MAGAZINE TUNES IN TO THE BANJO

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He bends over the old instrument, his eyes narrowed, the tortoise-shell pick in his right hand working rapid runs up and down a fretboard that's as black as an old peat bog.

The sounds are tuneful yet melancholy, sunlit tones weaving through a fog of minor chords. In Spencer Nitchie's hands, on his handmade tenor banjo, the tune "Fisherman's Island" somehow evokes the smell of turf fires in Ireland, the downing of pints, the migration of an oppressed people to an uncertain new life across the Atlantic.

Nitchie, 45, of Annapolis, hits a clunker or two on the strings - he never claimed to be Mick Moloney, after all - but that's OK. He's more educator than virtuoso on the banjo, an instrument many associate with "car chase music," or the movie Deliverance, but that has also helped people from around the world express their emotions for 5,000 years.

"It's got a certain sound, and you either get it or you don't," says Nitchie, who in his professional life is business manager of The Banjo Newsletter, an Annapolis-based monthly that has served as a clearinghouse of information, instruction, gossip and lore for banjo players around the world for more than three decades.

"BNL is a forum and unifying force for the extremely diverse and geographically widespread banjo community," says Pete Wernick, one of the instrument's most renowned players, teachers and authors, and a BNL contributor.

Nitchie and his brother, Donald, a Massachusetts poet, have helped make the publication a true family affair. Founded in 1973 by their father, Hubbard "Hub" Nitchie, an Annapolis school librarian, it began as a sort of letter to like-minded friends. Hub Nitchie grew its readership to nearly 10,000 at its peak. When he died 16 years ago, Spencer and Donald took over as manager and editor, respectively. Last year, its 35th in operation, BNL won a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in Nashville.

Like most things folk, the newsletter had humble beginnings. Exposed to banjo playing by an uncle, Hub Nitchie was librarian at Annapolis' Bates Junior High in the late 1960s when he began to use a good portion of his time trying to research his favorite instrument.

There was little written on the banjo - mostly just Pete Seeger's How to Play the 5-String Banjo.

"As recently as 1973, banjo playing was an oral tradition, taught almost exclusively within families and communities," Spencer Nitchie says.

That struck Hub as odd at a time when folk music, driven by stars like Seeger and Bob Dylan, was taking urban America by storm, including the Baltimore-Washington area, where thriving clubs such as The Cellar Door in Washington and Charlie's West Side in Annapolis made it a hotbed.

In 1972, Hub sent a letter to every banjo aficionado he knew of, asking where to buy parts, how newbies could learn, who the emerging stars might be. He got so many replies that he turned his mimeographed letter into a full-fledged monthly, quitting his job a year later.

"For the next 10 years, he disappeared into the basement," Spencer says.

The magazine, which eventually became a 48-page publication, featured regular columnists (most of them players), profiles of prominent pickers, reviews and song tablatures, as it still does today.

"The five-string community is a diverse group, and one of the things I love most about BNL is that it embraces all of us, from part-time pickers to professionals," says Alison Brown, a multiple Grammy nominee famed for performing with Alison Krauss and pushing the five-string banjo into unfamiliar musical terrain, including jazz.

In his one-story home in Annapolis, Spencer Nitchie contemplates the instrument's colorful history as he sits amid a harp, an Irish-made Clareen tenor banjo, a West African kora (a stringed instrument whose drum is stretched over a halved gourd), several guitars and mandolins, and Hub's old five-stringer, a handcrafted beauty made and etched by a local gunsmith.

Debates rage over where the instrument began, Nitchie says, some arguing that banjo precursors were born in China 5,000 years ago, others that it stems from western Africa, where the akonting, a folk lute with a skin-headed gourd body, has been in use for centuries.

To Nitchie, it doesn't matter. "There are instruments with skins, or drums, on them all over the world," he says. "You put a string on a drum and it sounds better. The banjo is part of that."

Enslaved Africans in America developed the banjo by fashioning instruments that reminded them of the gourd versions of their native lands, and minstrel performers - white comedian-musicians wearing blackface - popularized it in the U.S. and England. They also cemented the banjo's enduring status as a sort of comic prop, a tradition that continues to this day. (Steve Martin, a talented bluegrass player who recently released a new album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, still works the banjo into his stand-up act.)

