STEPHEN WADE: Why do I play the banjo? I love the banjo, and I love that music, and that's about it. I've always wanted to play. I was real little, since before I played, I just, I loved the crispness, and the attack, and the bite of the banjo. I liked its growls and sounds, and I liked how it worked. I liked how it looked, and I like how you had to hold your hand to play it. I liked how all, all those notes sort of tumbled out of it, and I still do. Oh, the banjo, it's a great expressive sort of instrument. To me it's full of mystery. I like the fact that there's the things very unknown about it, about its history. I mean, it frustrates me on one hand, and yet it delights me on another. Music is a journey. It's like going someplace. A symphony is a journey, you know, how they start, and how it has a crescendo, and it comes back with a repeat of the theme. So if a piece of music has that, trying to learn how to play the banjo would be like that, although you might not know how it's going to end, and it might not be organized like a work of art is, it's still a journey. It's going someplace.

DON STOVER: Hundreds of years ago, I understand that the banjo came from Africa, and it came in and got in the southern parts of the United States like Louisiana, and they were four-string banjos.

WADE: Banjo, a concatenation of hoops and brackets, and all of that.

STOVER: A man by the name of Joel Sweeney, I understand to the history that I read is the man who made the fifth string on the banjo right here what it is today. Now, but they were all four strings then, and I forget, well, way over a hundred years, Joel Sweeney invented the fifth string, and they called it the five-string banjo then.

WADE: It's a machine, and it's wood and it's metal and it's skin and it's string and it's ivory and it's ebony and it's brass, but I always think of the banjo as more than that, of course, which is the various performances, and the various persons who've played it.

STOVER: The first man I ever heard pick one was Earl Scruggs, with the three-finger style that they're picking today and they call bluegrass, but there was other guys who picked it, I understand through the history of the banjo, but Earl Scruggs popularized the five-string banjo, by putting it in places it had never been.

WADE: One of the interesting ways of thinking about banjos is, in its literal sense, is relative to the different eras in the development of the physical development of the instrument brought here on slave ships. It was a gourd. And then as I understand when cheese was sent in those round boxes, those round boxes became the hoops for a lot of banjos. That's what one scholar's written about. I love that, you know, to make the rim, and as the music developed, this banjo is probably made for when a banjo was brought into the parlor, and a more genteel music was played on it, sort of a classical kind of music, and domestic music that was made. Then later on the banjo gets a resonator added to it, and as the music is changing, the instrument is changing. And in the southern mountains there's those plain beautiful wooden banjos, which are fun to play, and have their own unique, wonderful qualities. And then there was the minstrel banjos with the big hoop, probably designed to fill a large theater with its sound. Is the banjo a quintessential American instrument? Well, it is in that many people contributed to it. I suppose that's what we're talking about. If America could mean an integrated society, it certainly would be quintessentially American, because it's a black instrument, and shared with white people, so that's, could be in the American dream of people being together. That would be quintessentially American, I guess. It's quintessentially American, I guess if you consider loud and brash American, it's that. If being American is also sometimes lyrical and understated, the banjo can be that. If being American is being haunting and somewhat mysterious, the banjo can be that. If being American are the letters at the end of an address when you're away from home, well I suppose banjos, five-string banjos and the United States do go together. It's certainly played for lots of lonesome traveling tunes, you know. It accompanies a lot of those kinds of songs, those sorts of going down the road feeling bad, that kind of traveling, that sense of motion. There's a lot of forward motion in playing a banjo.

STOVER: It's been, well, through Carolinas, and Kentucky, and Tennessee, West Virginia mountains. The banjo has been an awful lot of places in a lot of homes. In fact, this one I'm playing right here, we'll talk about it if you'd like. I went to a fellow's house in Clinton, Maryland, who was a banjo maker and had him to make this banjo for me the way I wanted it. I think that means a lot. I've had so many banjos in my life, and I liked the sounds of them, but I didn't like the shape of the neck or so forth, and I designed some of the pearl on the beginning of this banjo neck right here. This first design right here in the first fret loop, and the second one, that belongs to me. I found that on a perfume box. This may be a copy of an old Weymouth banjo from here to here, but I like these two right here. As I said, found it on a perfume bottle, and asked the man, "Can you make that?" He said, "Sure." And the head stalk here with a holy cross on it with my name on it--I thought of that idea one day.

