Though this disc was released in 2002, I learned of its existence only recently. Since it came into my life, it's been practically impossible to remove it from the CD player.
Derroll Adams is little known to most American folk fans. Until I held the CD in hand, I knew four things about him. One, he was the deep-voiced guy who played banjo on some early Ramblin' Jack Elliott records; second, he shows up briefly in the celebrated Dylan documentary Don't Look Back; third, on his 1967 hippie-folk album Gift from a Flower to a Garden, Donovan dedicated a song, "Epistol to Derroll," to him; and fourth, he was an American who lived in Belgium for many years until his death. I learn much more from the fascinating, generous-spirited liner booklet that accompanies the disc. Adams died on February 6, 2000, in Antwerp. The royalties go to his surviving family.
Adams had many loyal and lasting friends on both sides of the ocean. Among them are the folk compadres captured here on this project, conceived and put together by Dutch folk-blues singer Hans Theessink, Arlo Guthrie, and Donovan. The result is music that is both delicate and powerful, simple and complex, warm but not sentimental, and never far from the soul of whatever matter it is addressing. The production is as bare-boned as it could get: acoustic guitars, banjo here and there, the occasional fiddle, the focus on the singing and the telling of the tale, with never a word or note more than necessary.
The songs include a few traditional standards from Adams's repertoire, but here they somehow sound larger than themselves. The performers have polished melody and phrasing so that the songs become newer and deeper, with meanings that you never would have imagined were there to find. It doesn't take you long to grasp that something's up. The first cut, the well-traveled "Columbus Stockade Blues," by Hans, Arlo, and Donovan, will grab your full attention in about the first three seconds. Hans and Arlo's reading of the Roy Acuff warhorse "Freight Train Blues" also surprises and delights, surely the first time it has ever been sung as if it were a rueful reflection on unhappy fate. Wizz Jones transforms the often-recorded Appalachian tragedy "Willie Moore" into something from the same British countryside from which the classic Child ballads sprang. Ramblin' Jack, who contributes three songs, sounds as good as he has in a long time. In a sprightly duet Arlo and Dolly Parton revive the Carter Family's "Dixie Darling." Somehow I doubt that Dolly had ever heard of Adams before Arlo told her about him, but it's nice to have her here anyway.
Donovan resurrects "Epistle," a sort of fairytale song which I remembered as on the twee side, but here it is unexpectedly moving. There's a trilogy of Adams originals, "The Mountain," "The Sky," and "The Valley," the first and third performed by Donovan, the second by Allan Taylor. These are stunning, precise, understated meditations on life, memory, landscape, travel, and music, brilliantly arranged and sung, floating on images that linger to wonder, disturb, and inspire long after the songs themselves have gone silent.
I have never heard a folk album that so seamlessly fused earthiness and spirituality. Banjoman is a thing of the rarest beauty, and as deep and lovely and joyous as a celebration of a folk hero could ever be.[Reference]