Tag Archive | "Bob Dylan"

Banjo Joe

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I suppose you have heard of Mr. Bojangles, who danced his way throughout the American South.  Bojangles was immortalized in song by artists including Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  Our story concerns another famous music man, a local boy made good, known as Banjo Joe.  I first made his acquaintance when he moved across the street from me several years ago, and gave me a little education concerning the instrument for which he is named.

Best known as an American stringed instrument, the banjo is most closely associated with Bluegrass and Country & Western music (remember the lively tune, Dueling Banjoes, from the film Deliverance?).  The instrument’s roots can be traced back to Africa, the Middle East, and Japan, where it is still found today.  Conceivably, the instrument was first constructed from a gourd, for the body, and a piece of bamboo that comprised its neck.

Various tribes in Africa named the instrument bangie, banjer, banjar and banza, while the Japanese called it the shamisen and the Persians, the tar.  In the early 1700’s, Africans were sold into slavery and brought to America’s Deep South to toil in the cotton fields.  With them, they brought music that helped them endure through their trials.  Sung “call and answer” style between the rows of cotton, this music would later become known as Delta blues.  When it went north, it altered somewhat, taking on the name of Chicago blues.

As Little Richard has said, “The blues had a baby and called it rock n’ roll.”  Indeed, they did, and rock’s siblings are gospel music, soul music, and jazz.  At the heart of all these genres lies the sounds birthed in the cotton fields, including the music presumably made on the African banjer.  By the time the instrument had moved into the Appalachian region of the U.S., it became known as “the banjo.”

Introduced in the 1830’s to mainstream America by the American minstrel performer Joel Sweeney, the banjo became popular in Southern music halls.  Sweeney’s band later brought the instrument to Great Britain in 1840’s.

The construction of a modern-day banjo consists of a neck connected to the body or “pot” made of a circular wooden ring, and a tension head similar to a drumhead that is fastened by a metal tone ring.  Originally fashioned out of animal skin, today’s banjo head uses synthetic material.  Banjos are made of four, five, or six strings, which are plucked and strummed to create the music.  Some have resonator plates; others have an open back.  While the six-string banjo is tuned and played like a guitar, other varieties feature tuning pegs or planetary gears, instead of the worm gear-tuning keys on the guitar.

The banjo is played in different styles.  The clawhammer method uses downward rather than upward strokes with the fingernails, while frailing uses the thumb to catch the fifth string to create a drone effect.  In the early 1960’s, Pete Seeger popularized the genre of folk music. Strumming the banjo, he combined the clawhammer method without the use of fingerpicks.  Bluegrass music favors the five-string resonator banjo played in several styles, including the Scruggs style.  This was named after musician Earl Scruggs, while the Reno style honored the music man named Don Reno.

Now that you know as much as I do regarding the history of the banjo, let’s turn back to our protagonist, Banjo Joe, whose story begins on April 6, 1935, when Joseph Dougherty entered this world.  At an early age, his father died, leaving his mother the duty of raising her family alone.  The Dougherty’s lived in a section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania known as Manayunk, a very hilly section on the Schuylkill River.

Inhabited by working class people, the area was known for the Manayunk Canal and the thirteen knitting mills that had sprung up around the waterway.  After a long day’s work, the people of Manayunk often patronized the many saloons and bars in the area.  In years to come, these pubs would welcome the entertainer who came to be known as Banjo Joe.

While still young, Joe was enrolled in Gerard College. This was a school founded by Stephen Gerard, a Philadelphia financier who established the institution for impoverished, fatherless boys, such as Joe.  Here, the youngster was not only educated in academic subjects, he also learned to play the trumpet and violin; he also sang in the choir.  Thus did destiny set the stage for music to figure prominently in Joe’s life.

When Joe was 15, his mother presented him with a banjo as a Christmas gift, which she’d picked up at a pawnshop for the sum of $37.50.  A local barber kindly taught Joe the rudiments of playing the banjo.

