Deciphering Americana occasionally gets bogged down by the fact that people seek out whatever gets deemed authentic. Of course, the difference in one’s ability to play banjo has nothing to do with whether or not one was properly trained, or if the instrument was picked up over time and learned by watching and listening intently. There is a visceral manner of performance that some simply can’t capture, but that again might be as prevalent in music classes as it is in informal jams.
George Pegram, though, is generally viewed as an authentic banjo player – whatever that means. More importantly, he most likely perceived himself to be an American and attempted to relate that through his performances and the works he choose from this country’s song book.
Being present at Pearl Harbor during that infamous day left Pegram with only sight in one eye. His background in the military probably serves to coax those who write history to peg him as authentic, but it’s vastly more important that Pegram was born and raised in North Carolina, a state with its own unique strain of Americana.
There’s evident in his playing a touch of blues and despite the fact that more than a few times on his recordings the banjo player, accompanied by a string band, moves into bluegrass territory, most of the mid paced offerings set the man firmly in folk music territory.
Even if that were a difficult idea to support with facts, Pegram’s rendition of “John Henry” makes the case pretty easily. In fact, what the song does is to set Pegram in a line of singers that moves back to the days before recorded music, up through Blind Arvella Gray and past Bob Dylan. Surely, that wasn’t the intent of the song being recorded. And a bit of good old isolation over there on the coast probably had a bit to do with that. But Pegram’s playing, regardless of play and time, is pretty phenomenal.
On “Rueben,” the banjoist winds up with no accompaniment and launches into a banjo missive after a few lyrics worthy of Bascom Lamar Lunsford – who was the man to grant Pegram the chance at recording a bit.
The fact that Pegram’s first proper solo album didn’t appear until 1970, when he was through a significant portion of his life, is made even more interesting as it marks the first release by the then new Rounder Records. It was an auspicious beginning for not just the imprint, which still functions today, but also a performer the deserves a bit more attention than he’s garnered.