Saturday, July 27, 2013

Granddad’s Banjo

I don’t remember my granddad ever playing the instrument, but I always remember seeing it in out-of-the-way places at his house. It didn’t have all its strings and hadn’t been used in years, but it was always there. I don’t remember my dad ever mentioning his father playing it, but some of his older sisters remember Granddad strumming it a bit when they were just little. A combination of arthritis and getting his hands banged and bruised in the rig-building business probably caused him to give up on playing earlier than he would have otherwise.

In his younger days, my grandfather, Lyss (short for Ulysses), his sister Gussie (short for Augusta) and their brother, Jess used to play for a lot of dances in the area. Of course, Granddad played his banjo, Gussie played the piano, and Jess played the fiddle. (Photos of the banjo, Lyss, and Gussie are at the foot of the article. I have no photo of Jess.) It was probably at one such dance that Gussie met the young banjo-picker who would eventually be her husband. Sadly, he turned out to be worthless and abandoned her even before she came down with tuberculosis. She succumbed to that dreaded disease in her twenties. I doubt if Granddad met my grandma at a dance. Being a prim and proper daughter of a United Brethren preacher, she probably didn’t believe in such things.

After my grandparents died, my sister inherited the banjo, since she played the piano and cello, but she never used it, except maybe about the time that she also experimented with smoking a pipe. She left it (and the pipe) at our old home place when she got married and moved out. Eventually, I asked if I could have it and she agreed. From what I could see, it was an inexpensive model from about 1900. It spent several years in my attic, until I fished it out a few years ago and spent about $100 getting it repaired, thinking I might try learning to pick, but I never did.

As I sat at my desk today, thinking about what I could sell next to raise a few bucks for gas and groceries, the old banjo came to mind. Somehow, though, selling it to someone who’d just hang it on the wall as an antique seemed a little wrong. I’d rather give it to someone who would use it. I was trying to recall the name of a former co-worker that plays bluegrass banjo, when I remembered that my stepson plays a little bit of guitar. On a hunch, I gave him a call. It turns out he’d love to have it. He didn’t tell me so, but I know that his interest has nothing to do with the banjo’s history, or its age. It has to do with the fact that HIS father used to play the banjo a bit. It’s speculated that his uncle stole his dad’s banjo when his father passed away young, so he doesn’t have that instrument, but the price on this one is right. I’m glad to give it to someone who will actually try to use it. It’s even better that it sort of stays in the family.

It’s been about 80 years since the instrument has made any music. If he gets any good, I’m going to ask for a concert! © 2013

Granddad's Banjo

Lyss at 20



Mamahen said...

Some things just can't be measured in dollars and cents :))

Gorges Smythe said...

You're absolutely right, Mh! BTW, I added a couple more pictures to this post; Blogger would only let me add one at a time.

Chickenmom said...

Nice that it will stay in the family!
On a side note, my step Grandfather was named Agustus - we call him Gus or sometimes Gusso. Another old fashioned name that you don't hear anymore.

Gorges Smythe said...

Yes it is, and no, you don't, Cm!

Mamahen said...

They are both very attractive! I love looking at old pictures, even if I don't know the subjects ,although I almost feel as if I know your family:))

Tania @ Out Back said...

Great old photos of Lyss and Gussie. You are lucky to have them.

Glad you found a suitable home for Granddads banjo. I hope your stepson has fun with it...

Scooney Adrift said...

Good story. I bet the old banjo with a new set of strings, and a little TLC could still knock out "Fire on the Mountain!"
Pictures turned out great.

Gorges Smythe said...

I tell folks it's genetic, Mh; my ancestors got their good looks from ME! Could it be you feel like you know them because I talk about them so much? ;-)

Yes, I am, Tania. I'm sure my stepson will try it out.

I bet you're right, Scooney.

kymber said...

oh Mr. Smythe - you have again brought tears to my eyes with your beautiful and poignant post. this time about your grandfather's banjo. i remember the exact day that my father had saved enough money to finally buy my mother a was probably cheap as crap but it had a vine running around it with beautiful green leaves and 3 bluebirds painted on it. several years later of hearing her play the guitar in the morning before she woke us up - she pawned it. my father worked in a coalmine and after 3 months of being on strike, and him working a variety of odd jobs during that time - my mother pawned her guitar. to get money to get us our back to school supplies and a new back to school outfit each. my father made a deal with the pawnbroker and then he tiled roofs for the next month. my father was terrified of heights. but he did a job that made him physically sick and got back her guitar.

your post made me reflect on this and reflect on how important it is to keep family mementos. i am so glad that the banjo is staying in the family.

your friend, truly,

Gorges Smythe said...

It sounds to me like it was your memories, not my story, that brought tears to your eyes, kymber, as they should. Your father must have loved your mother very much. Bless you for sharing that story.

Pumice said...

I'm really glad you found a family member to pass it to. I strum a guitar and have a couple of nice ones but my kids don't play.

Grace and peace.

Gorges Smythe said...

Gee, Pumice, the two of you will have to do an online jam session sometime! lol