WADE: Here it is. I've thought about this place for a long time. They talk about this as the nation's attic, you know the Smithsonian, right? Here it is. This is a whole, it's a whole room full of ghosts right now. This is Wade Ward's banjo right here from Independence, Virginia. Right next to his house is a little place called Peach Bottom Creek. It's just a little bit of water right next to his house, and he wrote, and he had a tune called Peach Bottom Creek, and he played it on this banjo. And look, the inlays here, this is what the inlays should look like, except he painted these on there. I guess the inlays had fallen out from use or whatever. He painted those on there. This was his banjo. It's really more than the instruments. It's the practitioners. It's those people. That's what this is. This is part of a, sort of a sign of his life. I just think that's extraordinary. Then here's another one. We don't know who played it, but we know who made it. This is someone down in Baltimore who was a drum maker. Look on the opposite side. He just attached a banjo to it. 1845. I think it's so pretty. Look at that. What a gorgeous instrument. Look at the side. Here, this was Frank Proffitt's banjo. He was the source for the song Tom Dooley. That's what got this whole folk revival going. He made this banjo. He sang that song on this banjo. This is later you know, he played for a fellow named Frank Warner out in--from New York, who collected from him, and then he passed it on to the Kingston Trio and they had a hit with it. It was sung on this banjo. And this banjo here, if you look at Pete Seeger's book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, there's a picture of Frank Proffitt holding this banjo. I just think that's remarkable. Belonged to a wagoner. Probably a possum skin right here, possum or calfskin head right here. I've got one banjo that Frank Proffitt made at home. You could see the hairs on the inside. Look at this. This is like a banjo. It's not really a banjo because it doesn't have a drum head, but it sure looks like one. Look at that face. There's a banjo player for you. That's what this is about. It's about these people. You want to know if a banjo is American? This is a fellow who, was made by a fellow who was in World War I, served probably under General Pershing there in the American Expeditionary Force. He made this out of a German artillery shell. This thing weighs a whole lot. These are bullet, machine, like machine gun bullets. He tunes it by putting a nail in there. That's how he tunes it. This is part of a rifle stock, this neck. This is sort of Yankee ingenuity, I'd say, if there ever was anything. Look at this. This is a skillet.
In traditional music, you always hear people talk about, "That was a true song," you know? And maybe that partly comes from the songs were, some of the songs that are called the broadside ballads were kind of like newspaper reports of the time, but I think it's more than that. Talk about when I say a true song. It's about about saying from the depths of one's honesty, and someone's life.

STOVER: If you're wondering what I'm doing here, I'm trying to put a song together. It kind of fits a lot of hillbilly people traveling around the country today, and their money's low, and they've got a long ways to go, and just everything's kind of a bother to them there. I got a little bit of it put together. I want to kind of hit a little bit of it here for you. I think I'm going to call it The Traveling Bluegrass Picker. I think that'll about apply to all of them. Maybe not nowadays. A lot, back in my days it would.

WADE: You could always hear it in the sound of it and in the singing of it, that kind of truth to experience.

STOVER (singing):
I'm just an old country boy driving through your town
If I should need a handout, then don't turn me down
Got a long, long ways to go, another town,
And another show tomorrow.

I've lived in Louisiana, lived in Tennessee,
But the West Virginia mountains keep on callin' me.
They call it almost heaven.
That's one place on earth I want to be.
I met some good-lookin' women in my young lifetime,
But the one I gave my heart to lives down in Brandywine.

As of where I sit here right now, this chair is where where I was brought up as young fellow, and many times I've seen my mother play for Saturday night parties here in this hollow we're in now, and for my Uncle Jim or some of the neighbors, you know, would have a Saturday night party, and all I would do is just stand right at my mother's feet all night long and watch her play the banjo, and that was inspiring to me pretty much there.

WADE: Starts for me with listening to Flatt and Scruggs, and hearing them on TV, and loving that, and old records at home, and how much excitement my father felt when he heard it. And he always liked that finger-pick style, and that careful mathematical elaboration that goes on with the banjo. It's hard not to love that.

STOVER: I ran into a one-armed banjo man who came in here to play a show one time. And he was with a band named Johnny Wright and His Tennessee Hillbillies. And they played at Big Bottom, just about two miles from here, and I went to see that, and he had a banjo, and his left arm was missing right at the joint. His name was Emory Martin, and he's still living today. He would lay a banjo down across his lap, and note it with the stub of the arm, and pick it with two fingers on his right hand, and that was a great inspiration to me to hear a sound of a banjo with no amplification whatsoever. And the banjo had a real roaring tone to it that I wanted to really get my hands on that banjo.

Oh, Reuben was sittin' on a railroad tie
With a gal, a gal on his knee.
She whispered softly in his ear,
Said, "Reuben, you don't love me."

I loved that girl, God knows I did.
Lord, I'll love her til the day that I die.
If I knew that girl didn't love me too,
I would take morphine and I'd die.

(over a view of a coal-mining plant)
This structure right here we're looking at is a coal cleaning plant. There used to be just a regular coal tipple there where we had to pick the rock from the coal before we'd sell it. And that's the place where I used to work right there, but as you can see right now, they're tearing it all down. That's being disassembled and hauled away. Everybody who went to school in this area here was always uptight, you know, and ready to graduate real quick, just to go to work. But they wanted to have a little money in their pocket to jingle jangle, and an old fast car to run up and down these curves with around here. That's what we had to look forward to when we got of age, to work here.

