This feature originally appeared in Songlines #135 (March 2018) p72. Download a pdf here.
Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to the Guardian columnist and author about the banjo and the music that helped him uncover the instrument’s history
“One of the greatest things about me is that I’m one of Britain’s slowest banjo players,” Tim Dowling chuckles. The charming, self-deprecating humour he’s made a career of in his regular Guardian Weekend column slips into the conversation. For years the UK-based American journalist has been allowing readers a unique and comical peek into his day-to-day life. That humour also shines through in his longer published work, which includes the books How to be a Husband and The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club, a novel about a journalist who makes the mistake of Googling himself.
Fans of his Weekend column will already know that Dowling also happens to be a musician; even his band, Police Dog Hogan, aren’t immune to Dowling’s pen. How did he come to play the banjo? “I [once] briefly held a banjo,” he explains. “I held it and thought to myself ‘this is the solution to all my most intangible problems’.” Why? “I don’t know. I couldn’t play it…” There’s that humour again.
He received this problem-solving instrument as a gift on his 44th birthday. “I started messing around with it and then I realised I wasn’t going to get anywhere by myself. I bought that Pete Seeger book that everybody has, which I found very difficult to get on with it. It’s full of sheet music and discursive descriptions of what you’re meant to do…” he trails off for a moment. “And you realise that there are people on YouTube whose only passion in life is to post free banjo lessons.”
While he grappled with learning the instrument, a friend asked him to come along to a gig; the friend’s band, Police Dog Hogan, were performing their second-ever show at an open mic. “I went along thinking ‘what a good friend I am to go and see his boring music thing’.” He sat through the parade of 30-something singer-songwriters, and then “these four guys came on with bluegrass instruments and sang these harmonies, playing really weird songs they’d written themselves. I thought ‘they’re great!’ Then I thought ‘I want a piece of this’.”
It was after joining Police Dog Hogan in 2009 that Dowling realised he had some listening to catch up on. “I had not familiarised myself with a lot of banjo music. I was trying to play this instrument, but didn’t know where it came from. I started listening and suddenly realised: I don’t like a lot of this. It’s awful,” he laughs. “It’s really twangy and they’re playing way too fast. It’s so trebly and relentless.”
Determined to find something that suited his musical tastes, he went to a record shop and rifled through the country and folk bins. “I didn’t know what I was doing, and there were all these things I’d never seen before.” Among the records he uncovered a Smithsonian Folkways compilation, but they were perhaps not what he expected. “You listen to these kinds of compilations and hear the terrible tracks straight away. Everybody’s out of tune. You can hear the tape speed up and slow down, because it’s literally just field recordings.” Nonetheless, there were gems among the stones, including his first playlist choice, Ola Belle Reed’s ‘I’ve Endured’. “On that compilation, the Ola Belle Reed track completely sticks out; it’s absolutely compelling and absorbing.”
Smithsonian Folkways has proved to be invaluable in Dowling’s folk education; he discovered another of his playlist tracks – Dave Van Ronk’s ‘Duncan and Brady’ – thanks to one of their reissues. Also known as ‘Been on the Job Too Long’, it is a traditional American murder ballad. “It’s a really old folk song, but there’s something incredibly immediate about it. A lot of folk songs aren’t enduring, they’re very much of their time. You listen back to them and they’re interesting as artefacts.” Dowling is drawn to the timelessness of this tune. “In the first line he mentions an electric car… When was this written?” Dowling laughs. It helps that Van Ronk’s playing itself sounds ageless. “His guitar playing, and his voice is very modern. And it’s raw and insistent, not folky. He has a great bluesy voice.”
Another of his playlist tracks he discovered more organically. It was while gigging at Maverick Festival in Norfolk with Police Dog Hogan that Dowling stumbled across Canadian banjo player Old Man Luedecke. Dowling and the mandolin player decided to check him out as word was going around that he was good. “And when he came on, it was just him playing the banjo and a mandolin player, coincidently.” Dowling was immediately struck by Old Man Luedecke’s lyricism. “He was great – storytelling songs and quite funny. And everyone in my family likes him, which is extraordinary. It’s very hard to find something my children will not run out of the room if I put it on.”
In a classic Dowling move he drags his family back into the narrative; he lets his son take credit for discovering the Felice Brothers. “It’s something I can never imagine happening with my own dad: my son introduced me to this. He said ‘you need to listen to this.’ I said, ‘I will later.’ And, so I came to them not knowing anything about them except that he was recommending it.” The track he’s chosen here is ‘Lincoln Continental’ from their 2012 album God Bless You, Amigo. “The thing about the Felice Brothers, is that they are very infectious. Their songs have a sort of singalong quality, as well as being very dark. I mean, a lot of it is about people on the wrong side of the poverty line in rural America. But it’s quite upbeat and infectious as well.”
The final track – ‘Who Are You?’ by Scroobius Pip with Didier Kisala – almost sounds like a misfit among the folk of the rest of the playlist. ‘Who Are You?’ appeared on the British Red Cross concept album The Long Road (2016), which was based on real-life stories of asylum seekers and refugees, and whose profits went to helping support refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. Spoken-word poet Scroobius Pip wrote this song after meeting a refugee from the DRC, and it features Congolese musician Didier Kisala. So how did Dowling stumble across this one? “Didier is a friend of mine. I’ve been around endless campfires at people’s birthdays where he picks up the guitar and plays. It’s absolutely beautiful. He plays in this style that I can’t begin to figure out what’s going on. I’ve occasionally brought my banjo along and just tried to keep up…” he flashes me a look of defeat. It’s seems that self-deprecating humour will always be there.