In the process of creating his newest album, folk musician Ben Haravitch realized that the songs were slow.
They had come out exactly how Haravitch, who makes music under the name Benny Bleu, intended, but the songs, many of which are banjo standards, were typically played at a faster tempo. Coincidentally, the album already had a title which fit that musical style: March of the Mollusk.
Haravitch hopes people will see the clawhammer banjo instrumentals as meditative, relaxing and peaceful. As a former geologist and lifelong nature lover, he sees mollusks, snails, and other gastropods as slow but steady creatures which seem to savor the world on a deeper level.
With the progress of technology and climate change, Haravitch has been trying to simplify and “live with less.”
“The world sometimes feels like it’s moving faster and faster. If we can slow down our thinking, take a step back and appreciate the world, that’s what it’s about,” he says. “And where words fail, I tried distilling these ideas into simple banjo tunes instead.”
Haravitch wasn’t trying to be ironic by juxtaposing a slow creature like a mollusk with a higher tempo musical genre.
“I knew I wanted to make a banjo record and I wanted to include the word ‘March’,” he says. “The songs weren’t originally written as marches, but rhythmically they feel good to walk to or jog to.”
Apart from some extra string instruments in certain songs, the album is mainly Haravitch’s clawhammer banjo stylings. He blends local Finger Lakes folk music with his interpretation by putting his own soothing grooves to well known folk standards.
In general, the album falls within the genre of old time fiddle music, which, when compared with bluegrass or Irish fiddle, relies particularly on rhythm. The clawhammer banjo is also played in a beating manner, adding to that rhythm.
“There is melody and harmony (to old time music), but it’s more important to lock in rhythmically,” Haravitch says. “Going to old time fiddle circles, it’s almost like a drum circle feeling.”
For example, the banjo standard “Edward Chops Down a Tree” has a feel like “the drummer in a New Orleans second line parade.”
“March of the Mollusk” also has original music with its own quirks. “Fairy Shrimp” has a 6/8 time signature, typically seen in waltzes, not banjo music. That song, which opens the album, is particularly special to Haravitch as he recorded it the same day that the inspiration struck.
“Dedicated to the ephemeral beauty of nature—fairy shrimps are tiny little lobsters that live for a month or two in vernal pools in the springtime. Before they die, they bury eggs in the mud that dries up all summer,” the album track notes read. “The next spring they hatch like magic.”
Haravitch, who opens for bluegrass band Dirty Blanket on March 18 in Geneseo, is thankful that the Rochester scene is receptive to his brand of music. In general, he sees supportive communities in fans, fellow musicians, and businesses.
“Here we are in the days of Spotify but still anytime I walk into the Bop Shop or Record Archive it’s packed,” he remarks.
Recently, he saw that same energy at the Little Theatre, where his group, the Brothers Blue, played after a screening of the “A Show for Joe” concert, a 2019 celebration of the late Rochester musician Joe Dady.
“(It was a) sellout crowd,” Haravitch says. “Amazing example right there of the love and passion and the way Rochester music lovers show up for its people.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].