How I Got Started
About 30 years ago, when I first became involved in living history and rendezvous reenactments, I was impressed by the amount of care and attention people paid to their attire. Reconstructing old clothing patterns from 150 to 200 years ago with the precision that any Colonial or 19th Century seamstress or tailor would be proud of, many of their ensembles were truly impressive.
When it came to their camping accoutrements, many were equally attentive. I saw hand stitched tents, hand forged fire irons and in many cases even hand made copper and tin ware. They kindled their files using flint and steel. Then, following the meal cooked over an open fire, as different groups would begin to gather around the campfires of handful of musicians would emerge with distinctly modern instrument cases containing steel string banjos and guitars. The anachronism was startling. The fiddles were close to period correct, but the other instruments just did not fit in with the surroundings.
Here was a group of people who had taken so much trouble to have historically correct looking attire right down to period shoes and weaponry sitting around the fire in front of either Colonial or 19th-century tents with shiny modern musical instruments in their hands. They began playing - not the songs of the colonial times, the minstrel stage or the Victorian parlor, but something more akin to bluegrass or 60s folk music. In an apparent display of their virtuosity, it was not unusual for the many of the guitarists to start wailing renditions of the blues and rock 'n roll as the effects of beer and home-brew took effect around the fire. Banjoists would strike up renditions of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" in a piercing staccato that could be heard in the next county.
I will interject at this point that I enjoy both playing and listening to bluegrass, rock and roll and the blues, but it is all a matter of context. At a rock concert, a county fair or a folk festival, any of these above musical forms would be completely in context and quite enjoyable. Out of context however, these musical forms become, shall I say, out of place.
It was during one of those evening hootenannies sharing a campfire with friends some distance from the tumult, that we decided to try and set an example by taking our music to a more contextual level. Finding lyrics and music to the old songs was not all that difficult. This was pre-Internet, but the libraries were full of records which had been cut for the bicentennial celebrations of '76. I particularly remember one album cut by Nelson Eddy which contained a wonderful collection of Stephen Foster minstrel songs. Tennessee Ernie Ford had an excellent album of songs from the Civil War. In addition to these were several recordings sponsored by institutions like the Smithsonian, where musicians on antique instruments and using vocal stylings of the day recorded early 19th century tunes in honor of the bicentennial.
Finding antique playable instruments was another matter. And even for those of us who were able to find antique parlor guitars, we were reluctant to expose them to the variable temperatures and humidity of a living history encampment. Even back then, there were a couple of banjo makers making Boucher replica banjos, but they were finely made and mostly out of our price range.
As a compromise, we did away with steel guitar strings and even tried putting nylon strings on modern banjos to a somewhat satisfying effect. Then, at a weekend 1830s fur trade encampment I made a comment about making a cigar box banjo. About 30 min. later a friend came over and tossed a cigar box into my lap and said, " see what you do with that". I took a piece of split oak from the woodpile for a neck and the rest is history. Two and a half days later I had a playable cigar box banjo. I was hooked on handmade instruments and I have been making them ever since. At the same rendezvous site about two years later I was gifted an enormous calabash gourd which I took home and made into my first gourd banjo. I painted an eagle surrounded by a ring of stars on the face of it and I still play it regularly.
Since those first crude instruments, my skills and knowledge have both increased. I have taught myself to play 19th-century stroke style and I have turned my banjo making into a business. Every banjo I make is still handmade original and I never tire of hearing that first strum of the strings on a newly created instrument.
My clientele has grown from living history reenactors to encompass musicians in all genres of music. Fretless banjos have a unique voice which can complement any musical form. I would love to make one for you. Just browse my banjo gallery and let me know what you have in mind.