Forty-plus years ago, a few days before Christmas, a nine year old boy sat listening to his grandfather play
He asked his grandfather if he could play fiddle too, and his grandfather said "No."
Then the old man went digging around in one of his closets, and gave the boy a banjo.
"Here. Play this. We need more banjo players," the old gentleman said.
The boy was Joe Bethancourt, and he hasn't stopped since. He's learned a little fiddle in the intervening
four decades, and sixty three other instruments, too. He's become a noted singer-songwriter, entertainer and Phoenix
institution .... a local "Grand Old Man" of traditional acoustic music.
That old "Monkey Wards" banjo led to a love affair with banjos (and a whole mess of other instruments)
that has lasted for forty years.
He still has that old banjo, and thirty-plus more besides, ranging from fretless ones from the early 1870's
all the way to the latest in electric banjos ... and on December 23rd, 1996 he brought them all in to the Ark Room
( 539 E Glendale Ave, Phoenix, Arizona ) for a Saturday night banjo celebration.
We taped the evening, and these are some of the highlights of that night. Here's Joe, doing what he loves
the best: playing banjo, raising cain, and having a good time with several hundred of his friends. We've also included
his studio recording (the original "Naked Banjos" tape) so this CD includes the best of both worlds:
live and studio.
banjos and banjo music. Not the Mach-9 fingerpicking of the bluegrass players (tho that's fun too) but the old-time
"clawhammer" style that was developed in the beginning of the 5-string banjo's career in the US of A."
"It's a deceptively simple style of playing ... the viewer sees the hand kind of waving back and forth
over the strings, and a whole mess of notes jumps out of the banjo, seemingly from nowhere. You can learn the basics
of it in about fifteen minutes ... but to master it takes a lifetime. I've been playing banjo since I was about
nine years old, and finally got clawhammer figured out in my senior year of high school. It was a major day in
my life. Someday, I might even think I'm as good as ol' Bascom Lunsford was on the banjo. Jim Connor's still the
"The early banjos used catgut strings, and had a very soft, plunky sound. That's what you are hearing
on "Tom Dula." It's played on a handmade, very crude banjo like you'd hear in the hills of Western North
Carolina in the real early days. They didn't put frets on 'em, because that's a very technical operation, and besides
"real banjo players don't use frets!" The gut-string (now nylon strung) banjos of the 1880's are some
of the sweetest banjos around. "
"The Ome XXX is an example of the modern banjos: sharp, clear and -fast-. Ome makes 'em up in Colorado,
and they're the best of all."
"Anyhow, here's a bunch of banjo tunes just for fun. Hope you like 'em!"
SOLDIER'S JOY (Granddad's banjo) (0:55): This
is me and my grandfather doing a duet just like we used to. I'm using the old Monkey Wards banjo he gave me when
I was a kid. He was 85 when this was recorded, and his "arthur-itis" was bothering him. I miss him.
CINDY CINDY (Granddad's banjo) (5:57): One of
the "rowdy" songs of my youth. This version is fairly sedate .... I've heard words on it that could remove
paint. Grandad's banjo again.
LONESOME WATER (Roy Helton ca. 1930 ?) (5:40): One of the nicest songs I know. I learned it from a
lady banjo player name of Dierdre back about 1965 or thereabouts. It's played
on the Whyte Lady banjaurine. We re-mastered it for the "Who Fears The Devil"
CD, 'cause it sounded so good with those songs. Interestingly, the original lyrics and mine are not quite the same, Go here for a side-by-side comparison.
UNCLE PETER (1830's Fretless) (5:02) This is
one of those classically goofy mountain songs that are just delightful.
TOO LATE TO PRAY (1830's Fretless) (4:45) Some
social comment from the early 1800's that sounds too modern for comfort, and some new topical verses thrown in.
ME AND MY 30'06 (GR-1) (3:58) I was watching
the evening news one night, listening to a commentator talk about how everyone in the NRA were Evil Killers and
Bad People. I got seriously offended, seeing as how a lot of my friends are NRA members, and wrote this as a response.
(W.J. Bethancourt III) Sample in RealAudio
POOR WAYFARING STRANGER (1890's Waldo) One of
the definitive mountain hymns. I've always loved it for it's lonesome sound. (MP3)
WAGONER'S LAD (Mandoline-Banjo) A nice little
traditional song .... I first heard it as a kid, then re-learned it from a Kingston Trio recording. It's full of lonesome.
FLOP EARED MULE (Ome XXX) ((2:08): An old fiddle
tune that I tend to have a lot of fun with. The Ome XXX again, and a mouthbow, Gibson A mandolin, Eefing, Mossman
guitar and anything else loose in the studio at the time .......
