Roger Sprung

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The way he plays the banjo, his last name might describe the condition his wrist might end up in after a typical gig. Roger Sprung is proud to be part of a small New York-born fraternity of banjoists,…
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The way he plays the banjo, his last name might describe the condition his wrist might end up in after a typical gig. Roger Sprung is proud to be part of a small New York-born fraternity of banjoists, most likely to separate them from the horde that frail and hail from the Appalachian area. At the same time, Sprung's roots in the New York City music scene go way down into the buried depths of the folk music scene, and a progressive acoustic trio that was something like a version of Kingston Trio, but five years earlier. Another example of this artist's innovative musical visions would be his influence on banjo wonder dude Béla Fleck. Fleck studied with Tony Trischka, another member of the New York banjo fraternity. While Trischka is often mentioned as a strong influence on Fleck, the idea of a radically versatile repertoire, straying far and wide from the bluegrass songbook, and in fact, likely to contain just about anything under the sun, was really more Sprung's idea. He is a big part of the spring from which bluegrass pickers have been allowed to drink, those who are interested anyway, inspiring bluegrass versions of "Jingle Bells," the entire Dark Side of the Moon album, the disco tune "Shine," the rap tune "Raise Up," and so on. Perhaps "and so on" dilutes the full wonder of everywhere Sprung feels bluegrass should go; a gig of one of his '90s gigs mentions the band playing a "mystery song that turned out to be the commercial for Motel 6"! Mandolinist Arnie Solomon has said he cherishes his years playing with Sprung most of all for the sheer number and diversity of musical styles the players were required to learn. Sprung seems to like the idea of people learning; no matter what has gone on in his 50-year musical career, he has always taught banjo and several other instruments. He created his own instruction method for the banjo and well as inventing a tuning peg system involving six pegs, rather than five. While many banjoists reject such a move outright, feeling it robs the banjo of its distinct identity in the world of tuning peg inventory, massing it together with the already overrated guitar, it has to be admitted that just coming up with the idea puts Sprung in the class of banjo "tinkerers" such as Bill Keith and Gene Parsons.

If there is anything that would put him in the class of hit record makers, it would be the folk music incident, herein known as the Folksay Group recording sessions. The main force behind the group was Erik Darling, who had moved to New York as a teenager in 1950, almost immediately getting drawn into the cool folkie scene. In 1953 he met Bob Carey, an 18-year-old Brooklyn college student who was influenced by the black folk-blues artist Josh White. Sprung fell in with these two involving a recording project for the Stinson label, which would combine new sides with old recordings of artists such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Their trio, strictly from ad hoc, came up with four numbers to record, including a favorite of the Washington Square hangout crowd, "Tom Dooley." These recordings were considered the first creations of any prominence by a contemporary folk group in this period. When two of the group's songs, "Bay of Mexico" and the aforementioned "Tom Dooley" appeared five years later on the Kingston Trio's Capitol debut album, goatees were tweaked. Kingston Trio leader Dave Guard let down his last name in order to admit to John Cohen of the archival New Lost City Ramblers that the Kingston Trio actually got the idea for their version of "Tom Dooley" from the Sprung group. Nonetheless, it was North Carolinian Frank Prophet who sued the popular group over authorship of the song, buying himself a farm in the process.

The folk scene in New York of this time must have been exciting even without having a hit. Sprung also recorded with the Shanty Boys, leaving behind vinyl artifacts that commonly appear bedecked with $50 price stickers. The banjoist picked up fiddle, gigged with Doc Watson, jammed frequently, and might have kept a character actor busy if a film was being made, even if it was just about hovering in the background. "I haunted Gerde's for a while," Karl Eklund admits in his Life in Folk Music, where Sprung is already hanging out on the very first page. Eklund ". . . was there when Jean Ritchie made her first appearance in a 'bar', along with Doc Watson and Roger Sprung." Having grown out of the folk scene by the early '60s, Sprung began to consider himself a progressive banjoist. Field trips to bluegrass gatherings in North Carolina with his friends became an exciting part of his lifestyle, the sampling of moonshine apparently as important, or more, than the jamming. He formed a successful and enduring collaboration with flatpicker Hal Wylie which has lasted more than 25 years. They appear together quite often under the name of Roger Sprung, Hal Wylie & the Progressive Bluegrassers, the dazzling group sometimes numbering up to seven players.