Rewriting the Book on Banjo

Bill Keith '61 As a student at Amherst, the late Bill Keith ’61 invented a melodic picking technique that forever changed the musical landscape.

This fall, banjo pioneer Bill Keith ’61 traveled to Raleigh, N.C., to be inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame. Three weeks later, on Oct. 23, Keith died of cancer at home in Woodstock, N.Y.

“It took a great eff ort for Bill to go down there for the event,” says longtime pal and musical partner Jim Rooney ’60, “and he thoroughly enjoyed himself. When he came home, he felt that he’d done what he set out to do.”

What Keith did was invent a unique picking style that transformed the five-string banjo from a largely percussive instrument used for accompaniment into one that could carry the melody. His innovative technique linked the rolling, three-finger style of seminal bluegrass banjoist Earl Scruggs to the modern-day approach of “newgrass” stars like Béla Fleck and Tony Trischka. “Bill took the banjo from a novelty instrument to a really musical instrument,” Rooney says.

And it all started at Amherst, when Keith arrived as a freshman to study French literature. He spent most of that first year holed up with his banjo and an instructional book by folk legend Pete Seeger. When he’d finished devouring the book, he figured out how to play the standard fiddle tune “Devil’s Dream” note for note on the banjo.

From there, Keith moved on to Bach, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, using his newly minted style to turn standard melodies into banjo masterpieces. He joined forces with Rooney, and the duo was soon playing gigs around campus and in small Boston venues like the YMCA.

Their big break came a couple of years later when folk stalwart Manny Greenhill—the agent who represented Bob Dylan and Joan Baez—encouraged Keith and Rooney to hook up with Rick Lee ’63 and Jesse Auerbach ’62, as well as budding UMass folkies Taj Mahal and Buff y Sainte-Marie—to form the Pioneer Valley Folksong Society. “Manny wanted to put [celebrated singer] Odetta on stage at UMass,” Rooney says, “and he needed a campus organization to make that happen. When he heard Bill and me play, he offered us our first professional gig at the Ballad Room in Boston.”

Keith and Rooney went on to play regularly at Cambridge’s Club 47 (now Club Passim), performed with Baez at Dartmouth’s winter carnival and recorded the album Livin’ on the Mountain (with Joe Val, Herb Applin and Fritz Richmond) for Prestige Records in 1962. And just two years after graduating, Keith became the banjo player for the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe.

In the 50 years that followed, Keith continued to break new ground, co-founding the Beacon Banjo Co., recording albums in a wide range of genres, touring with top-flight performers and quietly infiltrating the New York studio scene, appearing on recordings by Judy Collins, Jonathan Edwards and many others.

“Bill influenced a whole generation of pickers,” says Rooney, “here in the U.S., in Europe and in Japan. He put out a number of instructional tapes and books, but more than anything else it was his commitment to the music and his ability to connect with people that set him apart.”