If there was a moment where the banjo was branded with a stereotype, it would have to be when Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight went on a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River in the film Deliverance. Years later, the banjo cannot entirely shake the associations, so it’s thought of first and foremost as a primarily country and bluegrass instrument. But Otis Taylor’s new album, Recapturing the Banjo, sets out to change the world’s misperception. Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’, and New Orleans’ Don Vappie join Taylor on the album.
As the liner notes explain, the five-string banjo has its origins in Africa. It has become associated with folk music, but that too has black origins. “The banjo got to those Appalachian areas through minstrel playing, and the first minstrels were black. So understanding that and setting it straight is part of what we’re doing,” says Vappie. He points out that New Orleans had a number of professional black banjo players in the early 1900s, including Johnny St. Cyr and Danny Barker.
Recapturing the Banjo was primarily Otis Taylor’s brainchild, but he made sure it was a cohesive recording environment. “He told us his vision and gave us a lot of liberty to do things that fit, or gave us a line and let us develop it into what we want,” says Vappie. “It was a very collaborative effort.
Each track features the five-strong banjo in not-so-typical banjo settings including jazz, blues, funk, and rock ’n’ roll. The album features a number of Taylor originals and a few covers including an electric version of “Hey Joe.”
“A lot of it is just playing the banjo from the heart. Not what anybody expected,” says Vappie.
In February, Taylor took his Recapturing the Banjo crew on the road for a national tour with Vappie playing some of the dates when he’s not busy with his Creole Jazz Serenaders. In March the tour leaves for Europe, and Vappie will join it for a series of shows in England in April. Tour dates for this celebration of the banjo can be found on OtisTaylor.com.