The Banjo Years - Pt 1
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Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

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Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

Jerry Garcia's Musical Roots:
The Banjo Years - Part 1
by Sandy Rothman©  

A tremendous amount of writing has appeared on the Grateful Dead and its reluctant leader, guitarist Jerry Garcia, both before and since he died on August 9, 1995, just a week after his 53rd birthday. The media always focused on the charismatic and beloved Garcia, fanzines published the band's set lists as soon as the shows were over, Deadheads traded concert tapes voraciouslyyet very few people have written about the actual sound of the music. Some have examined the Dead's sources seeking to understand, for example, how a rock band came to include Bill Monroe's "A Voice From On High," an obscure country gospel number from the '50s, in their 1970 acoustic repertoire. The familiar answer was that Garcia, long before the Grateful Dead, had been a bluegrass musician, if only for a year or two. Before that he had studied and performed "old-time music"southern mountain folk tunes and jug band music. He sang and played guitar, banjo, mandolin, autoharp, and even fiddle. There is an established connection between Jerry Garcia and the worlds of country and folk music. Yet with rare exception, an informed, in-depth analysis or discussion focused directly on Garcia's electric or acoustic stringed instrument work has not appeared in print.

One exception I'm aware of was in the pages of Relix magazine. In issue #16, Greg Jones and Andrew Pickard conducted an interview with Garcia ("Crazy Fingers: Jerry Garcia & the Banjo") in which he spoke about how he first got interested in the five-string banjo and answered some questions about the effect of the banjo on his later guitar playing. 

Regarding his highly identifiable guitar style, several people come to mind who could shed light on the subject, primary among them his older brother Clifford, who played guitar before him and fed his early interest in rhythm and blues. And then a whole chapter could be written on Jerry's long tenure as part of the San Francisco Bay Area folk music scene, in which he was known primarily for his skillful guitar and old-time banjo playing.

By the time I met Jerry, the bluegrass bug had bit and he was totally immersed in bluegrass banjo. Within two years he had permanently shifted to the guitar as his primary instrument, but never entirely abandoned his hobby of banjo picking. Many fans have expressed a keen interest in the music he played before he began his celebrated career as a rock and roll guitarist. I heard Jerry play a lot of banjo during that period, so in his memory I'd like to tour the horizons a little and look at his playing and some of his influences.

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Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

Jerry and Sara

Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

 

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