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Urban Banjo

The Washington club scene makes way for the eccentric old-time music of Dave Landreth

"You have to listen to the chirps and clicks," Landreth says. "It's like an African language. I do subtle things with my hand; I don't care if anybody else hears it. Old-time music is like haiku. There are very confined rules, but you can say what you want. You have to get adventurous with language. These tunes are, like, 32 bars, only so many notes, rarely even a sixteenth note. How can you get the statement across in those confines? You don't mess with the texture or the integrity; you leave that in place. But what can you say within that? I've heard some players disastrously ruin old-time music in the name of adventure. So I lean more to staying true to the music than caring more about the adventure. If you stay true to the tune, you'll have an adventure."

For Landreth, a keeper of the old songs and an inventor of the heretofore unheard, the truest tradition in American music is the breaking of tradition. But he knows you can't break apart what you don't already own: "The beauty of music is where you go with it, without totally losing it. You stay true to the tune but go somewhere. Some of the old fiddlers would take an old standard and gussy it up, make it their own. I used to feel really bad that I would do that with tunes. I would run into purists, and they would say, 'You have to play it straight.' I'd listen and say, 'What is straight?' Every fiddler is playing different. Even two fiddlers getting together aren't playing alike. Nobody is playing alike. Nobody."

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