Henry (Hank)Sapoznik Interview
by Mark Rubin
Q:How did you first become interested in music, and the banjo in particular?
A: I grew up in a musical household, my father was a cantor and when I was about six I was pressed into service as an apprentice cantor. My father could not really read music well, and I learned early on to learn by ear. We were not an instrumental family, but I would study all the modes, scales and articulations by ear. This (cantorial training) was not exactly to my liking. I got away from music when I was about 13 when my voice was changing and my father let me stop.
Towards the middle sixties with the anti-war movement, I was introduced to folk music; Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, the old stuff and I got into it (the music) because of ...well course you know about the content of the music and the intention of it, but it was really mostly a way to meet girls.
Q: That's as honest an answer I've ever heard.
A: Unfortunately, I learned that it didn't
help! I learned that the size of my banjo was not any indicator of
my increase in social skills. In the folk scene the banjo was, as Pete
Seeger played it, kind of a secondary kind of thing. I just never actually
liked that style, there was something about it (that
But the thing that was almost like an omen for me was when I went to George W. Wingate High School in Brooklyn, which was the only high school, only school maybe that is shaped like a banjo. The school has the A building, long like a neck called the A building, attached to the C building, C for "circular." I'm just glad it wasn't shaped like an autoharp! I'd never have had a career in music.
My banjo teacher was this fellow who I was playing music with who would leave his banjo at my house so I could keep it tuned for him, and while it was there I would play it. I did some kind of weird hybrid style of playing that was neither here or there. I won't even dignify it by calling it a "style."
Q:That was because there was no one to learn from?
A: At that point, in the late sixties, there was a residue in the New York scene who were playing old-time music; John Burke had just left, Art Rosenbaum had moved, so had Alan Block, that earlier old-time/folk scene had just ended, so it was kind of a trick to find people who were teaching and playing the music. There was nobody really to use as a model. Though, I had gotten the first inkling of something that really spoke to me. Someone had just turned me onto Mike Seegers' "Old Time Country Music" Folkways record. An it was really revelatory, really great. Unfortunately I couldn't find a teacher, I could only find bluegrass teachers and I studied with a couple of people; Barry Kornfeld and Marc Horowitz.
Q: Nice Irish boys!
A: Yeah, right! Again, it sort of reflected that the New York Bluegrass and Old Time scene was pretty much Jewish! Anyway, so I learned Bluegrass at the beginning and my first real banjo was a Baldwin Ode, a huge resonated thing I was able to do bench presses with it. But the first real epiphany was I went to a concert in 1975; the Folklore Center in New York had been sponsoring great concerts: Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, this was before I was into it. They had a concert of Music from Round Peak and they had some of the people who had been collecting down there including this fiddle and banjo player named Bill Garbus. I went to the show and I saw Garbus playing clawhammer style, and I just said "My God, that's the best thing I ever heard." That's exactly, exactly the style I wanted to learn. But I didn't have the cohones to go up and introduce myself to him.
By chance, I went to The School of Fretted Instruments which was next to the Folklore Center and I said I want to learn banjo. They said OK, they have a teacher and they set me up with him. And who was it? It was Bill Garbus. He was great, it was this beautiful, straight ahead, Round Peak drop thumb style. Anyway, I took about a half dozen lessons with him working through John Burke's book. (Terrible book by the way, a real nightmare! I didn't realize it, but the measure lines weren't about anything other than where his sense of where the phrases were. Bill had to rewrite the measure lines up on the top line above the staff. I had tried to learn from books like the Pete Seeger book, and nothing helped. It turns out that my ear training from when I was kid was coming into practice.
After a half dozen lessons with Bill, and he said: "Well, that's it. All I can do is teach you tunes now" because I had really just been playing all the time. The first thing he says is get rid of the Mack truck banjo (the Ode) and get an old-time banjo. I did trade it in and got myself a Bacon FF3, a very simple banjo. I walked into Matt Uminoff's store and asked for the "lightest banjo you have." He pulled down this Bacon and it was just sweet instrument, I still play it, it's my working banjo. At that point there were a number of young players in New York, there was a band called the Wretched Refuse String Band, a loose aggregation of people who had been inspired to play by the Holy Modal Rounders, and I fell in with them. It was great, we would make a mantra out of "Flop Eared Mule." But again, it was all Jews. It was sort of an interesting contrast.
