By Daniel Wheeldon
It has been a great pleasure to attend the virtual banjo gathering this year, 7–8 November. Having attended the 2018 gathering held in Bristol, TN, it was good to see some familiar faces in the zoom break-out sessions as one of the 136 registrants. In their own words ‘the Banjo Gathering is the only forum focused entirely on the banjo as a historical, cultural, and design object.’
Online meetings can be quite intimidating, both to host and to attend, but the gathering was thoughtfully prepared, and in many ways exemplary. A late morning/afternoon (EST) program enabled access to both west coast guests and those like me tuning in from Europe. The cost of attending was very reasonable, and scholarships were available for those who might not otherwise have been able to afford the registration fee.
The conference was hosted on RegFox with presentations on Zoom. This seemed to be an effective and accessible way to organize content and allow secure access for registered attendees. The gathering was not exempt from the awkwardness that we are all getting used to in a world of mass internet calling, but the occasional silences/monologues were matched by a palpable feeling of community and welcome.
After each paper there was time for questions. At first this could be done in two ways: either by typing out a question or by raising a virtual hand and speaking it. Q&A is difficult to moderate even when meeting in person. We’re all too familiar of those long rambling soliloquies that often don’t even end with a question mark. Perhaps it was for this reason that from early on in the conference it became the standard to only accept typed questions. I personally appreciated this.
A good conference, virtual or not, is a place of dialogue. From a presenter’s point of view, audience Q&A, and follow-on conversations are invaluable for shaping ideas into something that is meaningful to more people. When taken online, it is difficult to replicate general mingling. The breakout room function in Zoom goes some way, but as a relative outsider to the gathering, it would have been helpful to have some regulation or moderation in these sessions. In a breakout room of ten people it often ends up being a conversation between two or perhaps three while the others listen. No-one is to blame but it is a consequence of the medium. Having even a nominal moderator, although making the ‘break out’ more formal, could help direct discussion to the subject at hand and give opportunity for wider contribution.
The content was very enjoyable, and most sessions would be directly relevant to the interests of the AMIS community. Though not all the sessions flourished in the online environment. Christian Stanfield’s Commercial Recordings of Black Banjo Players from the 1920s & 30s, was a pre-recorded session, where he played early records of Black banjo players on a record player appropriate to the period. However, the essence of this session was lost while it was streamed online and played on my laptop speakers. Having heard Christian in person in Bristol, TN, I was all too aware of what was lost in transmission.
On the other hand, the online platform benefitted other types of presentation. The tour of the American Banjo Museum (Oklahoma City) was well done. It was pre-recorded and edited to make a concise tour of the museum galleries and the archive room for the 45min session. Short of hosting a gathering at the museum this presentation simply would not have been possible.
A highlight for me was Rory Corbett’s paper The Twisted Roots of the Irish Banjo. This was an exhibit of some early stage doctoral research (University College Cork, Ireland) on the significance of Irish musicians in the use of the banjo in early blackface minstrelsy. It will be exciting to see how this research progresses.
After a lunch spent in break-out rooms, the afternoon had two sessions which really stood out. Both were panel discussions, firstly Composing for the Banjo, moderated by Michael Nix, featuring Tony Trischka, Adam Larrabee, John Bullard, Jim Dalton and Thomas Schuttenhelm. While I have no personal ambitions in composing for the banjo, it was fascinating to hear the discussion of such a panel of A-lister.
Perhaps as a maker I particularly appreciated the banjo makers panel: Banjo Setup: A Primer on How to Become a Happier Banjo Owner, featuring Kevin Enoch, Pete Ross, and Will Seeders-Mosheim. As well as hearing about what makes an individual banjo sound the way it does, it felt like a friendly and personal introduction to three banjo makers who are amongst the best of a generation. It was a window into a conversation about the fundaments of banjo design between true experts.
Daniel Wheeldon is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Edinburgh and currently chairs the Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar working group for AMIS. Daniel trained and worked in London building and repairing guitars and developed an interest in early guitars and citterns. After completing his masters at the University of Edinburgh in 2015 he was awarded a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he documented and catalogued their pre-1900 European guitars.
 Quoted from the banjo gathering website: www.banjogathering.weebly.com/about.html