The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 3

Feature
Fun in Banjoland—
The Banjo Collectors’ Gathering
By Alice Gerrard

In Nov. 2002 I attended the 5th Annual 5-String Banjo Collectors Gathering in Williamsburg, Virginia. I am not interested in banjo collecting, but I am interested in the whole phenomenon of collecting and know a number of collectors of both 78s and musical instruments. Recognizing that collectors have provided a great service to the musical community by preserving and cherishing the “old stuff,” they might also be fairly described as an “odd bunch.” When I asked the co-founder of the Gathering, Jim Bollman, how many folks were in attendance that weekend, he said with typical dry wit, “I think fifty-odd would cover many bases.” He also noted that “all the movers and shakers in the field of banjo collecting are here.”

Indeed they were. And academics, banjo makers, and players—in many cases they were one and the same. Some of the folks there, in addition to Jim, were Peter Szego, the other co-founder; Rex Ellis, a writer and interpreter/ historian at Colonial Williamsburg, Eli Kaufman, a classical banjo player and professor at the school of dentistry in Buffalo, New York. He is also the editor of The Five Stringer, the journal of The American Banjo Fraternity, an organization that promotes the classic fingerstyle banjo playing that was popular at the beginning of the 19th century; Don Rusnak, a player and collector who ran a banjo business for many years in the Washington, D.C. area while working for the postal service; Lowell Schreyer from Mankato, Minnesota where he plays banjo locally with lots of different bands—he was inducted into the Banjo Hall of Fame in Guthrie, Oklahoma in 2002; Lars Hanslin, a musician and lawyer from Washington, DC; Ted Landsmark, a banjo historian and president of Boston Architectural College; Adam Hurt, banjo player from Greensboro, North Carolina who enjoys playing so much he wanted to learn more about the history of the banjo; Doug Unger a well-known artist and award winning banjo maker from Ohio; Pete Ross a punk rocker and gourd banjo maker from Baltimore, Maryland who studied with gourd banjo maker Scott Didlake [see OTH vol. 5 no. 7]; David Hyatt from Fayetteville, Arkansas, a gourd banjo maker who came because he knew Pete Ross was going to be there; and Kevin Enoch, banjo maker from Maryland, who supplies many in the old-time music world with their banjos; Bob Winans, Professor Emeritus of English who has taught courses in Anglo-American and African American Traditional Music, and has been a player and collector, and a scholar of the history of the banjo; banjoist/producer/writer Bob Carlin, folklorist Cece Conway, author of African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia; Ulf Jagfors, collector and banjo historian from Sweden; George Wunderlich, prime maker of Boucher style banjos; John Huerta, General Counsel for the Smithsonian in Washington, DC; and John Gough, a well respected banjo maker and restoration specialist.

Also in attendance were well known vintage instrument dealers Stan Werbin from Elderly Instruments, John Bernunzio from Bernunzio Vintage Instruments, Bob Smakula of Smakula Fretted Instruments, and… another 27-odd folks. Fred Oster of Vintage Instruments and Leonard Coulson of Intermountain Guitar and Banjo have attended several prior gatherings.

They were mostly men. At one of the first meetings people introduced themselves with remarks like “I love the banjo” (this one was used several times). And also, “I’m glad to have found a support group for my addiction;” “I am so and so—my wife won’t come anymore.” There were several women but they were there primarily to accompany boyfriends or husbands. One of those women introduced herself and said, “I’m married to banjos.” Generally, the group had a well developed sense of humor about their obsession, and were a good-spirited and friendly bunch.

The Gathering was founded in 1998 by Peter Szego and Jim Bollman and at the time was a loose organization of roughly 15 people. The focus of the group is on pre-20th century open-backed 5-string banjos and contemporary banjos made in the style of early banjos. “If someone came thinking they’d find out anything about Mastertones they’d be disappointed,” said Jim.
Presentations over the course of the weekend included Cece Conway’s film Black Songsters, Dave Ball’s talk on the banjos of Fred Van Eps, father of jazz guitarist George Van Eps; George Wunderlich and Greg Adams’ presentation of their work in progress—a database of information about minstrel-era banjos; a trip to the OKeh records exhibit at the Library of Virginia in Richmond; Ulf Jagfors showed recent films of African pre-banjo music; Hank Schwartz talked on early Fairbanks banjos…and much more. There was a lot of focusing on the minute details of banjodom, much of it interesting primarily to banjo fanatics, but much of it interesting in a broader historical and cultural sense.

I asked a lot of questions about collecting, and why, and what, and so on. “It’s a pure compulsion, a sickness, an obsession,” said banjoist Hank Schwartz. “I used to only collect playable banjos, then one day I saw one I wanted that wasn’t playable. I bought it and realized I’d crossed the boundary from player to collector.”

As a youngster John Huerta wanted a banjo but his parents bought him an accordion because at the time they sold accordions door to door and you could buy it on time. The reason he wanted to play banjo was that he went to a party down the street when he was quite young, and there was a banjo player who was the hit of the party, and John wanted to become the hit of the party. He still has that accordion, but somewhere along in there he got a banjo and began to play.

During one of the meals I asked folks why they thought there weren’t more women involved in collecting. There were several responses. One said, “women are not collectors.” Another rejoined that a lot of women are collectors of quilts and cups, for example. “But,” another said, “they typically don’t collect banjos or other instruments.”

“Banjos are mechanical,” said Hank Schwartz. “Guys are passionately attached to banjos.” Cece Conway proposed that women would tend to be more interested in the nature of the music, the quality of the sound, and that men are interested in the technology related to it, the nuts and screws and hardware and how it’s made, and all the details and the serial numbers, and owning them and having the best banjo. Hank agreed: “we want to know where our banjo sits in the rank.” Conway added, “Women are interested in the stories that go with the banjos, the collecting, the relationships. And although there may be a handful of banjos we will remember in detail or know the maker or year it was made, it’s the stories that we remember much more than the particular banjos.” I’ll say that that’s certainly true for me.

All in all, it was a fascinating and fun weekend with lots of good conversation, good food and wine, interesting displays and interesting people, and beautiful banjos, and banjos, and banjos….
To join the Banjo Collector’s group, see the following website:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BanjoCollectors/join

 

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