These were the days when County was putting out those wonderful reissues, and there seemed to be a real life blood in New York, the Bluegrass Club was putting on concerts and there were regular square dances, so it was a vibrant community of revivalists.
Q: When do you become aware of some of the unreconstructed players of this music?
A: I became aware of them through banjo player Ray Alden and Bill Garbus. Ray had been traveling to Round Peak and had been studying music with Fred Cockerham and Tommy Jarrell, and that would have seemed to be so beyond what I was capable of. I wanted nothing more than to go down south and meet these guys. In 1976, Ray offered to take me down to North Carolina with him; he would go down regularly and record Fred and Tommy and Ernest East and Kyle Creed and all of these guys, and he brought me down there. To see the music actually in context was such a thrill. And to meet these guys and have them sort of look at me, and look at Ray and us all, puzzled. "Why are you guys into this?" And Ray was, and still is, such a banjo stylist. He embodied the style so much, with spectacular devotion to (the concept).. it's about the old guys.
And that's it. I love the old guys. If it had just been playing music off of 78's, I don't think I would have stayed as passionately involved in the music. But when introduced to the old guys, it gave me kind of a visceral connection to the music, and I really owe Ray a lot for that. It gave me a foundation for the work I've done subsequently in klezmer music.
I feel bad for people who never made the pilgrimage, not that they can't play, but I feel if you don't meet the people who made the music, look into their eyes and have a tune with them, humanize the music, then the depth of what is being played is no deeper than the thickness of the record you learned it off of. I just think that it makes all the difference. I was really lucky, not that I made a big deal about it; I didn't end up doing any more field work I didn't find anyone else and I didn't "find" these old guys, there was already a well worn rut in the road leading to Tommy and Fred's homes.
Q: How was it cozying up to those guys and getting to study with them?
A: Partially because Ray had smoothed out the introduction, I mean, I didn't have to prove something, (well, I did have to prove I could sit and play,) but I learned a lot about the etiquette of doing fieldwork. It was all about them, I didn't bring any extra baggage. I didn't want to say "well, how come you never thought of playing the tune like this?" or "do you guys play this tune?," you know? As if I could bring them anything. No, I just kept my mouth shut and learned about when you take out the instrument and so forth. I mean, Southern Hospitality is not a misnomer, it really, really exists and in such a profound way that I was taken aback at how much they shared.
Being with Tommy was great, but I developed a really passionate relationship with Fred Cockerham. I loved his self deprecating humor and because Fred, unlike Tommy, had been a professional musician he had a much more savvy persona. he was such much more multifaceted, when he played banjo he had one persona, when he played fiddle, which was sort of Arthur Smith style, he had another musical persona, I really respected that.
We were equally exotic to one another. They to me; living in the model of "Mayberry RFD" and Tommy couldn't understand how these northern city boys would want to play their music. He was actually pretty sophisticated for a guy from around there, I mean he had been up north and met other kinds of people, he was no Aborigine, and he knew that we were, you know, Jews and all. We had this long relationship of trying to puzzle each other out. At one point he had been making breakfast, and I was a vegetarian at the time and he was making you know, bacon, eggs fried in bacon fat and probably the coffee had a bacon base. I wasn't eating any of this stuff and Tommy is pushing it on me, "Come on Hank! Eat up,' more like a Jewish mother than a southern fiddler. And I wasn't eating this stuff and at one point he goes "Come on Hank, what are you? A damn Jew?!!" I was so totally taken a back, I couldn't tell if I was more taken aback at the statement or the fact that he was understood with the laws of Kashrush (kosher food) enough to know what Jews eat. Well, that got us started. "Well yes, Tommy I AM a damn Jew." We started talking about it and t opened up this line of communication for which there was no context.
And he asked me "Don't your people got none of your own music?" within the framework of all these, you know, another of the really great musicians down there was this guy Dave Spilkia, played (the banjo and) fiddle, and no one could pronounce our names. Dave was "Dave Spy-koo", and I was "Hank Snow"; that was as close as they could get to Sapoznik, you know,. But once we were talking about it, I tucked it away in the back of my head, but at that point I had not discovered who was a Jewish Tommy Jarrell, or who was a Jewish Fred Cockerham, I had no frame of reference because there was nothing I could really sink my teeth into, that would be this corollary. But at that point all I wanted to do was play old time music and banjo specifically.
