Tommy Thompson, My Banjo Guru

Tommy Thompson stands as a Giant Big Man in American cultural history. He founding fathered the Red Clay Ramblers, an ensnaringly charismatic, musically brilliant, wholistically eccentric, totally in your face, generation 1970's not only strings string band. He also holds a completely non requested non returnable unlimited lifetimes tenured professorship in the unnecessarily exisistentially accredited International Undocumented and Undeclared School of Uncensored and Unrestrictable Philosophical Upspeak, No Bull University(UNOBULL), Planet Earth.
Tommy left a wide load of sorrows and joys in some cosmic dumpster on January 24, 2003 when his undeservedly long suffering sixty-five year old body finished its earthly ramble and died. Tommy Thompson's legacy looms large. He left two genetic offspring, an outrageous and wonderful band, recordings, writings, theater works, and many profoundly inspired human beings. I am one of the inspired, and I offer this macro-rant to honor my banjo guru, Tommy Thompson.

I'll begin with some Sanabria family herstory:
My father, Pascual Sanabria, was a professional entertainer whose musical intensity and personal charisma touched peoples' lives the same way Tommy's did. His dark eyes always beamed with love and light as he played. He shared this beautiful spirit by playing fiery gypsy tunes and dazzling classical showpieces on his beloved piano accordion. He also made people dance by playing alto sax in big bands. Daddy was my first formal music teacher, and I started to sing and play Spanish gypsy tunes on a tiny but real piano accordion when I was four years old.

My mother, Margarita DeGrazia, was a larger than life, hysterically funny, too loud, lovable Sicilian drama queen. She was never embarassed and often embarassing as she engaged rank strangers in conversation, and regularly raised the roof with her attention grabbing macro-enthusiastic vocal renditions of operatic arias, jazz standards, show tunes, kids' folk songs, Italian songs, Elvis, Roman Catholic hymns, popular songs, Beatles, or her own inspired tune of the moment.
My father and grandfather traveled to America's Ellis Island from Quintana, Spain in 1920. My Italian grandmother carried mama mia to the new world in utero from Palermo, Sicily in 1912. Mama met Papa in New Yorka in the late 1920's .

I was born on January 14, 1954 in Brooklyn, NY during a blizzard. I don't remember the age I began speaking or singing, but both skills probably came to me around the same time, or else I learned English as a second language. I easily absorbed the magical sounds of the music that surrounded me, and could soon echo a musical phrase perfectly with my voice. I hardly wanted to do anything else besides sing and play my accordion, and always knew I'd be a musician when I grew up. By the time I was five years old it was clear I had inherited an unusually potent combination of my parents' creativity genes.
Fast forward this story to 1975. I am 21 years old, and share my first aparment halfway out on Long Island's north shore. By now I've ditched the accordion, learned to accompany my singing on an acoustic guitar, attended New York's High School of Music and Art as a voice major, worn out my Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Beatles albums, and brazenly led crowds of marching idealists in songs that protested the Viet Nam war and demanded equal rights for all people. I continue my lifelong musical journey by practicing classical guitar seven or eight hours a day as a performance major in Stony Brook University's demanding music program.
My talent, dedication and great references finally land me a coveted apprentice teacher position for the renowned Guitar Workshop's summer session. I'd soon be working alongside some of the finest folk, blues, and classical musicians around. I'd also signed up for a summer's worth of five string banjo lessons, as I could study for free as part of my pay. I had no idea who they'd scheduled to teach me, and was equally clueless about the profound effect these lessons would have on the rest of my life.
I believe Tommy Thompson's indelible marks on the pages of our cultural heritage bible began to appear that same summer. By night, the Red Clay Ramblers were wowing New York theatergoers with their performances in Diamond Studs. By day, Tommy stayed out of trouble and made some extra money as a traditional American music expert at the Guitar Workshop in Roslyn, Long Island.
My first banjo lesson with old Wide Load was unlike any music lesson I'd ever had. First he asked me to sing and play something on the guitar for him. I figured he wanted to evaluate my musicianship and would only need to hear a verse or two of whatever I played. I began my performance, fully expecting to only play part of my arrangement. That man remained completely silent and focused on my performance for the whole song. I finished playing and looked up at him. His reticence continued as he stared at me for what still seems like the longest thirty seconds of my life. I was starting to think my new music teacher wasn't too impressed with my musicality. Then he spoke up. "That was beautiful! Show me how you played that chord progression!" I spent the next forty five minutes teaching Tommy my guitar arrangement, and went home that day completely unaware that this big guy had just taught me one of the most important lessons I would ever learn.
He never really told me how to play the banjo. I learned by watching and listening as he played all kinds of music for me. I carefully studied his right hand position and figured out how he got that incredible sound. I listened to his recordings over and over and worked out how to play the tunes just like he did. I'd figure out how he played some tune, and then during my lesson we'd play it together, note for note for note. We also spent lots of free time hanging out with each other. The student-mentor relatonship we shared got stronger as our warm platonic friendship grew. By the end of the summer of 1975, I was hopelessly addicted to Tommy's banjo playing, the Red Clay Ramblers' music, and learning every fiddle tune I got my ears on. I was also sounding a lot like Tommy Thompson when I played the banjo.
The year is now 1984. I'm 30 years old and live in the Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts. I win every banjo contest I enter, and people call me the Banjo Queen of the Pioneer Valley. I make a living performing and teaching banjo and guitar lessons, and I'm also on the board of directors of the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society. I'd used my position on the board to get the Ramblers a gig up here a couple of years earlier, and this year I manage to book Tommy and the band for a return engagement. The boys stay over at my apartment in Northampton after the gig. I remember to buy film and manage to get a great photo of Jack Herrick juggling in my kitchen, one of the band playing the concert, and this wonderful picture of me with my banjo guru:

