THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A banjo lesson a long time in the making

With a bit of pluck, a Concord filmmaker is almost ready to tell the story of this American instrument

Pioneering banjo player Uncle Dave Macon. Pioneering banjo player Uncle Dave Macon.
By James Reed
Globe Staff / January 11, 2011

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Marc Fields has learned to shrug off the snickers and looks of disbelief. He’s used to the skepticism he routinely hears at parties and from his colleagues and even some of his most ardent supporters. They all ask the same thing:

An entire documentary film about the history of the banjo?

And his answer, which he has had to give longer than he’d like to admit, is always the same: Absolutely.

Fields, who lives in Concord and teaches documentary and studio television production at Emerson College, is going on his ninth year of making “The Banjo Project: The Story of America’s Instrument.’’

When it’s finished — and Fields swears he’s getting close — it promises to be the most in-depth visual portrait of the subject, encapsulating more than 250 years of history and restoring dignity to the instrument’s often misunderstood reputation. From the banjo’s origins in Africa to its role in modern music, the film burrows deep into issues of race (including its rise in popularity through minstrel shows), as well as class, regionalism, and gender.

“It’s America’s quintessential instrument,’’ Fields says over coffee last week near his office at Emerson. “On one hand, it’s part of the music that we invented, and at the same time it has all these negative and positive associations. You can appreciate that it speaks to concrete American experiences, but it also speaks to things we’d rather not be reminded of.’’

To say the project has been a labor of love is beside the point.

“Let’s put it this way: If I had known how big it was when I started, I wouldn’t have done it,’’ he says, before cracking a joke about how he had a full head of hair when he started it in 2002. “Other people have tried something like this, but I outlasted them. I feel like I’m going to be the one to tell this story.’’

It’s a strange mission for someone who doesn’t even play the banjo. But having worked on other music documentaries, Fields recognized the subject was fraught with a rich narrative that should be told.

“It’s a hard job,’’ says banjo master Tony Trischka, who’s been involved since the film’s beginning as its music director. “This is the first major undertaking to tell the banjo’s story. It’s not sexy like the Civil War, but it’s part of America and its social history. Even after all the work that’s been done, people still think of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘Deliverance’ when you talk about the banjo.’’

As a small example of its maligned reputation, Trischka mentions a fund-raising campaign for a respected New York station a few years ago in which the announcer issued a threat if the financial target wasn’t met: “I’m going to play some banjo music.’’

With that in mind, the film’s trailer opens on a slightly contentious note, quoting a historic passage that sets the defiant tone: “No instrument has ever had to fight its way through such bitter antagonism as the banjo.’’

“To this day, after hundreds of years,’’ Trischka says, “there’s still a monochromatic image of the instrument.’’

Fields credits Trischka with giving him the idea for “The Banjo Project’’ in 1997. Fields was working at a PBS station in New Jersey then, and he did a segment on Trischka, including Trischka’s 1993 album, “World Turning,’’ on which he surveyed the instrument’s various styles throughout history.

Fields was astonished to realize the banjo’s evolution was so ingrained in cultural shifts in America’s history, from slavery to the instrument’s migration to Appalachia. He was even more astonished to discover that not everyone else shared his assessment.

“As I’ve been working on this for so long, the skepticism and resistance about the subject matter I’ve encountered initially surprised me, and then it annoyed me,’’ Fields says. “And then I realized this is, in fact, grist for the mill.’’

The film is a broad overview of the banjo’s legacy, from its pioneers (Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, Dock Boggs) to some of its lesser-known characters (Cousin Emmy). With Trischka’s help, Fields has enlisted a cast of heavy hitters, interviewing nearly every major banjo player and scholar alive.

Among his 350 hours of footage, there’s a jam session filmed on location featuring Trischka with Béla Fleck and Earl Scruggs, the banjo legend who popularized the three-finger style. Bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley and folk icon Pete Seeger reflect on the instrument’s historical significance and then bring it to life through song. Steve Martin, who’s increasingly in the news lately for his banjo chops, narrates the film.

Blues musician Taj Mahal addresses the banjo’s notorious presence in minstrel shows, when white performers in blackface (most notably Joel Sweeney) would use the instrument for comic relief. Contemporary musicians such as Carolina Chocolate Drops, Alison Brown, and Abigail Washburn offer commentary on the banjo’s timeless appeal.

Fields has taken a decidedly modern approach to spreading the word about the project. In addition to a website (www.thebanjoproject.org) and a Facebook page with more than 2,300 followers, he launched a Kickstarter account. The online funding campaign, in which donors buy goods and services at different price points, ranges from $10 to $5,000. As of this past weekend, the Kickstarter project had raised nearly $32,000 from 337 backers, which was $7,000 more than its original goal. (The campaign — at www.kickstarter.com — ends on Jan. 23.)

He’s had no dearth of material, but as the project wears on, Fields is obviously keen to wrap it up, realizing that the broadcast outlet would play a pivotal role in the final product. A 90-minute documentary suited for film festivals would be shaped differently than a four-part series for television. Funding has also been a challenge. He declines to name names, but Fields mentions one broadcaster that was interested in a treatment for three one-hour episodes. Budget cuts eventually shelved those plans, but Fields maintains his resolve.

“I keep coming up with fresh material, and I also have this sense that this is a story that needs to be told,’’ Fields says. “The fact that people don’t even realize why — that’s all the more reason why I have to tell it.’’

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.