Desiring to hone his skills, Joe joined the Uptown String Band that performed on New Year’s Day in the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia.  Of this association, he said, “I cut my teeth playing the banjo in this organization.”   After a few years, he was recruited to play for Avalon and other string bands before setting out on his own.

Playing at local bars and saloons in Manyunk, Joe met up with other performers.  With them, the banjo player formed an act whose repertoire included singing, telling jokes, and impersonations.  Soon, he became known as “Banjo Joe” throughout the neighborhood.

Joe’s first professional appearance occurred at the Head House in the Old Society Hill section of Philadelphia. At this venue, he entertained enthusiastic audiences for the next 21 months.  During this time, he caught the attention of Jack Downey and was offered a job at the new Downey Saloon, which was located in Philadelphia.

Striking out on his own, Banjo Joe gave personal appearances at private parties on the Main Line as well as local nursing homes and senior complexes. His lighthearted music and personality overflowed into the audience, who joined in on the refrains of the songs dear to their hearts.

Ever the perfectionist, Joe wished to distinguish himself from other banjo players by creating a new sound. Thus did he develop Banjo Joe’s Revolutionary Resonator Banjo: an instrument whose head was 56% larger than the normal banjo and included a fluted resonator.  The resonator added a mellow quality to the powerful, 125-year old history of the banjo.  Joe’s new sound was called, “The Riverboat King.”

Footloose and fancy free, Banjo Joe toured Europe.  From the pubs of Ireland to the beer halls of Bavaria, Joe went on to headline Dusseldorf, The Continent’s Dixieland Capital.

Alone on the road, Joe missed the love of friends and family he’d left behind, as well as the music that was uniquely Manyunk’s. This was not the music crafted of eight notes but the bustling sounds of the business district, the children’s carousels, the tolling of the church bells, rumble of the freight trains, and the whisper of the cool breeze from the river on a hot summer’s day.  Little did homesick Joe know that his next tour would change his life forever.

Returning from Europe, he was signed to play six nights a week for 15 weeks aboard a stern-wheeler in Marietta, Ohio.  This dry-docked ship had been christened The Becky Thatcher.  For the first three weeks of this gig, Joe also played at the Lafayette Hotel to entertain the dinner crowd just up the street from the Betsy Thatcher.

One evening, a young woman accompanied by her grandfather came to see and hear the entertainment.  Of this young lady, Joe said, “At first it was a passing fancy.  But when she came back many times and we made eye contact, I found myself captivated by her gorgeous coffee brown eyes, rosebud lips, and long brown hair.  I was hopelessly in love!  Her name was Ilene and the feelings were mutual.  She was attending Ohio State University, but there was a problem in our budding romance, as I was years older than she was.”

After Joe returned to Manayunk, he and Ilene maintained contact, for it was serious between them.  Finally, on Valentine’s Day, Joe proposed marriage and his beloved readily accepted.  With that, he returned to Marietta, Ohio to ask her family for her hand in marriage. On February 16, 1980, they were married in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and resided in Manayunk.  Several years later, they moved to a quiet little town not far from where they were married.

2010 marks the celebration of Joe and Ilene’s 30 years of happily married life.  In addition to playing a mean banjo, Joe’s other interest is as an avid gardener.  He can advise you regarding the pH factor of soil needed to grow specific fruits and vegetables.  Banjo Joe is also available for entertaining private parties and visits to nursing homes, and I can personally attest to his abilities as a fine entertainer.

Inn 2007, I hosted a Pearl Harbor Memorial Service at the VFW Hall in Maple Shade, New Jersey.  Joe had volunteered his services, playing a medley of songs dating back to World War I.  These included It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Over There, in addition to God Bless America. From an audience of post members, schoolchildren, and visiting dignitaries, Joe drew thunderous applause.

