Derroll Adams: Crossing Over

Gérard De Smaele*

The American banjo player and singer, Derroll Adams (1925-2000) spent more than half his life in Europe, a good part of it in England, the major part of it in Belgium where he settled down in the sixties. In the reconstruction of Europe following World War Two, the countries became the scene of technological and intellectual revolutions. For many young people America became a model!

For a number of artists, to meet Derroll Adams (and also the team he formed with his partner Jack Elliott) has been a true fascination. It was often their first contact with the American folk music and sometimes a real important experience in their live. In addition, via Jack he had also know Woody Guthrie in person.

After the war, England became the host country of many American personalities such as Alan Lomax, Peggy Seeger, Tom Paley and Ralph Rinzler (who was also a student in Paris). Later in the sixties, prominent banjo players and figures of the Old Time music scene have toured throughout the Continent. Mike Seeger with the NLCR, Roscoe Holcomb, Cousin Emmy, and Ralph Stanley appeared in folk clubs across Europe. In the seventies Art Rosenbaum, Bob Carlin, the Red Clay Ramblers and many others also played these clubs. Bill Keith, Tonny Trischka, Béla Fleck, Joe Val, and Del McCoury e.g., often visited Europe to the delight of the growing number of fans of Bluegrass music. Oak Publications were available in music stores. Folkways records were also distributed, and were sold in France, with liner notes in French, under the label "Le Chant du Monde."

In general, the folk revival shaped a new generation of folk artists and inspired new musical genres. If the folk boom of the sixties has been partially forgotten by the younger generation, yet the traces these artists left behind are still visible and vibrant. See for example the Swiss Jens Krüger, the Italian Rafe Stefanini, the Tchek Prucha Banjo Company and many more folk music lovers in Europe. The name of Derroll Adams stands out as one of the most important of these pioneers of the European Folk Revival. In partial retirement from the music circuit since the end of the Eighties, he was celebrated in Kortrijk, Belgium in 1990 and annually maintained himself as an important guest of the Tønder Folk Festival in Denmark. In July 2001, he was the posthumous star of the Brosella Folk Festival ( in Brussels, Belgium, and an album with his best friends' contributions was released in 2002. In 2005, Patrick Ferryn completed his tribute to Derroll with a 90 minutes documentary film (“Derroll Adams: I Was Born in Portland Town”).

Those who have known Derroll Adams and then, sooner or later, picked up and read the biography of Charlie Poole, Rambling Blues by Kinney Rorrer, will have found similarities between the two personalities. Both were banjo players and singers. Both gave a substantial part of their lives to their music; they loved to ramble, to drink strong liquor, and to meet people. If Charlie Poole died of drinking at an early age, it must be said that it is a miracle that Derroll survived his drinking ordeal that ended in a horrible delirium tremens in 1969.

Both men made a strong impression on the people they met. What it is written about Poole also describes one of the most obvious characteristics of Derroll. "... it seems that everyone who ever saw him, even if for only a few minutes, has a story to tell about him...".2 We discretely add that such a book about Derroll should be written and published.

In other words, Derroll Adams is a legend. Even for his closest friends he was larger than life. Your first contact with him was the birth of a dream, and his legend became a new reality, as you became a part of his artistic work. But Derroll was also a human being, like you and me, and that aspect of his life is also the subject of endless discussions. Why did he walk out on wives and children? drink so much whisky? charm so many girls ? There were episodes in his life in which he definitely displayed socially unacceptable behavior, yet the legend has been stronger, and in the endless conversations his friends are still having today, you'll hear stories about a fascinating and very unconventional man. Many found comfort in his quiet, low voice and sense of humor; others a sense of protection and infinite freedom. He sang songs and told stories to his audiences, and at the same time he gave the impression that he was listening to you. His authenticity as a human being and his refusal to conform often cast his professional career in obscurity. Derroll is known to have played thousands of small folk clubs and street corners where he always took time to speak with people, to listen to their tales, and to share the stories of his own exceptional, eventful life.

His life had an enormous influence on the way he approached and interpreted his songs. He was always experimenting with people, trying to find a path beyond the conventional, and he was certainly subversive when he spoke. He was a traditional musician dedicated to breaking rules and crossing over borders.

Banjo style

Derroll Adams had no formal musical education or training. At the time he took up the banjo - in Portland - he had no contact with other banjo players. Consequently he was entirely self-taught. He once said that the younger generation, unlike himself, had the opportunity to hear all the recordings and study the printed methods, none of which were available during the Depression years or even immediately after World War Two.