Also because of Tommy I had taken an interest in period urban banjo music. Tommy's father was in a band called DaCosta Wolts' Southern Broadcasters and the banjo player was named Frank Jenkins. Through Tommy I found out that Jenkins was a superb classical style banjoist, that is banjo played in the turn of the 19th century, fingerstyle. I was playing my Bacon banjo, and Tommy told me the story how Fred Bacon, the maker of the Bacon banjo, had barn stormed through the area playing in schoolhouses; selling his 78's and traveled around with his banjos. Frank Jenkins had heard him play at a schoolhouse, bought his records and learned to play these Fred Bacon solos, which are VERY hard to play. The fingerstyle, ragtime banjo which is -- I wouldn't say the predecessors of the bluegrass style it's very different -- but was was called "guitar style² banjo and opposed to frailing, and it really turned me on. It was ornate and gymnastic but also a totally, very stiff backed style with a repertoire from Sousa Marches to Joplin rags to "Flight of the Bumblebee", and it totally flipped me out. I started collecting early Fred Van Eps and Vess Ossman, the two big soloists of the period, and that got me into playing classic style banjo. I fell in with this other group of people.
Q: Like Clarke Buehling and Steve Moore?
A: That's right. they were members of the American Banjo Fraternity and the leading light of that organization was this guy Eli Kaufman, another M.O.T. (Member of the Tribe = Jewish.) I got really into that, in fact so much into it I produced a record of it with those guys. (Banjo Gems, Kicking Mule.) It's a sweet record.
A funny story about those records: When
it first came out, I had ordered 100 copies from Kicking Mule. They were
sent to the post office and I went to claim them, and the man behind the
counter there said ³I have some bad news for you. We had a break in here
and someone stole your box.² I was astonished! Who would want my box of
LPs? The man tells me ³well, I have a feeling they stole it because on
the box in big letters it said BANJO JEMS¹ and the thieves must have thought
it was jewels.² But the weird thing was that a few weeks later I got a
call from a guy who says ³ I was walking down some alley and I saw this
box of LPs. I picked it up and it was these banjo records and I tried to
sell em to stores but no one wanted to buy them. So I found your name
as the producer of this record and I though would you want them?²
Sure enough, he sold them back to me for like ten bucks, they was like
95 left. It only occurred to me later that this might have been the guy
who stole them from the post office in the first place.
Q: That certainly predates the current interest in that style.
A: Clarke for sure is one of the people very much involved with it (classic banjo.) At that time one of my roommates was Tony Trishka who I turned on to this music. At the time I was supporting myself by playing old time with the Delaware Water Gap and writing tabulature for Oak publications, and I tried to get Tony interested in that stuff. In fact, I did get him interested enough to get him to include it in his "Banjo Songbook", but now of course a lot more people recognize it. A proscribed a style as it is, it's a lot more freeing in a way, more so that it predates bluegrass, and is more like the Don Reno and Bill Keith styles unlike the Scruggs style where the right hand is roll oriented, where you're fitting four notes into a three fingered style, the classic style is all about the melody and you adapt the right hand to fit the structure of the melody. It's a freeing and forward looking banjo style.
I remember when I first got into the American Banjo Fraternity which champions this stuff, I had gotten a call from one of the old timers who started playing banjo in the Princeton banjo club in 1920. He says (in haughty voice) "Well, how did you become involved in classic banjo?" And I tell him about my interest in folk music and such and he says "Oh, I see you play on wire strings." As to say "I see, you play that Communist, Pete Seeger music.." You know.
Q: Did you use the same banjo as you did playing oldtime?
A: No, I had a banjo mentor, the late Benjamin Robin who was a collector and when he died he left me a Van Eps banjo. Van Eps developed banjos for acoustic recording where the instrument had a hole in the head and an inverted pot inside which would project the sound into the recording horn. Those things really cut, even with gut strings they have amazing projection. So for classic style I would play the Van Eps, and the Bacon for old time and Charlie Poole style as well.
