Allison de Groot. Photo by Phil Cook.

Instrumental: Allison de Groot Could Live 100 Lifetimes Exploring the Banjo

The first time Allison de Groot heard clawhammer banjo—played by Leonard Podolak on an album by Winnipeg band The Duhks—she was completely mesmerized.

“It sounded so exciting—how much it drives the band,” de Groot says over the phone from Vancouver. “It also just felt really mysterious. I wanted to figure out what was making that sound.”

Eventually she did, but not before a year or so of bluegrass banjo lessons that made her realize she was searching for a different sound. Clawhammer—which de Groot explains is an African downstroke style—is distinctive from typical bluegrass picking, and once she’d figured it out, she turned to another Winnipeg banjo player named Daniel Koulak to teach her. They worked on American old-time tunes, but Koulak also taught her Canadian old-time songs from the traditions he plays fiddle in, like Québécois and Métis. Then someone mailed her a whole stack of old-time albums, which opened her up to the traditions of the southeastern United States. Taken by the tunes, she headed south that way, to Clifftop—also known as the Appalachian String Band Music Festival—in West Virginia to seek out other people to play with. 

It’s this huge grassy area where there are jams happening all over the place. Hundreds of jams going on at once. I had bought a little festival chair, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna join a jam.’ I was trying to be brave,” de Groot says. “And I set up my chair and sat down, and the chair was really bad quality, so one of the legs broke and I fell over and then the jam completely stopped. That was my first time trying to jam at Clifftop.”

Things have gone much better since, and this month, de Groot releases her latest record, Hurricane Clarice, named for Brazil’s favourite author, the stormy, unflinching Clarice Lispector. It’s her second with fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, and the pair’s chemistry is clear in both the warmth and intensity that seems to pulse in every song. It’s also a testament to the fact that, despite the mainstream music machine often considering traditional music to be of another era, it’s always remained a vital, relevant force. 

“The song we released, “The Banks of the Miramichi,” is a foreshadowing about trading the natural world for economic growth,” de Groot says. “And that song was written 120 years ago. Actually, probably more. Marie Hare would’ve sung it in the 1950s at a folk festival, while at the same time the Canadian government was spraying DDT all over the Miramichi River, and the ecosystem was just being completely destroyed. And then, fast forward to where we are and our climate emergency now. To be singing that song now, after it was written such a long time ago—it still feels completely relevant. I think those threads definitely connect the past to the future.”

So is there a big difference between clawhammer and bluegrass banjo?

For old-time, there are tons of different picking styles. I think things have kind of become really homogenized in terms of these really distinct lines like, ‘This is bluegrass, this is old-time.’ But that’s not really accurate. A lot of my favourite banjo players play clawhammer on a resonator banjo, which is now typically more associated with bluegrass and also just a lot of really unique styles. One of my favourite banjo players is named Matokie Slaughter, and she played a style that was kind of like clawhammer, but also had picking in it. So there’s a huge array of different styles that you can hear on recordings and that people still play, but yeah, it’s definitely kind of got a little bit homogenized and put into these boxes where like, ‘This is bluegrass, and this is old-time,’ and it was definitely not like that in the past. That’s kind of a newer categorization.

Was there any history of this kind of music in your family? Is your family musical?

On “Hurricane Clarice/Brushy Fork of John’s Creek,” there’s some Ukrainian that is spoken at the beginning, and that’s my great aunt Tilly. I asked her to say something about my Nana who passed away about 10 years ago. I didn’t have any audio recordings of her so I got my great aunt to just say something about my Nana on the recording. She just says, ‘Sophie was my sister. She was a good sister.’ Her husband Bill played fiddle, so he would play a lot of the old-time Canadian repertoire on fiddle. When I got into banjo we would play together. And my grandfather who passed away days after I was born played the banjo.

With traditional styles of music, when you’re dealing with such an established sound, what are the challenges when you branch out into making original compositions?

I think, for me, I learned this music really outside of a traditional community setting. So I think when I was learning, I just wanted to play with anybody who would be down to play with clawhammer banjo. That was really liberating in a lot of ways, because there was no preconceived notion about what the banjo should or shouldn’t do. So my experiences have often been just playing with people from all over. The Winnipeg Folk Festival being in Winnipeg, there were always so many bands coming in. And just getting to connect with musicians from around the world with performance experiences. So I think I’ve never been super worried about breaking rules or trying to fit into a certain category. I just kind of always found the joy of playing the banjo is experimenting and trying to find ways to put different music on the banjo.

What drew you to the William Seeders 12”?

So this banjo was actually Will Seeders’ personal banjo. And he lent it to me at a festival—I think it was maybe in 2018—and I borrowed it for a set and totally fell in love with it. It has a Dobson tone ring, which is really, really full and resonant, and it’s also maple so it has a bit of a brighter sound. I was playing in a lot of bands, and then kind of all of a sudden started doing a bunch of duo stuff with Tatiana Hargreaves, and also a percussive dancer Nick Gareiss. And I was looking for a fuller sound because it’s such a different role playing in a full band, especially with guitar, than it is just playing duo with fiddle or dance. So I was mostly just really excited about how rich and full the banjo sounded.

The banjo is so fundamental to traditional music, and I feel like—despite the fact that traditional music and the banjo have present day relevance—a lot of people have a tendency to think of traditional music as something that happened, or at least places us as listeners somewhere in centuries past. What kind of role do you think traditional music plays in the 21st century? 

To me, it does not feel like a stationary thing whatsoever. It feels like it’s always been people reflecting on their own communities, the time that they live in, and the music they’re exposed to. So that doesn’t seem any different to me than it would be, you know, 100 years ago. We just have different things to reflect on, and different things to talk about with the music now. And I think another misconception is that people don’t really play this music anymore, but there are so many. There are so many communities that have super vibrant, intergenerational old-time scenes with amazing musicians. And a lot of them aren’t professional musicians. There’s a handful of people like myself that do it for a living, but there are so many people that are passing this music to and from each other in communities that are just doing it locally and for the joy of it.

This is your second record with Tatiana. What about your styles of playing do you think makes your collaboration so fruitful?

I think it’s just our connection. We started playing together at festivals, and would always find each other and have these really, really long—like all night—jams. When we started performing together, it felt really special to do that on stage. That’s my favourite kind of performing—it just feels really spontaneous and interactive. And I think we also have really similar interests. We both like a lot of different styles of music, and writing original music. So there are all these threads that make it a perfect collaboration. And on this new album, something that Phil really encouraged us to do was capture our live energy. So when we were in the studio, we would just play sets—we would just play everything once like we would do at a concert, and then do that every day, so you could choose from about four different takes of each one. The album is unedited. It’s all just live. I think that is what I love so much about [playing with Tatiana]—it always just feels really in the moment to play together.

How has your relationship with the banjo evolved since you started playing?

It still feels just as exciting as it did the first day I picked it up. I think the evolution has just been gaining the skills to be able to express what I want to express. And that’s been a long journey starting from scratch on the banjo. But yeah, I have to say, I think it has changed—the situation around how I play, the context that I play in, in terms of collaborations and concerts and that kind of stuff. But I do feel like my relationship has sort of stayed the same. I still feel really excited about it. I feel like I could live 100 lifetimes and explore the banjo.