Upending Tradition

Professor plays the banjo in unexpected genre
Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Playing the banjo and teaching stats – where else but at ILR is that a natural combination?

Prompted to take up the instrument when his father gave him one, Professor John Bunge of ILR’s Department of Social Statistics was six when he started playing the banjo.

Bunge studied music theory as an undergraduate and statistics as a doctoral student. In the 1970s and 1980s, he played electric guitar as an indie rocker.

This fall, Bunge released All The Colors, a banjo CD that can be accessed through his website, which also features his “Music of Scott Joplin on the Banjo” CD and books about guitar and banjo music.  

The banjo is often associated with country and bluegrass, but Bunge has a different approach to the instrument.

“What I do is almost classical. It isn’t at all traditional banjo,” Bunge said.

By not focusing on country music, associated with the banjo for about 75 years, Bunge said he is playing the banjo closer to its roots.

“The banjo first came on the scene during the Civil War era and before that was brought by African slaves. So, there is a deep history that most people do not know anything about,” Bunge said.

“The banjo is now known for country music, but in the 19th century, people were playing Beethoven on banjos,” Bunge said.

“They also played jazz and ragtime. It was only after the mid-1930s that it became associated with country, so it was quite a recent development.”

Bunge plays with his wife, who is a pianist, but most of his work is solo.

“If you are doing exotic instrumental music, it is not easy to find people willing to invest in that,” Bunge said. “It is a lot of work because of difficult music and long rehearsals.”

For his next album, Bunge plans to record at Big Time Studios in Interlaken, N.Y.  He will play in the older "clawhammer" banjo style, which is different from the modern bluegrass style.

“Clawhammer is a particular right-hand style and the album will be original instrumental music of mine,” Bunge said.

“You can think of it as modern classical. Although, some reviewers said that it was very strange American roots music, but it has nothing to do with American roots music.”

Bunge is not alone as a banjo player in non-country genres.

“There’s a lot of jazz right now, modern music and there is a guy in Colorado that does Bartok, which is quite amazing and really good,” Bunge said, referring to a 20th century composer. “So, there is a really large variety. I am just a small little speck in the wide variety.”