Poole was really my main man because to me he was the bridge between the classic style and the bluegrass style. You can hear certain things in his playing that prefigure bluegrass. Because his right hand got all screwed up in a baseball accident, kinda like Django Reinhardt's hand injury in a Gypsy caravan fire, Poole's hand was broken so that only his index and middle fingers on the right hand worked. He played a very activist accompaniment style. The North Carolina Ramblers to me seemed more of a chamber ensemble, and that's one of the reasons I really liked it. Each one of the instruments had it's role, and it was just a beautiful texture. I got really into it and learned to play and I did think about getting into a baseball accident.
Each of these 5 string banjo styles were very different and required a retooling, a kind of unlearning of the other style in order to play. For me it was less about specific styles and more about the banjo. I just loved how diverse the instrument can be. I could play all these different styles and reflect these different periods in the development of the instrument. And to try and find an outlet for it. In 1974 The guitar/bass/banjo player in the Delaware Water Gap was this fellow Bob Carlin. He had been a Pete Seeger style banjo player when we had been working together in a summer camp and I turned him onto oldtime banjo, and he produced a wonderful LP for Kicking Mule called "Melodic Clawhammer Old Time Banjo." It's a great record, I'm still thrilled with it. Everything about it was seeing how to develop a more activist style of clawhammer.
At that point I was playing different melodic tunes; French Canadian, New England stuff, very note for note fiddle tunes. Inspired in a way by classic banjo where you would have banjo/piano duets. I liked the idea of banjo and piano, and that was a really fun period. One of the things about clawhammer banjo is that if you go back far enough, like to the minstrel style, you realize that the framework for clawhammer banjo, that "taters" shuffle is only one of a variety of rhythmic option that was available in the frailing or "stroke style" as they called it. The minstrel style banjo wasn't just in 2/4, they were playing in 6 and in 9. It was a far more developed and advanced style, so when in the 70's when I and Ken Perlman and other people started experimenting with jigs in clawhammer style, people would say "You can't do that that! That's not traditional!" But it was, and we had to sort of back into it. I didn't follow up on it, I was less dogmatic about it. I would say "some tunes fall easily in that style..some should not be played" and such. Bob and I recorded a couple of banjo duets, again something I liked. Banjo duets are much harder and less forgiving than fiddle duets. You can do a damn sight more with fiddles than with banjos, two banjos together slightly out of synch can really sound like cats and dogs. I was a nice experiment and it was fresh, but again there wasn't a big outlet for it. But then, it was new and exiting.
Q: That brings us to now. Here you are still playing banjo, but a wholly different kind with a different kind of repertoire. How did you get to Yiddish music and how does the banjo figure in that music.
A: That sort of takes us back to Tommy Jarrell. When Tommy put that bug in my ear about my people having their own music, I got to thinking, well, was there an equivalent to old time string band music in the Jewish world. I'd been collecting all these 78's; you know Georgia Yellowhammers, the Skilletlickers, the North Carolina Ramblers and Fred Van Eps and stuff. And at night I would start looking for Jewish records and I found like, "Abe Schwartz Orchestra" and "Naftule Branwein Orchestra," and I would "Nah, I don't want these over arranged orchestral records!" And I was passing them up, and it took me months to realize what I was missing. I was used to the Fruit Jar Drinkers and the Georgia Wildcats, bands with these really informal names. I see "Orchestra and I envision guys in tuxedos. But once I got those records I was like "Oh my God!." These Yiddish records predated the Charlie Poole records, all of the Eck Robertson records from the 20's, these came before then, some before WW1. They were brass bands for the most part, but if I listened past the horns, (I had been looking you know for like fiddle bands) I realized this was the stuff I was looking for.
I didn't begin to even think could any of these guys still be around? I mean, people like Dick Spottswood and Richard Nevis had been going down south for years before and found Mississippi John Hurt, and they found Dock Boggs and such. I was finding that in the oldtime field there was a lot of good people doing great work in that field. People who had done the Uncle Dave Macon bio-discography, they had done the Poole stuff and such. There was nothing for me to do there, nothing that really interested me. Inspired by the work they did I thought wouldn't it be great to take what these guys had done and apply it to a field that was basically my own music. And it was wide open, there was no klezmer reissue, there was no one doing oral histories.
Q: Well you had a way to get into that community, being from it.
