My dad, Joe, was a banjo man. He lived through two world wars and a great depression. For him, music was a way to make sense of life's more painful and confounding moments. It was blue-collar therapy.
He was mostly self taught. The music was in his genes. He played through his sorrows but also his joys. I don't think I ever heard a more striking sound. It was a constant in my growing-up years. And, when I was old enough to learn a keyboard instrument, Dad was ready to teach me the songs of his youth: the depression-era jazz tunes, the bluesy sounds of New Orleans and, of course, the polkas and waltzes that were so much a part of our Polish American heritage. I learned gladly. This was something so special ... I on my accordion, dad on his banjo. He was passing down his favorite songs. We didn't need music books. This was just a hand-me-down form of fatherly love. I lapped it up like a puppy.
The years passed. I grew up, married, and started a family of my own. Dad became a grandfather. The music that was such a part of my early life seemed to fade away amidst the newfound responsibilities of parenthood. Dad, too, became more involved with his new role as "pop pop" and somehow did not feel the need to play his banjo anymore. It was put away. Sadly, I don't think the kids ever heard him make music. He died, quite suddenly, when they were still very young. And the banjo music was, indeed, forever silenced.
Yet, life is full of surprises and serendipitous moments.
The first Christmas after my dad's death, a close friend who was a social worker asked me to entertain at a Christmas party for a local housing project. There was such a void in my life that Christmas. I was still grieving my loss, missing Dad so much. Something made me take my accordion to this event. I figured that providing a bit of holiday music for others might help mitigate my own sadness. The only thing missing would be dad at my side with his banjo.
So I went. The party was a great mix of young and old, residents of the apartment complex and nearby youth centers. About halfway through my repertoire of Christmas songs, I noticed a silver-haired gentleman standing on the sidelines really watching me play and tapping his feet to the music. I smiled and he came over to talk. He was about 60-65 years old and shyly asked if he could join in.
His name was Joe and he played the banjo.
Once I nodded an okay, he went up to his room and came back in a few minutes with his instrument - a tenor banjo, just like my dad's. Now that the kiddie Christmas music was mostly done, we tuned up and started to play one song after another. It was like we had been playing together for years. All the songs my Dad taught me, this Joe also knew. We played on and on. It was such a gift. I felt like my dad was there with us, just lighting up the room with his smile.
The party ended. Joe and I packed up our instruments and shook hands. I told him how much his music meant to me and why. He just smiled and seemed to understand. And then he went back to his room at the project and I went home to my life as a wife and mother. We never saw each other again.
Many years later, I watch with pleasure as my granddaughter, Sophie, becomes very interested in learning the ukelele. Playing the strings seems to come to her quite naturally. She is with me when I take my dad's old banjo to a family friend, a master woodsman, who actually restores the instrument to its former glory. He offers it to her to pluck a bit. She plays some chords and smiles shyly back at me. I have a lump in my throat.
There is something about a banjo ...