Fifty Years of the Seattle Banjo Club

  • By John LaFond
  • Posted 3/24/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10348

This is a People's History of the first 50 years of the Seattle Banjo Club, founded in 1962.  It was written by John LaFond, who joined in 1973. He is the club's longest-serving member.

Peanuts, Popcorn, and Beer

The Seattle Banjo Club was born in 1962, under the leadership of Myron Hinkle (1916-2001), a banjoist in "The Banjo Boys" (four banjos and a piano) at the Blue Banjo, a popular bar in Pioneer Square where patrons were entertained on Friday and Saturday nights while they sang along, ate peanuts and popcorn, and drank beer by the pitcher.

After a discussion one night about the possibility of a banjo club, a newspaper advertisement for four string banjo players brought out a large number of responders. Many of them had played in the 1920s when every orchestra and dance band had a tenor or plectrum banjo in their rhythm section. Others loved the music and wanted to learn to play. Lessons were arranged for those who wanted to learn and the club was up and running. The club provided a place to celebrate the instrument and its music, to learn to play, and to perform with other players for live audiences.

The club has performed in a variety of places, including for fraternal organizations, retirement homes, nursing homes, hospitals, PTA socials, reunions, benefits, auctions, pancake breakfasts, ice cream socials, picnics, and at the Ballard Locks.

It played frequently for parties in the Mountain Room at the Rainier Brewery until that closed, and has participated in such events as the Spokane World's Fair (1974), the opening of the King Dome (1976) and the opening of Quest Field (2002).  For several summers, the club played the Microsoft employee picnic and one year -- on a riverboat float -- played in the Seafair Torchlight Parade.

Known Near And Far

The Seattle Banjo Club even has international credits in its resume. In 1972, club member Vern Higman went to manage the officers club at a United States Naval Base in Rota, Spain. He arranged for a number of members and their wives to spend 29 days at the base in the fall performing on the base and traveling, as a USO tour, around the Mediterranean. Traveling on Navy aircraft and buses, they visited many United States military bases and schools. Jack Holt , president of the club at the time, planned and directed a Riverboat Musical program with 10 banjos, a bass, horns and two Charleston dancers. The club performed at the United States Embassy in Madrid and appeared on television from the Opera House in Seville, Spain. 

In the early days of the club, an annual dinner was held at which club members, guests, and other banjoists performed and played in jam sessions. In 1977, the event became a three day celebration called The Banjo Pickers Ball, which was staged in various hotel ballrooms and included a show featuring other banjo clubs, small groups, and soloists. In 1982, the name was changed to the Seattle Banjo Festival.

SRO

By 1991, the festival had outgrown hotel venues and was moved to the 800-seat Highline Performing Arts Center in Burien. The annual program included out of town attendees, performances by other banjo clubs, nationally known soloists, a hospitality room, and a place for jamming.

Interest was high, and the Highline Center was filled during the first few years. With audiences of this size, even the modest admission price generated what for the club seemed substantial income.  It was decided that all net profits would be donated to Seattle Children’s Hospital. That practice has continued and over the years the club has donated more than $60,000 to the hospital.

The Highline Performing Arts Center festivals continued through 2004, when, because of declining ticket sales, the show was moved to the Inn at Port Hadlock. After three years at that venue, Seattle’s annual event was discontinued.  The club continues to perform, however, at the annual banjo festival staged by the Tacoma Banjo Band at the Little Creek Casino/ Resort near Shelton. 

Banjo Festivals

In the 1980s and 1990s, many of the Seattle Banjo Club members attended and performed at similar festivals put on by banjo clubs in Sacramento and San Jose, California; Billings, Montana; and Corvallis, Oregon. The club was often represented at the festival in Caldwell, Idaho, put on by the Boise Banjo Band between 1982 and 2007.  

In addition to these festivals, contingents of club members attended and performed at a festival in New York in 1980, and at the Fretted Instrument Guild of America Convention in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky in 1998. Often playing with them were the "farthest east" members of the club, Ford Topping (banjo) and his wife Laura (tuba), from Jackson, Michigan.

In recent years, deaths and other departures have reduced the size of the Seattle Banjo Club. The first photo of the Club in 1963 has 23 players. A 1980 club photo shows 40 players, and a 2004 photo shows 12 players. By the end of 2012 -- the 50th year of the club -- the group was down to a handful of regular banjo players.  We seem to have come full circle -- as in 1962, a few banjo players getting together occasionally in a setting where songs are sung, peanuts and popcorn are eaten, and beer is drunk by the pitcher. Who knows where such a thing might lead?


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