Like the locomotive and, indeed, the way of life depicted in the song The City of New Orleans by Arlo Guthrie, Banjo Joe is part of a breed I call “Vanishing America.”  He is truly a one-man minstrel show.  With his nostalgic songs and witty stories, Joe brings back the days when chivalry existed and life moved at a slower pace.  Sadly, that way of life has all but disappeared from our landscape.  Like the American cowboy, the American Indian, the buffalo, and Mr. Bojangles, the good old days are, to steal a very famous title from Martha Mitchell, Gone with the Wind.



It Was Forty Years Ago Today

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Highways and byways clogged with streaming throngs, personnel and equipment “air-vac’d” via helicopter, emergency plans slapped into place.  A scene from disaster movie?  Breaking news of a natural or manmade catastrophe?  Neither.  This was Woodstock, a free (in more ways than one), three-day fete spanning the weekend of August 15th to August 18th, 1969 and celebrating the rock n’ roll, pop rock, and folk-rock music as well as the very spirit of its generation.


Held in Sullivan County in upstate New York at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm and surrounding open areas, the event was originally conceived as a business venture, the brainchild of two young, ambitious men joined by two others.  To shorten a long story, this brainchild sprang up practically overnight to give birth to a child of its own that bore little resemblance to its parent.   Attracting nearly half a million attendees exclusive of the thirty-two musical acts that performed that weekend, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, a.k.a. The Woodstock Festival, served as the turning point in the careers of previously obscure talents as well as the catalyst that widened the chasm of the Generation Gap and an experience that enriched those fortunate enough to have been on the scene.  “On the scene” included two infants who made their entrance into the world during the festival, and three souls who quit the earth: two as a result of a drug overdoses, the other the victim of a freak vehicular accident.


That historic rainy weekend became a good-natured free-for-all splashing and cavorting merrily in the mud.  A view from the stage revealed a swelling sea of humanity in tie-dyed garb, bathing suits, and birthday suits.  Of both sexes, of all ages (most of them under the dreaded three-decade mark), from different races, cheery either by disposition, the natural camaraderie, or recreational drugs, everyone seemed high on the music.  In a nation torn asunder by racial strife, the conflict in Vietnam, and the assassination of our brightest and best leaders, brave, outspoken music united and healed.  Woodstock’s arena became the actual and symbolic outcry of a generation: a great chorus blending the voices of artists with activists and plain ol’ lovers of great music.


With the New York Thruway jammed for miles and scheduled acts stranded in the gridlock, the concert’s organizers pressed first into service the acoustic performers (their equipment was not stuck on the highway or hovering overhead in helicopters).   Richie Havens opened strumming an acoustic guitar and unveiling his gravely-folksy voice, eventually finding himself facing the equivalent of the “dead air monster” that lurks in wait for every radio DJ: he had run out of material.  Confronting a live, music-hungry crowd of half a million, Richie improvised with Freedom, thus keeping the peace until his replacement arrived.  (The incomparable Ray Charles would one day find himself in the same sticky situation.  Flying by the seat of his pants, Brother Ray spontaneously combusted the catchy What’d I Say, which became one of his most memorable songs.)


Richie Havens and his mates presented a kaleidoscope of genres and styles, showcasing the talents of established and budding musical luminaries.  These ranged from the great sitar player, Ravi Shankar, discovered by the Beatles during their journey to India, to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s blistering Southern rock political manifestos, to the folk-activist ballads of Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, to Janis Joplin, a brave Texan who challenged racial bigots in her high school corridors and far beyond, and whose keening pipes channeled old Delta blues men.  John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful was also on hand as a spectator but got shoved up on stage to perform, as did Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish, who was contemplating a solo career and who launched said career, unplanned, as he too was Russian-volunteered as one of the acts.  The gritty poet voice of Bob Dylan was blowin’ in the wind, and Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and the other members of The Band were hefting The Weight.  Santana, an unknown, tremendous talent, was leaving mouths hanging open and causing tears to flow with their achingly beautiful, bluesy-Latin fusion.  Before exploding onto the scene in the wake of Woodstock, Santana played free of charge in the streets of San Francisco, where that city’s residents dug their sounds, including my own dear cousin who early on pegged Carlos and his fellows as rising stars.


