My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, Rose of Tralee, The Banks of the Roses ... Win The Rose Sessions CD from Don 'Banjo' Smith from Glen Spey, New York who has been playing on the Irish pub and festival circuit for many years. Tom Keller enquired how it all started ...
Don Banjo Smith: I started singing when I was very young, we always had music playing in the house, mostly country (Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Glen Campbell, that kind of stuff). In school we sang a lot, old folk music and Stephen Foster songs mostly, and I liked that a lot. When the Irish Rovers had their hit song "the Unicorn" in '66 or so, my parents bought the album, and I memorized every song on it. I was 10. I also memorized every liner note to every song, I was especially drawn to story songs, and most folk songs seem to be. Being of Irish-Scottish descent, I related to the songs.
In the Boy Scouts, I always was a song leader for a few songs at any campfire (I didn't volunteer, I always got picked to do some songs). As I got older, I was frequently the song leader for ALL the songs we sang, or ran the whole campfire. I didn't realize I was on to something, other people recognized it, I didn't... until much, much later. Through my teen years I played around with guitar and banjo uke, but never got anywhere, not having taken lessons, or had good playable instruments with which to work.
Tom Keller: How did you end up playing Irish Music in particular?
Don: In my early 20's, I discovered that in an Irish bar a few towns away from where I lived, there was an active Irish music scene, bands every weekend, and I knew so much of the music, I was shocked, I had no idea people played this music in bars! (I had no idea that 25 miles away, there was a HUGE Irish music scene in New York City!) I hung out in that bar every weekend, I felt like I fit in there, and I had never hung out in a bar before, and when I was in any other type of bar I felt alien, but I felt comfortable, and that I fitted in in Irish bars. I met and talked to as many Irish musicians as I could, and started taking lessons, and eventually started jamming with and sitting in with some bands, and finding my way to sessions in out of the way places.
Tom: Was there any role model?
Many, besides the Irish Rovers, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, the Dubliners (Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly era), Pete Seeger, Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, they are all big influences. Marty McKernan and his band, the Moonshine Mountain Boys!! I met Marty in that first bar I hung out in, it was his band that was my favorite, and he helped me out with things and turned me on to other Irish musicians like Mick Moloney (great tenor banjo player) and Stan Rogers. A musical role model would be Tommy Makem, Pete Seeger, Stan Rogers, as vocalists, and Mick Moloney and Barney McKenna as instrumental role models.
You apparently are performing together with guitarist Marty McKernan since the early 1980's. Now your latest album "The Rose Sessions" is a collection of songs with some sort of Rose theme? What's the story behind?
Well, I haven't been performing with him since the early '80's, but we have been friends since then, and he has encouraged me and guided me, musically, in many ways... The Rose Sessions was a theme I first thought about in 1997, when I was playing in a three piece folk band with two women, and we were known as "the thorn between the roses". I got the idea for the album then. We started to record it in 1999, with Marty as the other male member (by then we had become a quartet, with Jack Driscoll, but he wasn't interested in the project, so Marty helped us on that). The first song on the album is one that was recorded for that project.
Most of these 14 recorded songs are Irish...?
Yes, the majority are Irish in origin, some are American Irish from the late 1800's, early 1900's... Rose of Allendale is English, Roseville Fair is American, written by the great and still performing Bill Staines. Everybody has recorded that one! As for delivery, we try to be honest and sincere in our performances, so some of the recordings are somewhat dissimilar from some of the earlier, and possibly more dramatic, recordings...
So having finished this epic task, what's next?
Well, we put so much time and money in that CD that we have to take this year off to recoup, but plans are in place for a sequel, and one or two others that are themed, but I am not at liberty to disclose the theme! Marty is a great and prolific songwriter, and maybe we can get an album of all original music from him one of these days!
Thanks to Don Banjo Smith, FolkWorld is able to raffle off several "The Rose Sessions" CDs.
Photo Credits: (1) Rose, (2)-(3) Don Banjo Smith (unknown/website).