The Mysterious Banjo from the Roaring 1920s

A unique heirloom discovered in my mother’s basement provided a special opportunity to espouse the value of family to our son.

He was 17-years old in 1924.

By the time this picture was taken, he had already dropped out of high school, a fact I stumbled upon when I read through his World War Two army-enlistment paperwork. He went on to beat the Nazis in Europe while fighting for the 7th and 8th armored divisions.

Thereafter, he married, worked as a sheet-metal worker in New York City, and raised two kids in the comfy village of Forest Hills, Queens.

His name was Martin, my grandfather on my mother’s side, and the only memories I have of him were in the hospital where he was being treated for a stroke. He passed soon thereafter in 1975 when I was five and my family has rarely if ever shared stories about him.

But look at that picture—that smile, the banjo, and his location. It looks like some kind of camp given the materials inside the dwelling itself. Was he a drifter? A musician who wandered around the great Northwest?

My fascination with grandpa Martin was cemented back in 2000 when I helped my mother pack up her belongings to move from one house to another. On the top shelf of our basement work room I found a collection of interesting artifacts. I found my dad’s skis – vintage ones from the 1960s and a collection of camping equipment.

The items that belonged to my dad were left there twenty-five years prior when my parents separated and he moved to Florida. To find his belongings years later was a ‘moment,’ to say the least—one that stopped me dead in my tracks. It broke my heart for the thousandth time based on the estranged relationship I shared with him for most of his life.

I looked further and stuffed way in the back was an old black case, resembling something that held an instrument. The contents blew my mind: A vintage banjo complete with sheet music dating back to the 1920s.

The roaring twenties—dear God! What the hell am I holding, I thought to myself. I ran up the basement stairs and showed it to my mom who noted it was her father’s.

But she shared no other stories: not a single memory, nor has anyone on my mother’s side of the family about my grandfather.

Today, I wish I could enlist Henry Louis Gates Jr. for help, the host of Finding Your Roots. The show is centered around genealogy and it’s the best thing PBS has put out in decades.

I want to know what Martin did in his early life. Was he a traveling musician back in the 20s?

I had the banjo repaired in 2003 as I hoped to learn how to play it, but soon thereafter I realized it was an item exclusively worth preserving.

Another event took place which saddled me with a 17-year guilt trip of my own making. During my mother’s move, I thought I lost all the original sheet music. This included my grandfather’s hand-written notes and tablature (which represents the scales/chords one uses to play an instrument). My heart dropped, thinking how these precious heirlooms were lost forever. Being a drummer for most of my life and a novice guitarist, these documents provided a unique connection to a long-lost relative.

Events on the ground changed in 2017. My mother, having sadly passed away from Leukemia, left me in charge of all her personal belongings. This was nothing short of overwhelming, but in an instant that 17-year guilt trip vanished.

Having picked up a cardboard box in her home, one that was 20+ years old, the bottom fell out and heaps of paperwork scattered across the floor. I promptly dropped an F-bomb.

But on the bottom of that paper stack was my grandfather’s sheet music. Eureka! Discovered and saved, I promised to preserve these documents and his banjo forever.

2019 rolled around and by that time we had just remodeled our basement. This included some exceptional carpentry work by Neal Tanis who built our entertainment center. Shortly thereafter, I came upon the picture of my grandfather holding his banjo. I set my sights on preserving his memories and showcasing these items.

I started by searching for a display case in which to show (and lock away) the banjo itself. The only thing that worked was a display case for an electric guitar. Ordered, I moved on to the sheet music.

I went to the best framing place in Bergen County (New Jersey), Glen Rock Art & Frame. We paired the sheet music with black frames with blue mats, showcasing one two-page song and two others side-by-side.

It all came together and in hindsight, it was a blessing to find that photo—noting my grandfather’s age on the backside.

I would give anything to share a beer with ole’ grandpa Martin. We could exchange stories about playing music, how it feels to hear the applause and yelps from the crowd when you play well. I’ve done this at the Knitting Factory and more recently at the Bitter End in Manhattan.

Did Martin play to an audience of lumberjacks? Maybe he played in a bluegrass band, hitting the banjo strings in unison with others. Did he sing?

More importantly, his memories will be treasured in our basement and my son will see his picture and (hopefully) appreciate his instrument. He’ll see another example, like the display I have of my mother’s burl wood sculpture, and the beauty of our family’s lineage.

When you’re the son or daughter of divorced parents, its rewarding when you make an effort to extend a family’s story and encompass a broader narrative. Family is forever, and if you can shine a light on meaningful events and items, it helps to heal unseen wounds.

And if that brings a smile to your face when you speak to your children, that helps to espouse the value of family itself.

If you enjoyed this story from The Father Apprentice, check these out as well:

Man Cave Essentials: Create Something With Purpose

The Lump that Turned into a Legacy

570 Miles on a Single Tank—Benefits of a Plug-In Hybrid Car

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