The closing act was Jimi Hendrix, an electric guitarist whose hard rock chops and black skin did not mesh well with the myopic suits Stateside.  Hendrix, who went on to set fire to the rock world as well as his famous guitar, only gained the full respect due him professionally after he migrated to England, which was a lot less color blind.


Forty years after this musical love-in galvanized a generation of free thinkers, we can track the careers and personal lives of the musicians who jammed during that three-day fest.  What we cannot track so easily are the lives of the latter-day hippies who frolicked in the rain.  What happened to those two children born during Woodstock?  Did they grow up political activists or perhaps attorneys defending the disenfranchised by way of the Legal Aide Society?  Did they grow up musicians, having heard some of the most incredible music of the day in the moment that they first saw sunlight refracted in the raindrops?  Did they mature into aficionados of soul music that knows no color but recognizes a common bond in the human spirit, or do they prefer the commercial drivel that has infested our airwaves for far too long?


Are they farmers, having taken their inspiration from the earth that received them as they made their way into the world?  Are they cops or soldiers, driven to maintain law and order and defend the masses in an ironic “up yours” to their anti-military parents?


And what became of those parents after Jimi’s last guitar chord lingered on the moist air and the crowd dispersed to go their separate ways?  Did they develop new technologies or medical breakthroughs?  Did they become teachers, social workers, or psychiatrists?  Construction workers, CDL drivers, or marketing mavens?  Did some of them migrate to Israel to live on a kibbutz, work the land, and share their resources with their fellows?  Or did they remain a lot closer to home and join forces in communes?   Did they pull a 180 and bow to The Man?  Did they trade in their sandals and headbands for suits and ties, melting away into office buildings, towing the company line, and buying into the American Dream like the character in Jackson Browne’s chilling song, The Pretender:


I’m going to be a happy idiot,
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender.
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy,
Though true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer
For the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender.


If those who attended Woodstock entered the halls of huge corporations, what exactly were their roles there?  Were some of them engineers of the Enron scam or more recently, the $700 billion bilking of American public?  Did they pervert their love of music by signing and robbing new artists blind under the guise of legal sanctions?  Did they fade into the woodwork?


Are they living next door to you?  Did they marry your sister or brother?  Do they stare back at you when you gaze into the mirror?  And if so, does the restless, hopeful spirit that once bound your generation still beat in your breast and uplift you and compel you to do the things you do?  Do you remember, to steal a lyric from Steve Winwood, “the bigness and the mud?”  Do your memories of that storied weekend and the tenets unpinning it determine how you vote, how you have raised your children, and the nature of the organizations that you support?  Or are you just slugging away, day after day, like a drone in a hive?   Do you still dream?  And mostly importantly, can you?

And the Beat Goes On: Mark Chernoff on Music Radio

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Disc Jockey

Mr. Chernoff, you had once served as Program Director for WNEW, a wonderful rock n’ roll station that had enjoyed a 25-year run, a very long time in the world of commercial radio.  As an aficionado of music whose tastes were formed to a great extent by what she heard on WNEW in the ’80’s and ’90’s, I thank you for your contributions to what, in my mind and heart, has been the greatest radio station in my lifetime.  I would be very grateful, as would our readers, if you could share with us some of the things that you had experienced as a Program Director during that period, as well as your views of contemporary music and the general direction of the music industry and radio in general.


First, I should ask you to explain the duties of a Program Director, if you would be so kind.


As a Program Director, you’re responsible for the entire sound of the radio station — the music that’s played, the on-air staff, the promos that run, even the general sound of the commercials.  Basically, if it’s on the air, you’re responsible for it.  Along with this, it’s working with the various departments like the promotions department to help create events and on-air excitement to make sure that listeners want to keep listening. 


