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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A (real life) visit with a banjo player. :)

"Bill’s Banjo"

         On Tues, August 30, 2011, I had the honor, and pleasure, of having a friend phone and ask if I was busy. He was downtown and had his banjo in hand.
        “Of course come over!” I replied. I set aside a pile of paperwork and books. Studying could continue later in the day and the next appointment with a client was in an hour. This was an opportunity I delighted in.
         Below is what I felt when Bill was present and playing his 1890’s banjo he had just finished restringing:

            He sat in my old grandmother’s chair. It hadn’t been used like this ever---well maybe, I’ll never know. She would be about 100 if she were still alive. I can’t ask Grandfather this either—he would have been about 102 by now.
            Bill held on his lap and in his tan hands, an instrument from the 1890’s—a banjo. With Mother of Pearl and abalone, the shiny green and blue within ivory-like inlays, glistened and marked frets, in the dark stained maple neck. His short-nailed fingers on his left hand traveled over the four newly strung gut (not metal) strings on the upper neck’s notes, and his right hand danced its magic stroking the strings over the round banjo’s pot.
            The muscles in his forearm pulsed, and moved with the strumming. The rhythm of his head matched to the excreting joy and tenderness of the moments.

            He played Chicken in the Barnyard. This one could have made anyone smile. J
            Next, it was Wild Horses. This tune reminded me of wagon wheels, canvas covered, night fires and long grassy fields.

            He labeled and pointed out parts to educate me. The bridge, neck, and new calf skin frets. He noted, goat skin could also be used; it was usually animal skin in those days. Plastic strings were more recent.
            The 5th string began later down the neck. He said it was more of a drone note/not an octave. The frets, were marked by the shiny Mother of Pearl and abalone, at 3, 5,7, 9 and 12. This is typical, yet sometimes may be different. The twelfth, he said, is always octave. (I’m not sure what that means.)
            Bill said someone playing a banjo, plays higher if playing with a fiddler.  

            Back to another tune. The Big Scioty. This had lyrics, although unsung, he told me it was a story about the underground railroad in Ohio.

            I asked why is the neck dark; what kind of wood is it? Bill explained it was maple, stained, and he noted, they usually did this until 1901…then the whyte ladyie was made. This banjo had unstained maple and therefore was lighter. If I remember correctly, he also said this banjo had thicker wood at the pot, under the pulled skin and rim. The thicker wood made the banjo louder. They wanted it louder, so larger crowds could hear the music.

          Another tune is played, Jack-of-All-Trades. By hearing the music, I imagined a laughing card player, cigar smoke and women in wistful scarlet red and blue silk dresses. (I suppose my memory banks went into childhood television I watched---lots of western movies and shows seen.)

          “Hammering on and pulling off” Bill said was the official language for the playing.

          A little history on banjos: In the 1890s  W.A. Cole in Boston had a banjo company. He worked beside, or with,  A.C. Fairbanks. As relationships sometimes go, these two eventually parted.
          The fret boards had ebony over them that the inlays were put in.
In the back of the pot,  a Dowel was put in. (Or was Bill talking about the neck put through the wooden circle/ that the dowel rod was next to….
           I may not have followed this part accurately:  This old banjo Bill played on, he had to restore. He is a banjo enthusiast, to say the least. He can play them and has rebuilt many in his day. Anyway, he said usually he could take the dowel rod out (relatively) easy---and pointed to a bolt or screw and plate. On this old banjo, however, the dowel rod was put into a drilled slot (this is usual) yet instead of being able to drip hot water to loosen the (gluey) substance to extract it, this particular dowel was in put in using a different technique. Apparently, the builder used a rod cloth with pine tree resin to anchor the neck into the pot. Who knew. …  Bill did. It was not so easy to get pliable.
          Used to, designers used single spun metal to encase the wood. Nickel silver. When they wanted it louder, they double spun the metal around both edges, top and bottom. To get it even louder, they figured out to thicken the wood, and shoe attach to the band above and below without the wood screws. (metal screws were in the wood at even intervals on this one aound the pot. I think.)
           As noted above, the Whyte ladyie was very loud…it had the thicker wood design.
            Oh play another tune!
            And Bill did. This time, it was Sallie Ann.
            It didn’t take long before another image immerged within my mind. I saw a lady in white, dancing in a daffodil field, yellow and green colors blurred, twirling, holding a parasol to keep the sun’s heat at bay, only now, she could care less, as she was twirling it around over head and down to the waist with a swoop. She danced with the late summer breeze. A nearby man resting on a blanket smiled.

          It was a lovely visit. My studies had a beautiful intermission.  Thank you, Bill.

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