TOM DULA (mountain banjo) (3:53): One of the
classic murder ballads. This is the version I learned in North Carolina, and is played on the traditional fretless
"mountain-style" banjo. No clawhammer here, but the old-style fingerpicking.
What most people don't realize is that many, if not most, of the murder ballads are about real murders. This one really happened.
Here is a picture of Tom's grave, and Laurie Foster's grave, in North Carolina.
The original lyrics were written by Thomas C. Land.
WHO'S GONNA SHOE YOUR PRETTY LITTLE FOOT? (Granddad's
banjo) (3:55): Just a nice traditional song. Grandad's banjo again, and a rather unusual melody that shifts from
modal to major scales.
RAGTIME ANNIE (A.C. Fairbanks banjo) (2:57) This
little fiddle tune is one of those very deceptive melodies that seem easy, until you start to play them .... and
then you come to realize you could fool with it for a lifetime, and never get tired of it.
SAND MOUNTAIN HOLLER (Ome XXX) (2:30): Written
by Jim Conner, one of the best old time banjo players there is, and a personal friend. I added some traditional
verses from another song or two just for fun. This is the Ome XXX banjo talking here. (Jim Connor)
WHYTE LADY / MURDER BALLADS
SILVER DAGGER (Vega Whyte Lady #2) (10:06) If murder
ballads are basically TV soap operas, then this is the "Mary Hartman" of the murder ballads ..... scholarly
footnotes are included. (new material W.J. Bethancourt III)
MALAGUENA (Ome XXX) ((8:28): Originally written
for piano, believe it or not, but it sure is fun on the Ome XXX. This is an example of "classical" banjo
playing, which was popular in the 1880's on the old gut-string banjos. I rather like this one best on the Ome,
SOLDIER'S JOY (Ome XXX) ((3:26): Now me and Austin
Brooks (fiddle) take off and -fly- a little! Ome XXX banjo (can you tell I like it a lot?), Guild F-50B guitar,
and Austin's incomparable fiddling. We could play this one all night.
These are the banjos you hear on this recording:
The 1830's banjo: This is a modern reproduction of the old early banjos,
with gut strings, a body made from a gourd, and a fretless fingerboard.
The Henry C. Dobson banjo: this is a fretless from the late 1800's,
and is the first real attempt at a tone-ring. I got this one from David Feretta up in Denver, and there's a picture
of it in Larry Sandburg's "Complete Banjo Repair" on page 28.
The A.C. Fairbanks, Wm. Cole and S.S. Stewart banjos: These are the
gut-strung classic banjos of the 1880 to 1900 period. They're usually tuned down to "E" or thereabouts
(as opposed to the modern banjo's "G" tuning) and have a lovely, sweet growly sound.
The Whyte Lady: Vega made this one. It's the first really workable banjo
with a metal tone ring between the wooden rim and the head, and is considered the "ne plus ultra" of
clawhammer banjo players. Steel strings, and sweet, full and loud!
The Mandoline-Banjo: Augustus Pohlmann came up with this one in the
1890's. It's a banjaurine (short neck five-string, tuned to "C") neck on a mandolin body. It was apparently
intended as a practice instrument, so it has a very nice, quiet sound.
The Ome XXX: This is a bluegrass style banjo, with the heavy brass tone
ring. Loud, brash and quick. I regard it as the "God Banjo." In my opinion, the Ome banjos
are the best there ever are and were.
The Waldo: This Waldo was made by J.B. Shall,
and has an amazing neck on it. It's probably the thinnest, fastest neck I've ever played, and with the
big pot (12") it gets a very full sound indeed. You can't hit it hard, tho. It needs a gentle touch, and then
it just sings!
The Synth: This is a Roland GR-1 guitar synth, set up for a banjo sound.
Not too bad, really. I threw this in just for fun.
Granddad's Banjo: Grandad's banjo is from the period of transition between
the old gut strings and the more modern steel ones. Nice "old-timey" sound, but not the full, crackling
sound of a modern banjo. I think it's a "Monkey Wards" Stewart. My nephew owns it now.
All banjos on this CD are garen-damn-teed naked, but the mandolin insisted on wearing a bodysuit. Austin
just painted himself blue. The possum didn't do much of anything except sit there and plot revenge about the lemon
Mastered for CD at: Digital Noise, Scottsdale, AZ
Studio Recording Engineers: John Benson, Juniper Productions, Phoenix, AZ
Dennis Putscher, Digital Noise, Scottsdale, AZ
Live Recording Engineer: Marc Hirsch, Silver Stag Productions, AZ
Live Recording at: The Ark Room, Phoenix, AZ
Produced By: White Tree Productions and Joe Bethancourt
Cover art by: Brian McCrory & Cher Bethancourt