Well, I've been to the east and I've been to the west,
And brother, I've been all around.
There's just one place that I've never been,
But I'll be there when the sun goes down.

Old morphine, yes it's old morphine,
That's all my poor heart craves.
Twenty-five cc's of morphine  
Relieving my lonesome grief.

Reuben sittin' on a railroad tie
With a yellow gal on his knee.
She whispered softly in his ear,
Saying, "Reuben you don't love me."

This coming September the 17th will be the big hotlick day that I went to Duke University for a headache that I've been having for a year and a half, and through all the MRI's, and brain scans, and this I had took, nobody could find anything, but Duke found it. They found a tumor on the brain, which was malignant, they told me. And so I had the operation on the 17th of September of last year, and this January and February I stayed a month and a half at Duke, and I was taking radiation treatments, both sides of the head and the center. And far as I know, I'm just about through with it. I feel great. I never have any symptoms, but I have a sort of paralytic part of the left-hand side of my face right now here.

WADE: And I think with Don Stover, he had that wonderful song he wrote some years ago, "Things in Life." He's talking about, well, more than just stuff he knew, but experiences he deeply felt, and he gave it a great artistic form to do it. That's a wonderful, wonderful creation.

STOVER (singing):
Oh, look up, look down this lonesome road.
Hang down your head and cry,
For we often lose some things in life
That makes us wonder why.

Even the doctors that are doctoring me at Duke University, they look at me when I come in there joyful and acting silly. I've always been a silly hillbilly, you know, on stage and off stage, and they stare a hole right through me. They can't figure out why I'm feeling so good. Makes me think too, they might know something that I don't know, but I think if you've got something wrong with you, you're going to feel it. You'll feel that there's something wrong, dragging you down, or maybe pain, which I don't have any pain.

Oh, I often sit and wonder why  
Life has to be this way.
But after all is said and done,
I'm sure God has his say.

If I had to entirely quit, I think my symptoms might get a little worse, but I really, I really appreciate the old banjo. If you get little lonely, like I've said many times, you can pick it up and start picking and you can forget. That's good therapy.

Now when they lower my casket down
In some lonesome grave to rest.
And you take your last look at my face,
You can say I did my best.

I've never had a bad attitude. I've never been scared or I've never been afraid. I never have. What is true is true. Everybody's got to die some day. We've got to die of something. You've heard that many, many times, and this head thing I have here might be my something that I have to die with. So as the last verse says, when they lower my casket down in some lonesome grave to rest, and you take your last look at my face, you can say I did my best. So that's the way I want to go out, you might say, you know? I want to go out with people saying, "He's a fine guy. He did good." And I always say the good outweighs the bad.

WADE: What is the banjo figuratively, metaphorically? Well, I was thinking in terms of individual practitioners, you know, about the different players, and that's the part that's the most meaningful. So it's played by people in the mountains. It's played by--turn on a whole generation of people in the city, you know. It's a meeting of people. Musicians can't help but play together, or listen to each other, and that goes on not only with banjo, but all over the place. And it gets very complicated and wonderful because of that, which I've always loved.


A Film by John Paulson

Location Sound Recordist
Mark Griswold

Camera Assistant
Masa Yoshikawa
Harry Lee

Cinematography & Editing
John Paulson

Historic Banjos from the
Musical Instruments Collection
Division of Cultural History
Gary Sturm, Assistant Curator, Special Projects
Smithsonian Institution

Video Mastering, courtesy
Roland House

On-Line Editor
Kimberly Harper

Assistant Editor
Tony Smith

Transfers & Color Enhancement

Editing & Sound Mixing
Smithsonian Productions

Still Photos, courtesy & copyright
Henry Horenstein

“Black Diamond”
Written by Don Stover
Published by Bathurst Music (BMI)
Performed by Don Stove
Courtesy Rounder Records

“Little Betty Ann”
from Mike Seeger, William Bragg, and others
Performed by Stephen Wade

“Money Musk”
Arranged by Stephen Wade
Published by Merrywang, Inc. (ASCAP)
Performed by Stephen Wade
Flying Fish Records

“Poor Country Boy”
(Traveling Bluegrass Picker)
Written by Don Stover
Published by Bathurst Music (BMI)
Performed by Don Stover

“Old Reuben No. 1”
Written by Don Stover, J.V. Williams, C. Duncan
Published by Bathurst Music (BMI)
Performed by Don Stover

“Things in Life”
Written by Don Stover
Published by Bathurst Music (BMI)
Performed by Don Stover

Thank You
Hank Edenborn
Greg Hartman
John Hiller
Bill Keith
Milton Kramer
Zack Kreiger
Karen Linn
David Markun
Reed Martin
Dawn Paulson
Rounder Records
Jake Guralnick
Franz Roland
Anthony Seeger
Nick Spitzer
Gary Sturm
John Tyler
Joe Wilson

With deep gratitude
Don Stover
Stephen Wade

© 1997 John’s Films