Since that time I've earned a music education degree, spent ten years teaching music to children in the public schools, and become somewhat of an expert on traditional American music and dance. I've also gained a modest amount of celebrity status as the banjo player in Rude Girls, a hot band of women whose great performances and first record on Flying Fish made quite a stir in the 1980's folk community.
I still teach music lessons and perform with Lyn Hardy, one of my Rude Sisters. I teach more banjo students these days, and have organized them into an eccentric and lovable turn of this century mostly banjo orchestra called BanjoMucho. We make people laugh and play music at family dances and hometown community events.

I am a piece of Tommy Thompson's legacy. His banjo playing is burned into my life's permanent soundtrack along with my father's accordion playing, my mother's singing, and Bill Hicks' and Alan Jabbour's fiddling. He is with me when I perform and teach lessons, and my banjo students echo Tommy's spirit and drive when they play. The Giant Big Man lives on earth inside all of us.
Happy trails, Wide Load. I'll meet 'ya at some future fork in my eternal journey's path, and we'll ramble the next stretch of road together, in the land beyond the blue.

Love, Queenee

Play It Again, Queenee

OK, OK, Allright, Already! I admit it! I'm a genuine 'Sixties Living Fossil! Nineteen Sixties, that is...
My first vocal rant made news in a Brooklyn, NY hospital in 1954. I was ten when Murray the K, a NYC am radio deejay rocked my world. Some big, important musical movement had just started happening, and my young musician ears couldn't get enough of this new music on the radio.
There were many players in this exciting movement--musicians, promoters, groupies, deejays, photographers, roadies, creeps, druggies, producers, publishers, record execs, etc. I qualified for genuine "teenybopper" status --too young to be a real female threat, but able to fall in love with some rock musician, scream at him, faint, or spend my allowance on music items promoting his image.
Nineteen sixty-four was a heavy one, man. The British rock music and pop culture invasion was quite a companion to the massive social upheaval brewing in both the USA and my bloomin' adolescent body/mind. The Fab Four (The Beatles, for those too young to know the nicknames) played at Forest Hills Stadium in my home county of Queens, NY. I loved Paul. I will forever mourn the fact I couldn't go to that concert.
While America mourned its beloved and recently assasinated president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) was prez, and we were thigh deep in the Big Vietnam War Muddy. There was only one place my already consecrated artist adolescent body/prematurely intellectually bent mind could go to help endure its unbearable confusion -- to the musicians, of course!
Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tim Hardin, the Byrds, CSNY, Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Rolling Stones, The Fugs, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Laura Nyro, Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Tom Paxton, Odetta, Buffy Ste.Marie, Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, I'm breathless now, do you want me to keep going?
Forget it, you can read some dusty Rolling Stone music history if you want more 1960's folk and rock icons--that's not exactly the topic of this rant. Not the human icons. Only the music.
I was a fifteen year old music student in 1969. I remember singing that 60's music with my peers as we climbed countless steps which began from the NYC subway entrance (West 135th St. and Convent Ave.) and continued up an almost endless hill to the High School of Music and Art (HSMA). My high school had the added education expanding feature of being located smack dab on the campus of New York's City College (CCNY).
The City College cafeteria was great, just great! We'd cut classes and get french fries and burgers and coffee, and hang out in the lounge and pretend we were who we weren't, and smoke cigarettes and dope with the college kids, right in front of the security guards!
I didn't just learn how to be stoned and act straight there, however. Student led strikes about all kinds of worthy humanist causes were plentiful and rowdy back then, and I brought my guitar and began singing songs with the protesting students. The 'Nam war was still bombing along, and my folksinger mentors were in world class socially aware singer/songranter form. I built up a good arsenal of pro and anti anything songs with guitar accompaniments. I also got to practice fearless singing and playing out loud in front of groups of chanting idealists and police sirens. And keep walking and singing. I didn't know it was a dress rehearsal for today.

