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Banjo maker honored for achievements

June 07, 2009|By MARLO BARNHART

HAGERSTOWN -- A phone caller at the Wunderlich residence recently asked Hagerstown banjo maker George Wunderlich to attend a dinner in Baltimore on June 11.

"I kept telling them I was busy and wouldn't be able to come," Wunderlich said Thursday.

He changed his mind after the caller spilled the beans and told him he was to be honored at the dinner.

He has been named one of three winners of a prestigious ALTA award for achievement through Maryland Traditions, a cooperative program of the Maryland Historical Trust and the Maryland State Arts Council, which celebrates folk life and living traditions in Maryland.

Wunderlich, who is executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., said news of the award took him by surprise.

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Wunderlich said he believes he is getting the award because he and his collaborator, Greg Adams, have organized events such as a June 4 and 5 banjo conference in Frederick funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The 10 handpicked participants spent their time studying ways to modify and improve the banjo around the world, Wunderlich said.

"The banjo has its roots in Africa and the Caribbean, but not as a banjo -- the actual banjo developed here," Wunderlich said. "The adaptation is unique to the United States."

To the rest of the world, Wunderlich said, the banjo is "Camptown Races" and "Old Dan Tucker."

The ALTA award is named for Dr. Alta Schrock, a folklorist and community leader.

Wunderlich said he started making the instruments in 1992, after he heard a tape of musicians playing 19th-century banjo music. He was allowed to view the Smithsonian Institution's collection of 19th-century banjos.

Shortly thereafter, he began experimenting, going to the University of Virginia to study with design engineer Ed Britt.

Wunderlich said Britt made a blueprint of a 19th-century banjo that started things rolling in the right direction.

On average, it takes him about 40 hours to make a banjo, he said in a 2007 interview at his Wagaman Road home. Depending on the design, the banjos sell for $950 to $1,200.

The ALTA Award will be presented to three recipients at the Maryland Traditions showcase "Maryland Masters: Down the Street and Around the Globe" at the Creative Alliance at The Patterson in Baltimore.

The other two awards are going to Blob's Park Bavarian Bier Garten in Howard County, Md., and to the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Swan Meadow School of Oakland in Garrett County, Md.

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