From Barclay Hall to the Big Stage
Pioneering musician George Stavis ’67 brought the banjo into the psychedelic rock era. He's opened for acts like the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, and Richie Havens.
When George Stavis ’67 starts picking at his electric banjo, he’s not a player—he’s the player. In the 1960s and early ’70s, the pioneering musician took the traditional sounds of the banjo and ran them through rock ’n’ roll amplifiers, moving an old folk and bluegrass instrument into the psychedelic rock era. Says Stavis, “I had played acoustic banjo and guitar and then electric guitar for a long time, and so it seemed natural to create an electric version of the banjo.” Its sound, he says, is distinct. “It’s a bit like a steel guitar—as different from an acoustic banjo as an electric guitar is to an acoustic guitar.”
From the folk and rock bands he played in at Haverford to his popular late ’60s/early ’70s psychedelic band Oganookie and the array of solo material along the way, Stavis has pushed the banjo forward as an instrument that can play both inside the folk and bluegrass traditions, and then go way outside and beyond.
Among his influences have been Chinese music, Japanese koto music, and Indian musician Ali Akbar Khan, master of the sarod, which is like a sitar, but with a skin head. “When I heard him, I thought: ‘He’s playing a banjo,’” related Stavis in a 2015 interview. “That was a revelation, and I started thinking that the banjo could do a lot more than folk music and bluegrass—and it could stretch out, like Indian musicians, jazz players, and rock players.”
Those ideas are apparent on his 1969 solo album Labyrinths from Vanguard Records (subtitle: Occult Improvisational Compositions for 5-String Banjo and Percussion). “It’s got movements, rhythm changes, dynamic changes, it moves toward trying to find an emotional center like classical does,” he says. “To some degree, it’s like soundtrack music, you can imagine scenes going by.”
Stavis, who has opened as a solo banjoist for such iconic musicians as the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Richie Havens, and Jean-Luc Ponty, can date the beginnings of his musical career to the day he moved into Barclay as a freshman, where he found his hallway filled with other musical cats. “The fellow across the hall, Jack Bowers ’67, had a banjo, and 20 feet the other way was Jim Clifford ’67, who also had a banjo,” he says.
Throughout his time at Haverford, Stavis played banjo with Clifford on mandolin and Pete Peterson ’65 on guitar in a group they called the Paoli Locals. As the group played at folk clubs in Bryn Mawr and elsewhere, Stavis worked up his rock ’n’ roll skills on electric guitar and played with drummer Tim Ackerman ’67, and also partnered with violin/fiddle player Robert Stern ’69, with whom Stavis still plays.
After college, Stavis, Bowers, Stern, and Ackerman formed the California band Oganookie, whose members lived communally north of Santa Cruz in the redwood forest. The band grew popular during the heyday of California psychedelic music, playing as many as 150 gigs a year and releasing an album during its 1969–1973 run. In the end, though, they weren’t able to take the next big step up.
“We made a few business mistakes,” Stavis admits. “We could possibly have made it to the top, but we just missed that brass ring.” More recently, Stavis and the band members put together a website (Oganookie.com) and a music video set on YouTube, with recordings, photos, and videos from that era.
In later years, Stern also played on the Stavis release Morning Mood, which came out in 1986 on Aspen Records and featured influential fiddler Darol Anger and guitarist Alex de Grassi, among others. “Haverford taught me that there are no boundaries,” says Stavis. “The word ‘music’ includes all the music of the world, whether it’s bluegrass or jazz or classical.”
Now 77 and living in Dobbs Ferry, New York, Stavis, who became an attorney later in life, says musical gigs are infrequent now. “About two times a year I get a call, and when I get a call, I’ll come!” In recent years, he’s done a concert at Kenyon College, performed with guitar duo Elkhorn in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and appeared at The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose: American Primitive Guitar and Banjo festival in Maryland. But Stavis keeps his skills sharp and has been recording banjo and violin duets with Stern, slowly working up enough material for a full album.
It’s not surprising to hear that he’s still playing with one of the musicians he met during college—nearly all of his bands and projects across the years have been collaborations with some of those same musicians. “These are lifelong musical relationships,” he says, “and they started at Haverford.”