Play It Again Queenee, Again

I am nocturnal. My big sister is an early bird who lives and works on Long Island. She called me around 10:00am on 9/11/01 to make sure I was OK. "Whaddayou, nuts? Of course, I'm OK-I was sleeping!"
"Turn on the TV--You're not gonna believe this!"
Two cups of coffee finally helped me focus enough to realize what was going on. This was not the advertising trailer for another new special FX explosamovie. Something horrible really had happened to NYC's Twin Towers and all the people....
I'm just like everybody else. After we realize some awful truth, we ask "Why?" When there's no real answer, it seems like many of us dust off our books from some organized religion's curriculum and read the Bible, Koran, Talmud, or something else someone says comes from God. Some of us actually find an answer this way.
The strict Dominican nuns that schooled and socialized me 'till the end of eighth grade helped ensure I'd never pull out the Book of Revelation when I got scared. They executed their jobs with an attitude and style that would put military academy pit bull seargents to shame. Those brides of Christ zealously insisted I learn to read, write, spell, diagram sentences, add, subtract, multiply, divide, memorize, stand up, recite, shut up, sit down, polish my black and white saddle shoes every day, line up in perfect size place in a perfectly straight line, duck, cover, and cultivate my fear of the wrath of God, the priests who bossed the nuns around, the nuns who bossed the kids around, and other authority figures like hall monitors and crossing guards.
I graduated from eight years of this outstanding and horredous non secular education in June, 1967, when dignitariat from the Roman Catholic Church's Christ the King Elementary School, Springfield Gardens, Queens, N.Y. granted me my first meaningful diploma, my glorious ticket to high school.
I was now free to reject my childhood's organized Godogma, and I broke up with the Catholic Church while a crescendo of folk and rock music clanged and rang my teenybopper chimes.
I went to the poetry and music to find answers back then. Now, on September 11, 2001, I needed to sing some of that poetry again to help explain "Why?"
I poured through my '60's childhood's music, and my mind's permanent soundtrack replayed perfectly preserved phrases of each song I sightread. The music uncovered distant indelible phrases of me, like long forgotten browning news clippings pressed between those old songs' printed pages.
I heard the teenaged Diane Maria crying a whole lotta angry "Why?" I saw the young adult Diane Maria asking a whole lotta nervous "What, When?" I felt the middle aged Diane Maria crying and asking a lot less angry, nervous "Why? What? When?'' and wondering a lot more confounded "How?" "How could this happen, today, in the twenty first century?
My mind's soundtrack's album changed. "All you need is Love." "All We Are Saying - - Is Give Peace a Chance." "Come on, people, now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now..."
I thought the songs had fixed all that the first time we sang them. What about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Peoples' prayers and hymns? Group drumming and chanting? The Save the Children Fund? The Cosmic Convergence? Crystal work? The United Nations?
I was remembering Bob Dylan's "With God On Our Side" when my collective unconscious folksinger red alert light started to flash. The words burning my mouth and tune sizzling in my hands electrified me the exact undaunted intense way they had a long time ago. I realized that my stunned, confused friends, music students, and local community neighbors probably also needed to hear those same songs now. I sang and played them again, only they came out much better this time.

They Tried To Tell You You're Too Young

They told you you're too young or too old to take music lessons, so now you think you should stop listening to that little voice. You know. The nudge that keeps picking organized sounds on guitar, or banjo, or fiddle, or voice, or tuba, or whatever in your mind. Or your young kid's mind.
You don't need to give up finding the right playing buddies or instrument teacher. There ARE music teachers and social pickers out there who will evaluate and relate to the person, and not the age group. I have taught 6 year old kids to play folk guitar, as well as 75 year old ladies to play really mean tenor banjo!
Be persistent in your musician search, be obsessed with music, sing instead of speak your mind, practice in earnest, and have fun playing every day every chance you get--you'll play within a year, no matter what your biological age!

