CNM English Instructor’s Heart Strung to the Banjo
Wayne probably knows everything there is about the banjo. In the 1990s he spent two-and-a-half years researching the instrument for his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of New Mexico. He studied and wrote about its development, different styles of playing and banjo stereotypes.
He learned to play the banjo by listening – to records and other people play. He never had any formal lessons, since there weren’t many people interested in the instrument when he was a kid and young man in college. His life-time obsession with the instrument led him to play with the greats, including Grand Ole Opry star and father of bluegrass music Bill Monroe, as well as Byron Berline, Vassar Clements, Dan Crary, Peter Feldman, Steve Smith and more.
The public will have the opportunity to hear Wayne play and talk about banjo history on his 70th birthday May 11 at 7 p.m. when he will perform at “Yet Another Really Big Banjo Show” at the South Broadway Cultural Center. He’ll strum on his personal banjos -- one made out of a gourd (yes, like the vegetable) and another constructed from a round, empty cheese box. He’ll also perform on a late 19th century banjo, one made around 1910, a circa 1925 four-string model and a five-year-old blue grass instrument. Accompanying him will be long-time friends playing a trombone, fiddle and guitar and a vocalist.
Always musical, Wayne wanted to learn to play the banjo when he was 14. His parents said they couldn’t afford another instrument, so he had to settle with a piano and guitar. At 18, the day before he was leaving for college, he saw a man playing a five-string banjo.
“I became fascinated. The guy showed me how to tune it and where to place my fingers,” Wayne said.
While attending Ball State University, he happened in to a music store where he saw a banjo for sale for $30. He called his dad to see if he could buy it. His father gave Wayne the go ahead, and he’s been addicted ever since. He said that learning to play a banjo was quite a challenge since the instrument only has four or five strings and there are multiple ways of playing it, like strumming and picking -- all quite different from the guitar of his childhood.
In his studies Wayne learned that the modern banjo was first used by Africans in Colonial America. Slaves were banned from using drums, which plantation owners thought were a means of messaging. So the slaves created the banjo from materials they had on hand, like gourds, wooden sticks and cat gut. Over the years, the banjo became popular, particularly by the 1940s and 1950s when musician Earl Scruggs played one on the Grand Ole Opry radio show. Minstrels and bluegrass music used banjos to create their own particular folksy sound.
Wayne uses the word “polyphony” to describe his love of the banjo. “I was just so interested in all the musical sounds that a five-string banjoist could make,” he said.