Over at Boing Boing yesterday, Cory Doctorow blogged about Patrick Costello, a Maryland based banjoist who wrote a book – free online, with a creative commons license – called the How and Tao of Old Time Banjo. Costello’s quite prolific with the pedagogical materials. He has written a couple of other books, posts lessons on youtube, makes teaching videos available through archive.org and writes a blog that help players learn how to play old time banjo. He seems to make all of his knowledge available to anyone who wants it for free.
This post caught my eye because I love banjos and I play tenor. Although I don’t play old timey music, I am familiar with Costello’s work. The story goes like this: I stole my mother-in-law’s old banjo (a mid-1890s Haynes Excelsior) in late 2005 with the help and blessing of my wife and sister-in-law. We all agreed that Momma J was neglecting – and thereby mistreating – it; an intervention had to happen. My intention was to mess around a little with the short fifth string to see what the fuss was all about. After whipping the banjo into playing shape, I found Costello’s site and with his tutelage I was frailing tunes in about an hour. Good stuff, indeed.
Doctorow’s description of Costello as a “famous banjo author” may be somewhat optimistic, but in the banjo community Costello is a somewhat notorious and controversial character. Over the years he has been banned from various internet forms, including Banjo-L and the Banjo Hangout. There are certainly those who admire what he offers and give him a lot of support, however many in the five string banjo community vehemently dislike him (btw, the content of the hyperlink is a summation of the arguments “against” him and don’t appear to be the opinions of the blogger). Some cite an abrasive and argumentative online personality as the basis for their hostility. Others take issue with his pedagogical philosophy which encourages the free adaptation, transformation and availability of his banjo teaching materials, and presumably siphons business away from those who make their living teaching old-time banjo.
Costello’s own pedagogical philosophy as of 2004 – expressed in a critique both of internet banjo forum posters and fledgling players searching for guidance – was recently quoted in a post on the Banjo Hangout:
Fumbling through a tab[ulature] file isn’t playing a song, it’s just memorizing a set of finger movements. You all say that you can play X number of songs, but what can you do with those songs? Are you jamming? Playing and singing? Can you change keys, change the rhythm or come up with a new lick on the fly?
You guys are not being taught how to play. You are just giving money to banjo teachers and getting zilch in return.
Put away your books. Stop taking lessons. Take a couple of chords and a roll or two and a hook with with some musicians in your area. Sing folk songs and play rhythm. This whole “play lead in a bluegrass band” crap is nice to talk about- but none of you are making any real progress. Nobody could because nobody ever learned to play by tab.
Play simply, learn how to work with the rhythm of a song and start making music rather than sitting around here talking about tone rings. learn how things work, FEEL the music and UNDERSTAND how and why things work rather than just trying to memorize it.
I could have any of you guys jamming in a weekend, and I don’t chagre [sic] for in person lessons. It’s a freaking BANJO. It’s a kazoo with strings. If you know three chords you can play a thousand songs. Why are you all so set on making it hard?
Look at the problems you are having. Think things through. If you can’t go through the wall go around it, over it, under it, go buy a ladder, get a big hammer. . . there is never a single solution. You just have to think like a musician instead of a banjo player.
This post stirred conflict and briefly brought Costello back into the Banjo Hangout fold. He joined the above-linked thread which was eventually locked and his (new?) account (again?) suspended (I believe he’d already been once banned from the Hangout) after he basically called everyone there “losers.” He’s pissed enough of the online banjo community off so that new even threads about him get locked on relatively short order.
Is all the hostility against Costello only about his difficult online persona? Costello’s ideas about what old time music is and how it should be taught raises fascinating questions about who owns music and what the politics are surrounding musical pedagogy. They seem to run against those of an important part of the banjo playing community. Does unrestrictive musicking (Christopher Small’s idea that music is a process or activity rather than a “thing”) in the new millennium undermine the community of teachers whose depend on teaching “authentic” old time music as part of their livelihood?
Discuss amongst yourselves…