Derroll's banjo style is fundamentally simple and personal. He always told other musicians that his style was easy to learn. It must be said, at once, that he used his banjo mostly to accompany his voice. We find strong interactions between his banjo and his voice. He never played instrumentals, and thus must be considered primarily a singer.

His style evolved with time, and after the first energetic recordings he made with Jack Elliott, his style slowly shifted to a more sober, softer, and quieter manner. For example, listen to his late version of Pretty Saro (65th Birthday Concert – see discography). It must said here that he never played with a fiddler. His interpretation of traditional songs was elevated, attained perfection, and was often intricate and nearly inimitable. But he always tried to make that complexity unapparent. See his “Portland Town LP”.

As a student in Portland, after the war, he would go to the public library and listen to the new recordings issued by the Library of Congress. In this way he came into contact with Bascom Lamar Lunsford. On the radio he was listening to the Grand Ole Opry: the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Jimmy Rodgers, and banjo players like Uncle Dave Macon. He never met Lunsford personally, but Pete Seeger and his friends, Jack Elliott and Guy Carawan, had. At the beginning Derroll sounded a bit like Lunsford (compare their two versions of Mister Garfield), but it is unlikely that Derroll knew anything about Lunsford’s technique as it was explained later in Seeger's instruction book.

Derroll was mainly an up picker. He used two forms of double thumbing (index finger and thumb leader) to create a melody line. In this respect he will remind you of Wade Mainer. He also brushed the strings with his middle finger. All of this is well-within the tradition of the classic, old time banjo style, but Derroll often combined that middle finger brush with a hammer-on/plucking-off action of the left hand, frequently moving his left index or middle-finger between two strings and acting on them simultaneously. This method, characteristic of his style, allowed him to play very softly, giving the impression that he only caressed the strings. It was this style that impressed young Donovan (see his notes on Derroll's CD "Songs of the Banjo Man").

Derroll did not own expensive or loud instruments. He always played an open-back banjo, using a rag under the bridge to eliminate high harmonics. On his “Portland Town” LP he played an English Windsor banjo (New Windsor 1905) with a clad-metal/wood resonator such as can be found on the S.S. Stewart models from 1890. Although this banjo, which he picked up at the Clifford Essex shop in London, had been designed for classic use, Derroll did not know about that style of playing. He worked about fifteen years with that Windsor, and in the seventies the German instrument maker, Framus, made a Derroll Adams model fitted to Derroll's specifications : longer neck, rounded-off fretboard, deep pot, arch-top style tone ring and Scruggs peg tuners. He received three of these banjos from Framus - he gave one of them to his friend, Finbar Furey - and the model sold all over Europe in the 1970s. It certainly meant that Derroll was consider to be the banjo player in Europe.

Derroll preferred Black and Diamond strings and at the beginning (on the Early Sessions and Italian Recordings) he used the G tuning with a capo, almost exclusively. Later he adopted other tunings and changed, for example, the tuning of his famous Muleskinner Blues ( G / C ). He frequently used the full C tuning, with the first string tuned to E, and consequently he frequently broke that string in performance. He also liked the G minor tuning (2nd string in Bb) and sometimes the "Sawmill" (2nd string in C).

His hands were large and in addition to his tattoos he had long, hard nails which he carefully shaped and sanded with a match box. This helped him to produce a precise sound. He never used fingers picks, and although he loved Kyle Creed's style of playing, he did not know that Creed used a self-made reverse metal pick (a thimble) for his clawhammer style. Expatriated Derroll knew about good banjo players like Creed because he also traded at the Collett and Dobbel stores in London.

Derroll's aim was to produce, through perfect execution, a conscious simplicity. He worked hard to attain this simplicity. If his style is apparently simple, he has mastered it to an inimitable degree. Some songs on his “Portland Town” LP are true tour de force. The manner in which he hides the rhythmic complexities reminds one of asymmetrical jugglers doing different things with different parts of their bodies yet displaying a great sense of freedom. (Incidentally, his father was a juggler.) Nowadays a lot of musicians try to imitate each other. This is probably the primary danger of schools and banjo methods. Derroll, on the other hand, was a true old time banjo player with a distinctive style - like all the great names who played the old time banjo.

It is more than likely that if Derroll had not left America, if he had been on stage with Jack Elliott in New York in the sixties, his style would have been adopted by many banjo players and that he would have inspired a younger generation of musicians as he did in Europe.

  1. Gerard De Smaele (b. 1951, Belgian banjo player, who met Derroll Adams ca. 1969)

  2. Kinney Rorrer, Rambling Blues, the Life and Songs of Charlie Poole. Old Time Music. London, 1982, p.104

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