I remember hearing Elton John for the first time on your former station, when he’d crossed “the pond” to perform in your studio and speak with your station’s DJ’s.  An energetic, almost frenetic talent (he seemed to be standing on the keys as he played), Sir Elton, as he would later be dubbed, had obviously named his breakout album, “Madman Across the Water” properly.  I also remember an interview with Paul Carrack, the genius behind one of Squeeze’s incarnations (to name just one of his contributions to music).   In addition, I recall an interview with the great Les Paul, to whom most people erroneously contribute the creation of the electric guitar (Paul did not invent it, but he did bring it to the forefront in rock n’ roll as well as the process of overdubbing in the recording studio).  During your time as Program Director at WNEW, what musical guest or guests interviewed on the show stood out in your mind, and why?


I was at WNEW-FM from 1985-1989.  While there, we had a range of guests on-air: Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Bruce Hornsby, and countless others.  Really, too many to name them all.  Probably the most interesting guest was Bob Dylan.  Dave Herman did the interview.  Dave had to go to an almost secret location and had all of 20 minutes to talk to Bob.  Dave said he was a tough interview and strummed his guitar throughout the entire interview.  Bob was very shy and spoke in a soft voice so it was tough to play a lot of it back.  But because he did so few interviews back then, it was a real coup to have him on the station.


Who was your favorite artist or band of that era and why?  Did you ever see them live?  If so, did they live up to or exceed what you’d heard on vinyl and tape, or did they disappoint you as a live act ripped of its studio technology?


As a real lover of rock and roll, it’s hard to pin down my “favorite” artists.  I did have the opportunity to work closely with Graham Nash on our annual Hungerthon, and it led one year to a special Crosby, Stills, and Nash concert broadcast from the United Nations General Assembly Hall.  We also did many live shows with both up-and-coming artists and superstars.  I remember one show at Catch a Rising Star featuring The Bangles and a Bottom Line show with Bruce Hornsby, when he first hit the charts with his band, The Range.  Outside of the WNEW-FM staff, that show was attended by 11 people!  I got to know Southside Johnny from my days at WDHA.   He did a number of shows for the station and we still remain friends today.  He and the Asbury Jukes perform every year at WFAN’s annual end of summer beach party at the Jersey shore. I know I’m missing a lot here, but I was never disappointed at any of our live shows. 


For me, WNEW was the premier rock station of its time; it was the one l always tuned in first, usually before the sun came up.  At the end of the dial, your main competition boasted Howard Stern, the “Shock Jock.”  Stern had a rather large and loyal following.  Were you ever tempted to hire an on-air personality whose approach was similar to Stern’s?  Why or why not?


Howard Stern worked at 92-3 K-Rock, and when I moved over to K-Rock, I had the good fortune to work with him for almost five years.  At WNEW-FM, it was the music and DJ’s that went with the music.  At K-Rock, we did a great job with our classic rock format but it was Howard who drove the bus for the station.  I admired, respected, and liked Howard.  He was and continues to be an amazing radio host.


Do you remember the DJ who had conceived and hosted a weekly program, “Idiot’s Delight?”  His name was Vince Scelsa.   Part of Vince’s appeal was to break new artists, such as Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega.  In doing so, Vince would sometimes spin a record by an unsigned or “indy” artist, and confess afterwards (laughingly) that he knew he wasn’t supposed to do that.   Vince was eventually relegated to time slots that most listeners found inconvenient, and I always thought that this was done purposely, because of his fondness for spinning new artists.  Why was there a stigma then, as there seems to be now, surrounding the playing of material by artists not signed to a major label, or to any label at all?   Are there legalities involved?     


Here’s a better history of Vin Scelsa.  Vin was an early part of progressive rock at his college station, WFMU.  He went on to work for a short time at WPLJ before really making a name for himself at WNEW-FM hosting late nights (9 PM and overnights) and developing his Sunday show, “Idiot’s Delight.”  Vin was a big believer in progressive rock, mixing not just rock but often all forms of music along with talking much more than the average on-air host about books, art, theater, music, and just telling stories.  For a number of years, he was on late nights followed by Tom Morrera and they teamed their two shows as “Butch and the Brick” (Morrera was the Brick).  Vin left WNEW for a variety of reasons, including the fact that playlists came into being and he felt that there needed to be more of a free-form approach.  After leaving WNEW, Vin worked at WLIR.


