The Tenor Banjo (the four-stringed variety) is a great instrument. The fact that it has often overlooked tells a story of it's own. Like the tin-whistle, a Tenor Banjo can cut through a noisy pub and add a dimension to familiar tunes that few other instruments can. It babbles along - often slightly beneath a tune - changing the whole emphasis, the phrasing and everything.
It brings a rhythmic zest to traditional music that - in its absence - can make those tunes almost incomprehensible to newcomers. Listen to the more rambunctious Dubliners stuff and you may see what I mean.
In recent years, as many traditional bands have benefited from less rowdy, more attentive audiences, (and recording technology) they have preferred Bouzoukis and various variations on the Mandolin theme. Bit I'd argue that it is almost impossible to understand why traditional Irish music is worth listening to unless you've heard it played in a noisy pub by a decent Banjo and Whistle combination. A piano, side-drum and accordion accompaniment helps as well, of course.
Alongside The Dubliners' Barney McKenna, there was a fantastically talented London-based exponent of the Tenor Banjo. His name was Tom McAnimal (nee McManamon) and I first saw him playing in an excellent pub-band called Dingle Spike in the mid-1980s and later for a band called Storm. I used to help small venues book bands every now and then and I booked Dingle Spike a few times. They always tore the place up.
Tom also used to occasionally turn out in the Sunday sessions at Camden's Stags Head, and he was, allegedly, a favourite at The Favourite – London’s seminal venue for traditional music. He reached a wider audience, though, with Shane MacGowan and The Popes.
The first Popes LP - The Snake - was (IMHO) as good as almost anything Shane was involved in with the Pogues. It offered a glimpse of what The Pogues could have been without the more ostentatious productions that marked their later years. The songs on The Snake provide a continuation of MacGowan's better songs - particularly on Aisling, or The Donegal Express.
And The Song with No Name, in particular, stands on Tom's flowing, skipping banjo. It's a great song with a great tune played underneath it. Go here and have a listen if you like.
I only met him a few times. He was an inspirational musical figure. Everyone who saw him play wanted to have a few drinks with him. In recent years, a hard life had taken it's toll though.
I have, hanging on the wall in my spare room, a Tenor Banjo. I can pick out a few tunes, but that's about it. But I bought it with a dream. I wanted to play even a fraction as well as Tom McManamon could.
I don't suppose I ever will. It's a shame he's gone.
It says here that he will be buried with his Banjo on Friday.