Henry Sapoznik | Banjew

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Country: Old-Timey Folk: String Band Moods: Type: Acoustic
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by Henry Sapoznik

A celebration of my over 40 years of playing old time and popular Yiddish and American songs and tunes and joined by terrific friends old and new.
Genre: Country: Old-Timey
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. Baltimore Fire
3:25 $0.99
2. Folding Down the Sheets
2:27 $0.99
3. Smokey Mokes
2:23 $0.99
4. Are You from Dixie
2:51 $0.99
5. Midnight on the Water
2:40 $0.99
6. Whistling Rufus
2:49 $0.99
7. The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee
3:41 $0.99
8. Mississippi Sawyer
2:43 $0.99
9. Gold Rush
2:46 $0.99
10. Peddler and His Wife
2:58 $0.99
11. Shebag and Shemore
3:31 $0.99
12. Snowdrop
3:09 $0.99
13. Stepstone
2:50 $0.99
14. Doina Medley: Doina / Kalarash / Volhyner Bulgar
7:44 $0.99
15. Whistling Rufus (Bonus)
2:43 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes

My family settled in Brooklyn, New York, joining a network of other Holocaust refugees. These lantslayt created a bubble in which traditional old-time Ashkenazic culture—songs, rituals, food, language—held its own in a sepia tone world of ageless tonalities. At my Hasidic ultra-Orthodox day school, like countless generations before I internalized the ancient texts of Jewish wisdom with the help of mesmerizing modal singsong. At home my father, a professional cantor, pressed me at age six to learn, as he had, synagogue accompaniment liturgy—the DNA of East European Jewish music. And because my father could not read or write music, I learned it all by ear.

Despite or because of this insular life, I wanted nothing more than to be a part of the America emanating from our family’s secondhand DuMont television. Comic books, baseball cards, and movies bound me to my American playmates; yet I was a perennial outsider. Neighborhood Gentile kids would allow me to play “soldier” with them, but only as a Nazi since my Yiddish sounded so much like German.

I longed to belong to America. But that wasn’t quite enough: I wanted to belong more intrinsically than my American-born neighbors. I wanted to be connected to the essential America. That finally happened when I was introduced to folk music in the late 1960s’ antiwar movement and became swept up in a moment of meaning and immediacy. It helped that the songs were easy to learn—especially compared to cantorial liturgy—and performed mostly by second- and third-generation American Jews playing tunes by the goyish Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Cisco Houston. For me, this passport to a deeper America was imprinted with a passionate, lifelong love for the banjo.

But the transition from Pete Seeger to Mike Seeger led me to the music I was meant to play. A miss-shelved library copy of Mike’s Old Time Country Music LP turned up in the sleeve of Pete’s Hootenanny record, heralding the existence of Pete Seeger’s younger half-brother. While Pete famously harnessed folksongs for antiwar, pro-union, anti-segregation political activism, Mike channeled the same sources more directly, leaving them intact to represent old-time unimproved—more my m.o.

I chanced upon this music just as tremendous resources had emerged, like the County label 78 reissues, instruction books from Oak Publications, and “Teach-In” instruction articles in Sing Out! magazine—not to mention the scholarly Journal of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation, Tony Russell’s Old Time Music, and the first serious history of the genre, Bill C. Malone’s Country Music USA. By the time old-time music entered my consciousness, its powerful founding rush in 1960s’ New York was over. I missed the Friends of Old Time Music concerts, the weekly jams at Alan Block’s sandal shop, and Izzy Young’s reign at the Folklore Center. But I found myself part of a new community of other young musician/seekers like Alan Kaufman, Marc Horowitz and Andy Statman—again, mostly Jews.

Old-time music allowed me to put into practice skills developed in the Jewish world: oral transmission and acute memorization of complex melodic structures and texts, a sweet tooth for research and history, and a love for traditions burnished over many generations. And while it was and is possible to learn to play old-time without physically visiting its origins, for me, learning it in community was a natural, powerful method. That embarkation began in 1974, when the late banjoist and math teacher Ray Alden, a vest pocket Alan Lomax, took me along on trips to Mount Airy, North Carolina, to visit and learn from musicians Fred Cockerham and Tommy Jarrell.

This was the first time I had ever been so completely outside my element: peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches and Mason jars of moonshine displacing matzo brei and chocolate egg creams. Yet for all the foreignness, the persistence of a folk culture and pride of continuity was reassuringly familiar. This awakening and acceptance expanded through another five years of trips down South.

Still, it never appeared inevitable that one day I would end up in Tommy Jarrell’s kitchen discussing why Jews played old-time music, and how his sincere but perplexed query, “Don’t your people got none of your own music?” would push me to revalue – and revive -- the music I grew up with. My one regret is that I didn’t get to share with Tommy his status as an unwitting godfather of the klezmer music revival.

Much as I applied skills from my traditional upbringing in the pursuit of old-time music, the inquiries I followed to learn it—78 reissues, lessons, field recordings, music camps, tune books, history books, pilgrimages to the “Old Guys”—forged the pathway back to my birthright soundtrack. That my quest helped unlock it for new generations worldwide has been indescribably gratifying. Klezmer music is as popular and secure today as any other great traditional music in the world.

A surprisingly revived tradition within this tradition is the short-lived use of tenor banjo in mid-1920s to mid-1930s’ Yiddish dance bands. In 1982 I began reconfiguring the kind of banjo I played in old time music to the kind of banjo performances I could find on klezmer 78s, and from there created a style reminiscent of the old playing, but also one uniquely personal. The banjo, that most American of American instruments, imbued with so much essential national folklore and fakelore—an instrument that could not be any less Yiddish-y, and the last my parents would have wanted me to play—is how I chose to manifest my Americanism. The decision created a quotidian banjo presence on today’s klezmer bandstands.

Two years ago, as these things tend to do, a reminder of my own mortality led me to concoct a list of things to accomplish. Atop it was an old-time recording, to round out the forty-one Yiddish and klezmer music discs I’ve released as a musician, producer and archivist. (The last old-time LP I played on was cut in 1979, and neither it nor the four preceding were ever reissued.) So in fall 2016 I began rebuilding repertoire and parlance with clawhammer banjo, a style I hadn’t played since Ronald Regan was in office.
In January 2017, I assembled a trove of longtime friends (bandmates, students, teachers, roommates, etc.)  and musicians with whom I’d never before played to join me in this memorable and special event of making this record and a live concert at its conclusion. .  

It has been my great good fortune to have had an effect on both the music I was born into and the music I was born to play. And I am thankful for the opportunity to be a child of refugees who could return something elemental to the country my parents made home.



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