Historian pickin' and teachin' at elementary school

January 29, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. - Students at North Jefferson Elementary School took a break from their regular studies Tuesday for a lesson that took them back hundreds of years into U.S. history.

The spotlight was on the banjo, the musical instrument known for its distinct plinking sound that has been used in many styles of music.

The banjo is often associated with bluegrass music that rings through Appalachian states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

But that's not where it all began.

The banjo originated in Africa, and was brought to the United States by slaves, said George Wunderlich, a banjo expert who builds the instruments and studies them.


Wunderlich showed students an early version of the banjo, the body of which was made out of gourd. It uses "cat gut" strings, Wunderlich said.

But don't worry, a cat didn't have to be sacrificed for the instrument, Wunderlich said.

The material used to make cat gut strings is the same material that is used to make encased foods like hot dogs or kielbasa, Wunderlich said.

"None of you will ever eat a hot dog again will you?" said Wunderlich, who has built banjos for musicians, museums, historians and re-enactors around the world and has assisted the Smithsonian Institution in the study of the instrument.

Wunderlich plucked away on the banjo and the kids clapped to the beat of quick-paced 19th century songs like "Oh Susanna" and "Old Dan Tucker."

Wunderlich took questions from the students as he went along.

One boy wanted to hear some Johnny Cash.

Wunderlich said about the newest song he knows dates to 1863.

"Although I'm a huge Johnny Cash fan, I'm not talented enough to play his stuff," Wunderlich said.

Wunderlich showed other versions of the banjo to describe how its design evolved over the years in the United States.

He told the story of one banjomaker who believed the banjo deserved higher stature, so he designed its neck like that of a violin, which meant it didn't have any frets.

Wunderlich has been making banjos since 1992, and estimates he has made more than 220. His shop, the Wunder Banjo Co., is in Myersville, Md.

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