THE 1972 John Boorman-directed movie Deliverance is one probably one of the most hard-hitting on the subject of the battle between man and nature.
The lead actors Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox struggled with the elements and risked life and limb canoeing down the Chatantooga River. The two most memorable scenes are the graphic rape of Ned Beatty’s character by mountain men and the banjo duel between two hillbillies near the beginning that sets the tone for what is to unfold.
The man responsible for the ‘duelling banjos’ is New York music veteran Eric Weissberg. On Wednesday October 29 at 9pm he will play a concert at The Crane Bar, Sea Road, where he will be joined by Jim Rooney, Rick Epping, and Arty McGlynn.
In a career stretching across four decades Weissberg has been in the studio with Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Art Garfunkel, Talking Heads, and John Denver. From an early age he showed a prodigious musical talent and was encouraged by one of the legends of the Greenwich Village folk scene.
“It really started with Pete Seeger,” Weissberg tells me on the phone from his home in Woodstock, New York. “My parents sent me to a progressive small school in Greenwich Village called The Little Red Schoolhouse and Pete used to come and sing for us a couple of times a year.
“We also had a wonderful music teacher from Jamaica who played guitar and piano and sang international folk songs. By the time I was six or seven years old I was already playing banjo and by age 11 I was pretty good. I heard a kid in my school play some rudimentary bluegrass stuff and I was immediately drawn to that.
“Somebody told me where I could buy some old bluegrass records and so I spent my entire allowance in that shop. I started slowing down the records to pick out the tune. I’ve got a pretty good ear so I started teaching myself to play like Earl Scruggs.”
Weissberg went to the University of Wisconsin and The Juilliard School of Music. As well as playing banjo he also took up violin, bass, and mandolin and became an in-demand session musician. His earliest sessions were with a bunch of folk troubadours from Ireland.
“Very early in my recording career I played on all The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem records,” he says. “I think the banjo playing I did on those recordings helped to shape the sound and gear it a bit towards an American audience.
“I did a few recordings with The Chieftains and I remember Art Garfunkel and I were on a cruise down to Antarctica with them. They brought all their recording equipment with them and we did an entire album on the ship over a weekend! Tommy Makem invited me to play on his first solo album and that was wonderful to work on. I was really sad when he passed away a few years back – I really miss him.”
In the early 1970s, Weissberg received a phone call came from a movie production team asking him to recreate Arthur Smith’s 1955 instrumental ‘Feuding Banjos’ for a new film called Deliverance.
In his 2003 memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy, director John Boorman stated: “We asked the local Appalachian musicians and hillbillies who was the best banjo picker. They all agreed – Eric Weissberg, a New York Jew who had acquired the great skill by listening to country radio stations. One afternoon in a local recording studio, we laid down every possible variation on ‘Duelling Banjos’ and that became the score.”
The movie became a big hit and through the record company branch of Warner Brothers the Deliverance soundtrack sold millions.
“It’s one of those weird stories about the recording business you hear from time to time,” says Weissberg. “A recording I literally did at a gas station became a monumental hit. I think it gave the bluegrass scene a gigantic jolt in the arm.
“Bela Fleck has said that when he went to see the movie and heard banjo music as the main theme he totally flipped out. I don’t really take too much credit for it. I suppose I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Since then the ‘Duelling Banjos’ scene has been often copied on big and small screen – including in the opening scene of Father Ted in 1995. Although Boorman and Weissberg worked on the Deliverance soundtrack they had very little contact with each other.
“When I recorded the music I had no idea what the movie was about,” says Weissberg. “They hadn’t even agreed on the location or shot any of the scenes at that stage. I wish I had kept in contact with John Boorman because his son Charley is a motorcycle guy and I’m a motorcycle guy too. I suppose we’ve some sort of connection through his dad. Maybe one day we’ll meet on the road.”
For more information and tickets contact The Crane on 091 - 587419 or go to www.thecranebar.com