A: My father in the Jewish music world was pretty well known as a European trained cantor. The old timers knew who he was. Both my parents survived the Holocaust, they came over in the early fifties, a year or two before I was born. So they embodied a very old fashioned approach to traditional music, in fact they didn't even consider it "traditional music". I assumed that everybody had parents who were constantly singing folk songs, every one has a father who wanders around the house humming the Rosh Hashana (High Holiday) liturgy, and was just part of the soundscape of my upbringing.
In a way I had to switch gears, I had to make myself a stranger to my own community in order to ask the same questions I had been asking Tommy and Fred and Kyle Creed. It was totally revelatory, it was the riddle of the Sphinx: "if you don't ask the right question, you're not gonna get the right answer". Once I asked my father, "Do you know anyone who still plays this music?" And he looks at me like "What do you mean do I know? Of course I know Dave Tarras and Rudy Tepel.." and he rattled off all this stuff. It was like "Excuse me, Dad: do you know anyone who still breathes?" It was a no brainer. My parent looked at me when I was playing oldtime music and all this stuff as if their son had said "Folks, I have some good news for you. I'm a circus geek!" They didn't know where I went wrong. Once I said I was really interested in this Yiddish music they were like " well, that's still not great, but at least it's something we can understand." I slowly got into doing the same kind of field work that I had been interested in oldtime music except now I knew all the moves. No one was gonna ask me "Here, Hank you wanna porkchop?" I didn't have to learn a new language.
I spent the first few years just doing field work, I didn't feel right about immediately learning to play the music. I decided to listen to to it. I was collecting 78's. Then it was really easy to find the klezmer 78's because I would go to the 78 shows and the dealers would be trading in jazz and classical discs they would use the ethnic records for packing. So these green label Columbias, as opposed to the black labels where you would find country music for instance, it was the green labels with the weird writing. They didn't consider them worth anything, so I would be ale to pick up Yiddish records for a quarter. It all sounded really familiar, the scratches and the hisses and the pops on these acoustic records sounded exactly like the country music records. Although I had never heard a Naftule Brandwein record, it still sounded incredibly familiar.
When I decided to start playing this music, I formed Kapelye in 1979 and I wanted to play on an instrument that was commensurate with continuity. Hence, I decide to learn the fiddle. Well, it was a noble effort. It was hard, and nothing against the demands of oldtime fiddle, but Yiddish style fiddle is far more difficult. You have to use more finger board, a lot more bow, it reflects a lot more classical demands. You can play oldtime fiddle and never worry about going out of first position. You can't do that in Yiddish music. And the problem was that learning to play fiddle as you play professionally is tantamount to building a bridge as you're trying to cross it. It's really stupid, it was really really stupid.
Q: Had you thought about integrating all the banjo skills that you had developed into this music? Or was that not appropriate?
A: At that point no, I was approaching the music in a very orthodox, unbending manner. I wanted to play an instrument that had an historical precedent in the genre. Once I realized that I was not serving the music to the best of my ability, that my fiddling required a far longer incubation period than I could give it as a working musician, I decided to let the fiddle go, and go to the banjo and adapt. There was no way I was gonna go and work out klezmer tunes in clawhammer style. I once did it as a joke: I had been teaching for Jay Unger, he had a fiddle and dance camp, and at one point I had worked out "Freylekhs fun der Khupe" in clawhammer style, but it was a joke. There is no justification for playing klezmer music in clawhammer style. Clawhammer is about context: I wouldn't work out "Maple Leaf Rag" in that style, that had already been defined in classic style. It would have been a freak show.
As it turns out, there was an historic precedent for klezmer dance bands of the 20's using tenor banjo. The influence of American popular culture on ethnic music resulted in an adaptation of certain instruments like slide trombone and tenor banjo were part of the front lines of the Yiddish dance bands of the 20's.
The first time I heard a banjo on an electrically recorded Abe Schwartz 78 (Di Rayze Nukh Amerika,) I recognized it and said "Oh my God!" I decided that I could do that. First, I took my Bacon and played it plectrum style with the 5th string removed and the banjo tuned it to single C and played ala Eddy Peabody. I recorded the second Kapelye record that way ("Levine and his Flying Machine" Flying Fish.) I didn't like it.
There was something about the scale of the plectrum banjo that was too floppy, it didn't have the punch that I really wanted the instrument to have. Because the scale was so long, playing melody had no pop. So I decided to switch to tenor banjo. There really is no relationship between the 5 string and the tenor at all, what I mean is, it really is another instrument. I had to unlearn five string playing.