In Anti-Ageist Musical Solidarity,

What's Your Size? 

I was so excited the day I bought my first professional grade steel string acoustic guitar. I was a 16 year old fingerpicking folksinger, and had been playing on a nylon string classical model. I'd practiced for two years with the fire of nonstop musical inspiration, conscientiously saved money in a new guitar fund, and now it was finally time to upgrade my instrument.
I questioned other musicians and read the guitar geek magazines for information on acoustic guitars. Martin Dreadnought body guitars were hot at that time. The D-28 and D-35's big wide Brazilian Rosewood bodies supported a huge and beautifully balanced sound. The booming bass end and warmly bright treble strings blended evenly with a solid mid range. Nice and loud, too! Great teenage angst response in a guitar!
I bought a brand new Martin D35 and though it was large and difficult to handle, I persevered and managed to play that guitar "pretty good for a girl!"
Years later I realized what many frustrated guitarist wannabes never learn-- My beautiful dreadnought guitar was too big for my 5 foot small body. I had experienced more physical pain and technical frustration and was working harder than the average sized guitar picker did while playing on the same kind of guitar.
Most guitar builders, salespeople and pickers were and still are men who are larger than me. It didn't occur to anyone to advise me that smaller people need instruments that fit their hands and bodies just like the smaller shoes on their feet!
I'm sorry to say that 30 years later, things haven't evolved much in the guitar sizing department. I still see smaller than average female and male guitar students come to their first lesson with huge unplayable instruments, and it's my sorry job to tell them their guitar is wrong for them.
Most beginning music students are clueless when they rent or buy their first instrument, and must trust a salesperson's knowledge and judgment to help them choose an appropriate and playable instrument. It is a rare merchant who pays attention to instrument sizing, and if you are female, you probably have few role models to help with this issue.
Pay attention to how the instrument feels when you hold it. If your first impression is that it is too big, then look for a smaller scale instrument. Bigger and louder is not necessarily better, and you will learn to play with more facility and less tension and technical frustration if the size is right!

With a Smaller Guitar and Better Technique,

Banjo 101: Shopping Tips For Your First Banjo Purchase

You know you want one. You love the sound. It feels right when you hear it. You want to buy one and learn how to pick. You're now ready to expand your knowledge of banjos before you invest in your first one. Here are some facts about about banjo types and styles to get your shopping trips off to a well informed start:
There are 4 basic types of banjos:
A frailing or clawhammer banjo has 5 strings and an open back. The strings are set a little wider apart and and the action a little higher for the percussive old timey clawhammer banjo style.
5 string Bluegrass banjos look much like the old timey banjo, except they have resonators on the back to make them louder. The strings are set closer together and the action is set a little lower for bluegrass 3 finger picking styles. These banjos are usually played with two fingerpicks and a thumbpick.
Tenor and Plectrum banjos have four strings, either open or resonator backs, and are played with a flatpick. Plectrum banjos have a longer scale neck than the Tenor. Many people flatpick Irish or Jazz styles on these models.
There are also the hybrids--fun, quirky banjos like the banjo-uke, banjo-bass, guitjo, piccolo banjo, banjo-mandolin, electric banjo......the list goes on!
Consider these important points when buying that exciting "first love" of a banjo:

1. Musical Style
2. Number of strings
3. Weight
4. Volume
5. Tone Quality
6. Tuneability
7. Playability
8. Quality of construction
9. Price
10. Do you love this instrument?

Many commercial instrument builders turn out decent and affordable new banjos--search on line for banjo companies, and surf around their sites. You'll get lots of information about banjos from doing this. There are also excellent private banjo craftspeople and vintage instruments sellers to consider.
The banjo you get should suit the music you want to play. If you'd like to explore different music styles, then I suggest you start with an open back 5 string frailing or clawhammer banjo, and you splurge on the best quality instrument you can afford.
Experienced pickers can make a mediocre banjo sound OK, but I believe beginners need and deserve comfortable, responsive, tuneable, playable, good sounding instruments. Making music is a priceless activity--You won't regret buying the better quality instrument!
I hope this brief introduction helps you start your fun banjo shopping trip and exciting musical oddyssey. Good luck with your search, and let me know how you do!