Author: Martin, George

Humanity?s greatest achievement: The Banjo

Today?s Welcome column from George Martin
Thursday, November 13, 2008

When my copy of Banjo Newsletter arrived recently I was mildly surprised to see on the cover, ?35th Anniversary Issue? proudly emblazoned in a starburst-like headline.

Wow. I really am getting old. I remembered seeing an ad for BNL in Bluegrass Unlimited about 1974 or ?75, and sending off for it, so pleased that there was a publication for banjo players. Through the years the little newsletter evolved from stapled sheets, to more magazine style and lately with color pictures and all the bells and whistles. But it still gets read at my house as soon as it arrives in the mail.

BNL is more than a magazine; it?s more like a community. (When I met Nancy Nitchie, widow of the newsletter?s founder, at IBMA in 1998, she said, ?Oh, yes, I remember your subscription...? ) There are interviews with great pickers, instructional material, reviews of the latest goodies like tone rings dipped in liquid nitrogen or banjo pots made from old timber submerged in the Great Lakes for a hundred years, or heavyweight tailpieces, or lightweight tone rings -- whatever a banjo player might want to try to goose a little more tone or volume from his or her instrument.

I saved my issues for years, much to my wife?s dismay. Finally I decided I wasn?t going to reread them except for a very few, so I went through them and wrote in red marker on the cover any particular tablature or interview I wanted to save, and decided to give the rest away. By then I was volunteering at CBA Music
Camp, so I brought a pile and gave them to the banjo students, many of whom were unaware that there was such a magazine.

BNL was started back in 1973 by a banjo player named Hub Nitchie. At first it was called the Banjo Clearing House, and it was mostly a list of banjo makers and parts makers and string sellers and such. Initially Hub included some banjo tabs as incentives to buy the lists.

Soon he decided to start a ?Tab of the Month Club? and added some ?tips, gossip, more addresses? and that became Banjo Newsletter. Contributors are a who?s who of top banjo pickers: Tom Adams, Pete Wernick and Bill Evans are regulars (along with clawhammer pickers like Ken Perlman and Bob Carlin). Murphy Henry writes about learning by ear, and banjo-mandolin guru Roger H. Siminoff adds articles about his scientific experiments with tone rings, pot volumes, and mandolin tops. But along the way just about every major picker has either written for or been profiled in the paper.

Nitchie died in 1992, and his sons Donald and Spencer became editor and business manager respectively.

I have a Banjo Newsletter baseball cap I usually wear to CBA Music Camp and other bluegrass places. A few years ago I was wearing it in the crowd at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park when I found myself, for a split second, face-to-face with Steve Martin. I didn?t even have time to blurt out, ?Love your picking, Steve,? but I did notice his eyes dart to my cap and back to my face, recognizing a fellow banjo player.

Yup, BNL is like family.
Posted:  11/13/2008

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