Banjo player Derroll Adams quietly influenced every musician he came in contact with during his life, and his hushed, stilled playing (he was an up-picker on the banjo, didn't frail, and certainly wasn't bluegrass) and the handful of songs he wrote all carry a sort of gentle, hard-earned wisdom. He was a friend to some pretty famous people in the nascent beat/folk scene of the early 1950s, including Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Cisco Houston and Odetta. Later, after he had relocated to Europe, he mentored and played with countless more folk musicians, including Donovan (Adams is the banjo man with the tattooed hands in Donovan's "Epistle to Derroll") and Alex Campbell, and he influenced scores more as the Folk Revival caught on in the early 1960s. He recorded a couple of wonderful albums with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and was a pretty fair painter, too. By either design or instinct he kept his distance from the commercial folk and pop scenes, and when he died in his adopted Belgium at the age of 75 in February of 2000, his passing hardly caused a stir in the American music press.
Derroll Adams was beloved by those who knew him however, and Banjoman: A Tribute to Derroll Adams is a wonderful tribute to his life and legacy. Covering some of his original songs, plus the traditional folk songs that Adams made his own, the musicians working on this tribute project obviously did it as an expression of love and respect, and track after track unfolds with a calm, simple elegance. Arlo Guthrie covers what is perhaps Adams' best and most well known song, the powerfully spare "Portland Town," and the compression and sweep of the minimal lyrics is an exercise in how to write a song and tell a story without wasting a single word or note. Ramblin' Jack Elliott turns in a sturdy version of "The Cuckoo," the type of song he and Adams did so well together as a duo in the late 1950s. Donovan's "Epistle to Derroll" is here, as well as Allan Taylor's poignant "Banjo Man," which captures Adams' spirit as clearly as a photograph. The packaging of Banjoman is gorgeous, with an engaging 60 page booklet that tells the story of Adams' life with honesty and good humor, and after reading the booklet and listening to the music, you'll feel that you've spent an evening with a dear friend, and that, folks, is what a tribute album ought to do. Simply a wonderful set.