Kramer playing at the Haymaker Farmer's Market with the Kent Shindig All-Stars.
It’s the first Sunday of the month, and the EuroGyro in Kent is packed. There’s football on TV, but the majority of people are huddled in a circle of chairs near the front window not watching the game. The group ranges from gray hairs to elementary-schoolers.
It’s my turn to call one.
“How about ‘Needle Case’?” A collective nod, and the music begins again.
This monthly gathering harkens to an earlier time, not long ago, when people used to get together — face to face — to entertain each other. In this era of hyper-connectivity, we’ve become detached from such physical communities. We’re the Logged-In Generation.
Despite the ability to cyber-stalk everyone I know, a growing sense of seclusion overcame me a few years ago — which is when I decided to learn to play the banjo.
For many, the mere mention of the instrument evokes images of that scene in “Deliverance.” I’ve heard all the stereotypical jokes about gap-toothed hillbillies and barefoot country bumpkins playing “Dueling Banjos.”
What’s the difference between a banjo and an onion? No one cries when you cut up a banjo.
My pursuit to learn to play this five-stringed drum on a stick began in 2008, the last year of my 20s. Modern banjo-toting groups like Old Crow Medicine Show, Carolina Chocolate Drops and The Avett Brothers were my gateway to this drug. But now, string band music of the 1920s and ‘30s soon dominated my playlist. “Wagon Wheel” was replaced by “John Brown’s Dream.”
I have an addiction, and it’s called “old time.”
Most people upon hearing old-time music will call it bluegrass. Old-time suffers from poor branding. Sure, it has similar instrumentation and shares some of the same melodies as bluegrass, but it’s different.
Bluegrass is what happens when you polish all the burrs off old-time. With a rhythmic backbone of the banjo and the bouncing melodies of a fiddle at its core, this rollicking dance music has a raw edge. As the popular music of the Depression era, old-time suits our recession.
The real enjoyment of old-time music, however, is playing it. In a January 2002 article, Fortune Magazine writer Daniel Roth wrote, “Nothing says ‘dropping out of society’ like learning the banjo.” The truth is, learning the banjo became a way for me to drop in to a new society. Cleveland-based banjo wizard Mark Olitsky once told me, “This is folk music — community music — and, for me, I can’t think of a nicer community to belong to.”
Nobody will confuse Northeast Ohio as a hot bed of old-time music, but here you’ll find a small, thriving community that gets together for spirited jam sessions, frolicking contra dances, music festivals and house concerts. You just have to know where to look.
On the Northeast Ohio Old-Time Music Group page on Facebook, for instance, there are a couple hundred people with their fingers on the pulse of the local old-time scene. In the Greater Akron area, highlights of this community include the annual Kent State Folk Festival, with its free workshops where you can learn to play the music. Join hands in Peninsula for monthly contra dances at the old Boston Township School House, while listening to Band Behind the Curtain, featuring world-renowned banjo maker Doug Unger, who lives just down the street. Finally, there’s the Kent Shindig, an old-time jam on the first Sunday of every month in Kent.
Connecting with people rather than avatars at these events has taught me the importance of community. You can follow your friends and family online, but your real social network isn’t on a website. The banjo was my key to unlocking this secret. Log out of your profile, and connect to the person next to you.
/ Bradley Kramer is a 32-year-old young fogy, living in Highland Square with his wife, Rosalie, and Old English Sheepdog, who make him practice his banjo in the attic.