Bach on Banjo
LAS alum shatters the banjo stereotype.
When Michael Miles carried his banjo on stage at a concert nearly 20 years ago, he remembers giving his audience fair warning. He told the audience at the Winnepeg Folk Festival that he was going to play a 20-minute rendition of one of Bach’s cello suites—not the kind of piece that folk music fans typically expect on a banjo.
“I remember thinking who knows what’s going to happen by the end of 20 minutes,” says Miles, a 1976 LAS alum in speech communication. “But the audience grew and grew and grew. People really seemed to like it.”
Today, he is one of the leading banjo players in the country, receiving accolades from critics and performing alongside the best, including folk legend Pete Seeger, the dePasquale String Quartet, and Béla Fleck. Miles has taken this instrument to places it has never gone before—such as the Baroque era. His first foray into classical music with the banjo led to his CD American Bach; but an even bigger dividend, he says, is that it turned him into a composer.
“All of my compositions came from having learned Bach and having been taken through the grueling process of translating his work into something for the banjo,” he explains.
In addition to composing and performing, Miles teaches the banjo and guitar. From 1984 to 1998, he even served as program director at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where enrollment grew from 200 students to 5,000 under his tenure. Today, he is an artist-in-residence with the school.
Miles grew up in a musical family in Chicago. His father, a “blue-collar guy,” would come home from his job with the power company, sit down at the player piano, and belt out show tunes from musicals such as The Music Man and The Sound of Music.
The youngest of five children, Miles toyed around with the trumpet before picking up the guitar at age 13 and playing in a neighborhood rock and roll band, The Wild Ones. But he didn’t discover the banjo until he came to the University of Illinois.
“All of a sudden, I had my hands on a banjo and I started poking around with it, trying to make it work,” Miles says. “I was really taken by the sound.”
The banjo also made it possible for Miles to put his major in oral interpretation to practical use. Over the years, he has created numerous stage shows that combine the banjo with literary readings, history, politics, and visual media.
For instance, Miles created what he calls “musical documentaries for the stage” on various key years from American history, such as 1945, 1957, and 1968, combining music with readings and reenactments from actors portraying historical figures. John Mahoney, one of the stars of the Frasier television show, was so taken by the programs that Mahoney wound up playing a role in one of documentaries during a run in Chicago.
Another of Miles’ shows, From Senegal to Seeger, incorporates the history of the banjo with the writings of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg and even the testimony of Seeger before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.
In From Senegal to Seeger, he traces the banjo—sometimes called “a drum with strings”—back to the slave ships coming from West Africa. One of the first recorded references to a banjo was by a sailor, who observed slaves playing the instrument in Jamaica in 1796 on the deck of a slave ship bound for Savannah, Ga.
Miles had a chance to perform in Africa this year on a tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. He would rehearse with African musicians in the afternoon and then perform concerts in the evening—an experience that exposed him to an array of drum-based, string instruments “the likes of which I had never seen before, many of them predecessors of the banjo.”
Miles credits people like Seeger, Fleck, and Earl Scruggs with bringing new life to the banjo, which has sometimes been dismissed throughout history. As the Steinway piano makers once said, the banjo is a “half-guitar, half-drum, and like a mule or a mongrel, it has no hope of posterity.”
On the other hand, Twain saw the banjo’s appeal. As he put it, “When you want genuine music—music that will suffuse your system like strychnine whiskey...and break out on your hide like the pin feather pimples on a pickled goose—when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!”
Miles says he was attracted from the very beginning by the tonality of the banjo. But he was also intrigued by the fact that the banjo was not as popular as the guitar, leaving a lot more room to be inventive.
“I’ve been able to find my own musical turf, so to speak, to do things that haven’t been done before,” he says. “I don’t think that would have been possible with the guitar.”
By Doug Peterson