Did your path and Scelsa’s cross paths professionally any other time?


When I was at WDHA in Dover, New Jersey, I met with him and wanted to hire him (he lived not too far from the station). As a local New Jersey station, we didn’t have enough money to pay him for a fulltime job, but would have allowed him unlimited freedom of choice on the music.  At that point in time, K-Rock was just getting started (having converted to rock from the old disco station, 92-WKTU), and Vin was hired to do a Sunday morning show.  When I moved to K-Rock in 1989, I loved the fact that Vin was there.  I had also recently hired Pete Fornatale and had a dilemma about what to do for the Sunday morning programming.  I spoke to Vin and told him I thought he would do great on Sunday nights and Pete’s Sunday show, which was more folk-oriented, would do better in the morning.  At first Vin thought I was nuts, but eventually felt that I did a great thing for him.  I gave Vin a six-hour show from 8 PM to 2 AM, and told him that he could stay on as long as he liked.  So he took me at my word and he often stayed on until 4 AM or later!


Flashing ahead a few years, Vin and I got to finally work together at WNEW-FM in the mid- 90’s, as he had moved back there, and I was programming the station for about a year and a half while also programming WFAN. I was always supportive of Vin’s style and offered him the opportunity to do five nights a week.  Unfortunately, he turned it down, as he was the stay-at-home parent for his daughter Kate.  Vin eventually moved on to Sirius Radio and a Saturday night show on WFUV, Fordham University’s “Triple-A” formatted station and he continues with both jobs today.


What can you tell us about the stigma surrounding airplay for new artists?


Many stations felt the need to bring in advertising (rightfully so) and often had to play more “familiar” music, a situation that made it harder for new artists to break through.  During my WNEW days, I was able to break any new artist that we felt good about.  We would listen to all new music and continue to pick and choose what we hoped would be best for the station.  As you would figure, we were right on some picks, wrong on others.  But we did break some artists like Bruce Hornsby and The Range, Richard Marx, The Bangles, etc.  We also maintained a very large library of older music.


WNEW did not just spin records; it was committed to honoring its position as an AOR (Album-Oriented Radio) format.  Along with those interviews that I relished, there were “Workforce Blocks” of three songs played consecutively by the same artist or band as well as concert feeds and interviews, usually via Westwood One.  Were any of these contributions yours?  If not, was there something that you, as a Program Director, brought directly to the station or wished and/or fought to see instituted?


I did not create Work Force Blocks.  I did create the tag line we used to describe the station for a few years: “Classic rock to the cutting edge.”  My main job was to nurture the great air staff we had and hopefully keep them inspired to create great radio via the music available, both new and old.  I hope that my contributions were important to the station, as I loved working with the air staff and loved the music we played.


We were a team in creating great promotions for the station and events that are well remembered, like Rocktober, Summer Beach Party in Asbury Park, Bottom Line concerts, and special weekend events (I did create many of these).  All in all, my duties encompassed promotions to management, serving as the guiding hand of Scott Muni and the great air staff including Dave Herman, Dennis Elsas, Pete Fornatale, Pat St. John, Richard Neer, Dan Neer, Carol Miller, and so many others.


Can you explain to our readers the process involved in establishing and maintaining play lists for a radio station?  How does one determine which artists will be spun during drive time as opposed to which ones will be played in the wee hours of the morning when most listeners are asleep?


It’s a complicated system, but usually a new song by a superstar or something that just had a great feel often got more airplay.  Newer songs from lesser-known artists often started at night and if popularity increased, the song got better airplay.  One artist I remember giving very early airplay to was the group “The Smithereens” (from New Jersey).  They put out a song called “Blood and Roses.”  I know I was the first commercial station to jump on it and immediately gave it great rotation — I just knew it would be a hit.  And it was!

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