Words by Doug DeLoach
A history lesson celebrating a much-maligned instrument
Lotus Wight is the nom du guerre of Toronto native Sam Allison, a songster, folklorist, poet, fiddler, banjo historian and instrument creator who also makes up one-third of the ragtime trio Sheesham & Lotus & ‘Son. Ode to the Banjo traces the centuries-old history of the instrument both literally, in the form of a 23-stanza poem penned by Wight/Allison (included in the notes), and musically within the album’s 13 tracks, most of which are interpretations of traditional American folk and blues songs.
Wight employs a cornucopia of authentic and playfully derivative instruments including a fretless gourd banjo, four-string banjo-mandolin, and contemporary five-string clawhammer banjo. On ‘Roustabout’, a composition by 19th-century Virginia banjoist Josh Thomas, popularised in the 60s by the late Mike Seeger, Wight sings the deeply melancholic lyrics while accompanying himself to haunting effect on the kalimba (African thumb piano). On ‘Skillet’ and ‘Cluck Old Hen’, Wight plays a homemade contraption called a Contrabass Harmoniphoneum, which must be heard to be comprehended. Wight’s imaginative take on traditional repertoire makes for extraordinarily compelling listening, while delivering a valuable history lesson about Americana’s most iconic musical instrument.