ted was completely underused. His wheelchair with hidden shotguns and throwing stars is just flat-out awesome, but it only shows a glimpse of his fighting prowess.

Like the previous film, it is not for everybody. Violence, adult situations and 70’s fashions coupled with weird directorial decisions could damage the psyche of viewers of any age.

While these are bad movies, they were made by good men who taught me how to fight, how to learn and how to teach. If you have learned anything from my books and video workshops it is partly because of these unique men. I miss them almost every day.