Many of the arrangements you’ll hear on Aaron Jonas Lewis’ new album, ‘Mozart of the Banjo,’ are a century-old…, give or take. The liner notes of this album, a project dedicated to the works of composer Joe Morley, confirm that these are just estimates, really, as many of the banjo maestro’s writings were left undated (and in some cases unpublished).
Lewis is a local, modern-day virtuoso in his own right on the resonant, five-stringed instrument typically associated with folk and bluegrass. He is also a champion fiddle player. When he isn’t performing as a soloist, he’s part of rousing contemporary ensembles like the Corn Potato String Band and the Lovestruck Balladeers. But you may be asking by now: who’s Joe Morley?
“…Morley may have been the most prolific composer of the classic banjo era,” said Lewis. “And, much like (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart, his is the one name you will likely hear most often, and his music will be easy to find and commonly played. I think the music itself is simply delightful to hear and it’s fun to play; the story behind it is surprising to many people. ‘…Wait, there were people writing music for banjo in England a hundred years ago?…’ Yes. The story of the African origins of the American banjo is becoming more commonly known, but (Morley’s) music provides a missing piece of the puzzle of wondering just how the banjo went from plantation instrument to minstrel shows to bluegrass and beyond…”
Now, Lewis grew up in Detroit, a city known for a variety of genres like garage-rock, techno, and hip-hop. Still, to an extent, not so much traditional folk music or bluegrass, so it took him a while to finally encounter anyone playing banjo. But once he did, he was entranced! It is sort of a “the rest is history” situation from then on…
And what distinguishes Lewis from most other banjo or fiddle players, beyond his prowess and 20 years’ experience, is his proclivity toward alighting the stories and history behind the music. That includes musicians like Morley—who got into busking around Great Britain at the turn of the century. Lewis wants to share stories of people and places that have passed on and played host to the music he plays, as much as he wants to share the delights of the tunes.
Over the course of playing old-time music for a couple of decades, he started appreciating the variety of stories that came along with traditional tunes. “I started to realize how music means so much more when you know something about where it came from. When I met the people who introduced me to (classical banjo music)— mainly Curly Miller, Carole Anne Rose, and Greg Adams— they had this infectious enthusiasm. It was not just for the music itself, but for understanding the broader historical context that the music is a part of…” The aforementioned Adams works for the Smithsonian and contributed to the dense liner notes attached to this 24-song epic.
It can often feel like each pluck upon the string is a direct, but very delicate, tug upon the listener’s heartstring, galvanizing it with pure sunshine jubilation. The tempos are often swaying and waltzing, the tinny prattle of the banjo all but dances through each spry melody; it’s as though each piece evokes a spirit of open arms, a sort of welcoming-vibe. That’s part of it, said Lewis, when it comes to the elation he finds in playing old-time music…
“The thing that drew me in, and the thing that continues to excite and inspire me is the sense of community, of sharing and enjoying and spending time together. I would have never found this music if it weren’t for the people I met who more or less invited me into their world. I’m not interested in turning everyone in the world into a musician, but I do want everyone to be able to enjoy a feeling of being together with other people, if only for the duration of a concert.”
You can see and hear Lewis perform the songs of “Mozart of the Banjo” at the Ark in Ann Arbor on Thursday, January 16. Up until this album, most of what Lewis has worked on and recorded had been early country, folk, or even some early jazz— each involving improvisation. “Classic banjo music is more like much of classical music, in that it’s written down,” said Lewis. He added that it was a “thrill to sit down and read a piece, knowing that you’re recording exactly what someone else was doing a hundred years ago.”
Aaron Jonah Lewis Album Release Party
Mozart of the Banjo – the Joe Morley Project
$20. 7:30pm on Thursday, January 16.
The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor
theark.org | 734-761-1818