To call Chuck Levy a banjo player seems to be a bit of a disservice, akin to calling Wolfgang Puck a cook or Tim Tebow a guy who tosses a ball. Chuck Levy is an artist who has been Florida’s Old Time Banjo Champion, a Thelma Boltin awardee, and a prize fiddler; he is also a music historian and a scholar who has traveled to Africa to research the origins of banjo music. He is known for playing the Old Time music that is the forerunner to bluegrass, which he plays in clawhammer and minstrel styles. If you have no idea what this denotes, Mr. Levy will patiently explain it for you.
Mr. Levy brought friends Bill Paine and Aisha Ivey to play a Free Fridays show that was part concert and part educational symposium. Also along was clogger Diane Shaw and an astounding selection of Mr. Levy’s other friends–his instruments. These banjos, fretted and fretless, plus fiddle and mandoline-banjo were positioned on stage in such a way that they appeared to be additional guests invited to join in the half-circle trio of Mr. Levy, Mr. Paine, and Ms. Ivey.
A Chuck Levy show is an intimate exercise. Seated close together, the three musicians might have been playing in small confines and not to the four hundred or so raptly absorbed fans who spread out around the Plaza in mellow attention. Songs were treated to contemplative renditions as Mr. Levy introduced them by explaining a bit about each. This was revelatory: A piece like “Cotton-Eyed Joe” might have been unrecognizable otherwise. That much-maligned accompaniment to a barroom line dance in actuality is nearly 200 years old and is well-documented as an American folk song. As Mr. Levy performed it, visions of the stripperized Rednex version vanished and one could imagine it as the heel-toe folk dance it traditionally was. Also returning to its roots was The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations,” a Jagger/Richards composition written in service to the Stones’ explorations of forlorn Delta blues.
Besides Old Time Americana, Mr. Levy also tuned up some music from Africa and the British Isles. Here and there he was accompanied by the clogging (or flat-footing) of Diane Shaw, who performed on a small wooden plank that had its own microphone. Ms. Shaw provided the only percussion of the evening, often with what seemed to be an informal, improvisational style that underscored the feeling that the concert was a living-room meeting of friends who just happened to have invited four hundred other friends over to listen to some music.
The concert was so low-key that it demanded a good deal of attention. I spoke to a man who mistook the music as pure Irish folk and who expected something more along the lines of Irish Rovers. Had he been paying attention, he’d have noticed that Mr. Levy thoughtfully prefaced the music with explanations of style and origin.
As an educator, Mr. Levy co-directs the Suwannee Banjo Camp, which takes place on March 18-20, 2011. He is a preservationist working in an area that is no less vibrant for being so old. Florida folkways are strongly intertwined with banjo music, especially in the northern part of the state. Friday’s quiet concert made for an interesting counterpart to the club music playing just around the corner, whose decibels often seemed to lay waste to civilization.
Visit Chuck at www.banjourneys.com