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My Grandfather's Banjo

Updated: May 13, 2021

When my grandmother passed away, and her children gathered to clear out the family home in preparation for its sale, they found a fiddle, a button accordion, and a tenor banjo hidden in a forgotten corner of the attic.

“Your grandmother played the fiddle,” my father later told me, “and your grandfather [who had predeceased her by a number of years] played the accordion and the banjo. We used to make our own entertainment in those days.”

The fiddle was claimed by an uncle who had an interest in Celtic music and thought he might give it a go. The accordion fell apart after a few wheezy gasps. The dry attic air had proved its undoing. And the banjo…well, what to do with the banjo?

“Isn’t Ken studying music in school?” my aunt had asked my father. (I was playing the baritone sax in the high school jazz band). “Maybe he would like it.”

So I inherited an old Slingerland May Bell tenor banjo constructed sometime in the 1920s, with an arch-top tone-ring, a calfskin head, and straight friction tuning pegs, similar to those found on a violin. The neck was twisted, and the leather collars on the tuning pegs were so worn that I spent more time tuning that banjo than actually playing it. But learn to play it I did, and it proved useful when I got a job that summer working as a counsellor at a residential children’s camp.

I began to appreciate the banjo. A banjo is a happy instrument. Any time you add a banjo to the musical mix, it sets your toes a-tapping. I sought out clubs where banjo players performed, and I scoured used record stores for old LPs of banjo music and quickly realized that there were many different kinds of banjos and many different styles of playing. There were four-stringed banjos, like my grandfather’s, which were favoured by Irish folk singers and Dixieland jazz bands, and there were five-stringed banjos, which were played in old-time string bands, and which, when picked rapidly with metal finger picks, became the foundation of a style that came to be known as bluegrass. Banjos, it turned out, could be strummed, frailed, rapped, plucked, picked, whammed, even clawhammered.

I fell in love with the quick three-fingered style popularized by Earl Scruggs, but I couldn’t play that on my grandfather’s old tenor, so, once I arrived in university, I bought myself another banjo, an inexpensive Japanese copy of the classic five-string Gibson Mastertone favoured by Scruggs. I taught myself bluegrass tunes like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” following an instructional guide written by the master himself. That banjo cost me six hundred dollars, more than I could really afford as a poor student, but I compensated by living off Kraft Dinner and hotdogs for the balance of the school year. When I graduated, that banjo followed me to teaching posts in Bhutan, China, and the Canadian Arctic. One of my strangest memories is of standing up at the front of an auditorium in the Bethune International Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang, China, on Lei Feng Day, wearing six layers of clothing because of the cold, and entertaining hundreds of soldiers from the Peoples Liberation Army with nervous renditions of “Cripple Creek” and “Blackberry Blossom.”

While in China, I fell in love. Marriage and three children soon followed. Children are fascinated by the banjo. They are also the nemesis of the banjo, for they can’t keep their jammy hands off the instrument. If you leave a banjo lying around, children will yank on the strings, wrench on the tuning pegs, and scribble pictures of ponies across its taut skin head. I soon gave up trying to practice, and my banjos were put away and forgotten for about twenty years.

About a year ago, I was cleaning out the basement and came across my grandfather’s old banjo again. The years had not been kind. The neck had become so dry that the glued layers of wood were beginning to de-laminate. The crook in the neck was worse than I remembered. The calfskin head had split. The nickel-plating was tarnished and the steel bolts that held the tension hooks in place were flecked with rust. I wondered if it could be saved.

I had heard of a banjo maker who lived about an hour’s drive north of me in the steep hills of the Niagara Escarpment, so I gave him a call and asked him if he would take a look at my grandfather’s banjo. It was the middle of winter and I set out during one of the worst blizzards in recent memory. That’s how keen I was to see if the banjo could be resurrected. It was foolish in retrospect. After a white knuckle drive, I parked my car at the end of his lane, waded through thigh-deep snowdrifts, and knocked on the door of his workshop. He greeted me warmly as I shook the snow from my hat and stomped my boots on the threshold. Removing the banjo from its case, he gave it a careful examination. As I suspected, the neck was beyond repair, but he said he could build me a new one.

“I bet I could even match the colour of the wood. The rest is just cosmetic.”

I thought about it. “Could you build me a longer neck in the same style, and convert it to a 5-string?”

“Sure, I don’t see why not.”

So I left the banjo in his care and waited nervously for about three months. In the spring I got the call. My banjo was ready to be picked up and played again.

I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from my Frankenstein banjo. But when I saw it, I instantly fell in love. The nickel shone with a rich patina, the polished wood gleamed, and the banjo-maker had even copied the mother-of-pearl inlays from the original neck, so that the new neck looked as if it had always been a part of this banjo. But what would it sound like?

I set my grandfather’s banjo on my knee and gave it a couple of exploratory strums, then began picking out a simple tune. The sound was duller, plunkier than I was used to, but when I hammered down on a string, it popped with a kind of growl. When I brushed across several strings, it had a balanced, bright tone, perhaps because it had begun its life as a tenor banjo, and was meant to be strummed. I could already see that this was the banjo I would favour when performing solo, though it probably wouldn’t have enough punch to be heard when jamming with other musicians.

There was also something very satisfying about playing this particular banjo, because it had once been my grandfather’s banjo. I don’t remember much about the man. I was still pretty young when he died. I remember him as a tall craggy individual with a square jaw, black-framed eyeglasses, and a full set of white hair that stood straight up like the bristles on a nail brush. He was given to splenetic outbursts. He hated foreigners and hippies, and my siblings and I, with our long hair and bell bottoms, were a little afraid of him. But my father’s childhood memories were warm, so I suspect this gruff exterior was mostly an act. My father was the kindest man you could ever hope to meet. I don’t think he would have turned out as he did if my grandfather was half the bear he pretended to be.

Do musical instruments remember their previous owners? Is there a kind of musical DNA that passes from hand to hand? I would like to think so, but I know that’s just foolish longing. Musical instruments have no memory. Instead, they have voices that must be interpreted through song. A future player might note where the frets have been worn down on my grandfather’s banjo, where my nails have scuffed the head, or where my thumb has rubbed the gloss off the back of the neck, but that is all. Still, if my grandfather had not played this banjo, I would never have taken up the instrument. I would not have reflected on the heritage that connects us and, in this way, my grandfather lives on through me.

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