My First Banjo
by Bill Boyer
Here is my take on Frank Proffitt‘s Sourwood Mountain:
It was in Cleveland, 1970, my first wife, Diane, and I were cruising the junk shops, when I came across an interesting old instrument in pieces, with what looked liked a porthole from a ship holding a skin head.
I bought it for, what I think was $20.00, but it could have been a bit cheaper. My dad worked at a tool and die company and asked one of the machinist there if they could fabricate some of the missing brackets, they were a brass tube that acted as the nut to a brass bolt, with a thick wall that was machined down so that it created a head that helped to press the top and bottem pieces together, tightening the head.
I replaced the torn head with a new skin one, and added strings, I used steel strings, but gut or nylon probably would have sounded better. The tuners were old style geared ones that fitted into the slotted head, the 5th string also was slotted. And the worked fine.
It was pretty nice looking but the actual rim that the head rested on was a thin piece of brass sheeting that was rolled, looking like a tin can. The tone was pretty crappy. But I loved it nonetheless.
So now I had a banjo, but I knew nothing about the banjo or the music, yes I had seen Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs (on the Beverly Hillbillies) and watched the Hootenanny shows, but I never really noticed the banjo, or was drawn to it until I found this odd looking one. I was also not musically educated, so I found Pete Seeger‘s book on How to Play the 5 String Banjo and went to the library and picked up old LPs of players like Frank Proffitt, Hobart Smith other esoteric and wonderful players, and the simpicity of their playing really touched something inside me.