Q: What instrument did you pick up?
A: Well, I went through several. I first bought a Vega Tubaphone tenor which was nice but didn't have the warmth, and it was really really heavy. Dan Peck, a good friend of mine and former banjo student, had a Little Wonder and I swapped him for my Tubaphone. It was a revelation. The tiny short scale neck, no tone ring, no resonator and the thing has real cut, and it had pop. I learned to play tenor and developed a style that was partially drawn from listening to the old records but also I was listening to drummers and get those military style press rolls and such on the loose right hand. Much like when I was studying clawhammer, I didn't listen to banjo players as such, when I would listen to fiddlers and hammer dulcimer players to get the nice crisp attack on the melody. On the old Yiddish records the banjo players play in a Johnny St. Cyr style, straight fours and off beats. Instead what I was doing was adapting the drummers style, but also be listening to an older style of Yiddish music that used the cimbolam or tsimbl (an east European hammered dulcimer) to get those appegiated attacks. Suddenly I found myself developing a style that suited our band. Kapelye was a small band, we had clarinet, accordion, tuba, fiddle and tenor banjo. So the banjo I saw having a partial drum role and little harmonic, I like a lot of territory to cover. I realized that I was inventing a style that really had no precedent.
Q: You recorded a "doina" on banjo as well.
A: I actually abused my role as band leader and recorded a banjo doina (an ornate, freeform improvisation) on the banjo inspired by, but no where as articulate as, cimbolam player Joseph Moskowitz. It was really exiting to me. As exiting as playing "Smiler Rag" on the Banjo Gems disc, or any of these things were I was able to create a link to an old repertoire but find a new way to adapt it. I don't know how many banjo players play X number of banjo styles as well as tenor. Tenor players seem to be in the tenor world and 5 stringers in their world. I like the banjo, you know. So it was really exiting to represent both instruments. But I never really learned other styles, you know, New Orleans style or anything. I taught myself tenor, and that's what I play basically. Amazingly, there are other people in the klezmer scene who have picked up tenor.
I really dislike the sound of guitar in klezmer bands. I can't really say why besides just the obvious, that there's no historic precedent for it. It just ends up sounding like this folkie "strumma strumma strum." But there's something about the tenor banjo that, when played just so, has this real dynamic, it's great ,it just works.
Q: Do you still play in your other guises?
A: I've gotten back into playing oldtime music. A few years ago I started getting calls to play at Civil War re-enatcments. And this was a nice way to go and relearn a lot of the minstrel style music that I had really loved 20 years ago when there was no interest in it.
Q: Do you play a, pardon the pun, "kosher" Civil War era instrument?
A: No, no. It's much easier now to find a good minstrel style banjo. I would probably like to get one now, not there is any outlet for it. There's a lot of really good makers and players in that style now. Joe Ayers is probably the best player who embodies the style, even though he plays on contemporary instrument. It's just beautiful the way he plays. I got back into playing oldtime music and, partially because I'm not doing it professionally, I've gotten totally into the music again. I had one of the great thrills of my life last summer. I was at a festival in Tennessee playing klezmer music and I had the great good fortune to meet and play music with fiddler Bruce Green. It was one of the most amazing, and totally musical things I've done in a long time. I would love to play more with him. I've gotten back into playing and again, as it's about the music and it's really very freeing not to have any gigs. That way I can just play the tunes and enjoy it on it on their own terms. My three favorite fiddlers live all over the map: Bruce Green down in Tennessee, Suzy Thompson out in California and Liz Slade in my neck of the woods in upstate New York. Sadly, I don't see any of them enough to play with them regularly.
I don't have much outlet for playing classic style anymore, I haven't gone to an American Banjo Fraternity Rally in 20 years. But that kind of stuff is different, you can't just sit around and take out this copy of "Footlight Favorite" and jam. The thing I like about oldtime and Yiddish music is that it's social music. People get together and play. It's really vibrant.
It's real easy to copy. There's this guy in New York who's like one of the great embodiers of 78's, in fact he includes the mistakes. I don't really think that's the thing. I think the thing is to internalize it and embody it without copying it, to like really bring it to the next level. That's really the secret to hanging out with the old records and the old players.
"Kapelye On the Air" Shanachie