Published October 3, 2004

Joe Ayers has literally written the history books regarding the development of the banjo in America. Joe, who lives in an eighteenth-century house in the gently rolling hills of rural Fluvanna County, is a banjoist revered for his deeply soulful playing style and his tireless dedication to historical accuracy. Joe’s rediscovery of a series of mid-nineteenth-century banjo instructional books shook up the banjo world and has provided the most accurate account of the true sound of the early banjo, particularly the down-stroke “classic banjo style” of the Virginia Tidewater. This style, deeply rooted in Africa, preceded the more familiar “clawhammer” style of the Appalachian region. Joe has introduced this classic style to his young apprentice, Patrick Hester. Through his apprenticeship with Joe, Patrick, a dedicated Civil War re-enactor, has helped to pass along this nearly forgotten early banjo method.

I was at a reenactment this past weekend and the band didn’t show up. I really didn’t feel ready to play these songs for other people yet, especially there ’cause those folks don’t miss a thing. I mean, if it doesn’t sound just like the sixties—and I mean the 1860s—they’re going to let you know. We have Joe to thank for that. Before him, they played all kinds of music at these things. I don’t think anyone knew what the music from this period really sounded like. But now they know. So, I strapped on the banjo and gave it a try. And Joe was kind of there on my shoulder. I could hear him saying “Relax Patrick, relax. Remember your positioning.”
-Patrick Hester


Learning Experience

Virginia History in Song

What can songs teach us about history?