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
Lyss at 20