Over the years, several versions of the banjo developed. The tenor, with its four strings, shorter neck and deeper bass notes, predominates in Celtic and old-time "clawhammer" dance music, a style in which pickers use their fingernails to flail downward rather than plucking upward with fingerpicks.

The five-string, with its powerful resonator and high G-string driving the sound, became the star in bluegrass.

Pioneers such as Earl Scruggs, Bill Keith and the protean Bela Fleck, a trained musician who regularly ventures into classical and jazz fusion, developed new styles, all documented in BNL. The magazine also spotlighted two current innovators, Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters and Noam Pikelny of the classical-inflected Punch Brothers, early in their careers.

Happily for BNL, banjo playing seems always to have spawned good stories and storytelling. Civil War-era players were known to punch a hole in the regiment drum, Nitchie says, so the musician would discard it, providing a hopeful player with the skin for a new instrument. In the early 1900s, British explorer William Henry Shackleton took a banjo player on an expedition to the South Pole. Some survivors credit the music played on the expedition with getting them through numerous disasters.

Over the decades, the magazine - then as now done on newsprint, since Hub found glossy paper unreadable - plumped festivals, tracked up-and-coming players, and served up a "Tab of the Month," tablature for a single tune, all the while weaving in a portion of gossip. For years, a mystery contributor known only as "the Flint Hill Flash" shared his opinionated views, blending folksy accounts of life in his Mayberry-like town with reviews of new players that dubbed them either "scruggs" (future stars) or "non-scruggs" (pretenders).

In a recent issue, Ben Eldridge, longtime star of the Seldom Scene bluegrass band, was a victim of BNL tongue-in-cheek.

"The writer, a real nice fella named Tom Adams, called to interview me, and I said I just got out of the shower and asked if he could call me back," Eldridge says. "When he did, he asked me what kind of shaving cream and blades I used. That stuff made it into the article" - followed, of course, by the sophisticated breakdown of a complex Eldridge solo BNL fans would expect.

Does Eldridge read BNL? "Heck, yeah," he says, laughing. "I love that magazine. I look forward to getting it every month."

It's only one part of the Nitchie family's impact on bluegrass. In 1988, Nancy Nitchie, Hub's wife, and Spencer organized and promoted a camp, the Maryland Banjo Academy, that met on a farm near Frederick for four summers. It was one of the first to unite serious players, teachers and students from around the world for picking, seminars and conversation.

"There were always guitar camps," says Spencer, who handled the logistics. "Heck, gun people meet every weekend. We thought, 'Why not banjo camps?' " The camps drew knowledgeable players like Fleck, Seeger, Eldridge and Moloney, a star of the Irish tenor banjo, all of whom taught and played with aspiring performers.

The Nitchies stopped running the camps in 2002, but they helped spawn a half-dozen more that take place annually around the country, including the American Banjo Camp in Washington state and the Suwannee Banjo Camp in Florida.

Some wondered whether the magazine would survive beyond Hub's tenure. Spencer, a longtime rock musician who spent much of his childhood spurning acoustic music, had a sometimes-distant relationship with his father, an outsized character on the bluegrass scene who, like many achievers, was so obsessed with his work he sometimes shortchanged family time.

But when the elder Nitchie died of cancer in 1993, Spencer felt the legacy calling.

"You just can't not have a Banjo Newsletter," he says with a shrug.

"I am a lifetime subscriber to BNL, and if it stopped arriving in my mailbox every month I would feel as though I had lost part of my family," Alison Brown says.

That seems unlikely to happen. BNL released its 428th issue last month. The copy was written, as ever, by players and scholars in folksy, approachable tones. It was edited, as ever, by Donald, 51, a poet. It was printed, as ever, on a press in Elkton.

Then, as ever, Spencer carried the 7,000 copies back to Annapolis, where he addressed, sorted and posted each one to readers in all 50 states and on five continents.

Ever the folkie, he says the magazine is big enough to use a mailing service, but he always wants to drop the copies off at the local post office personally. That way, if there are problems, he hears about it himself.

"We're not the slickest business people in the world," he says, "but that has its own virtues. We've always been about promoting the instrument. If there weren't a banjo to promote, and people who love it, we'd have been out of business long ago."

The Banjo Newsletter

To subscribe to The Banjo Newsletter, call 800-759-7425 or go to banjonews.com. For more information, write to The Banjo Newsletter, P.O. Box 3418, Annapolis 21403-0418, or e-mail bnl@infionline.net.

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