This little story started back in the late 1800’s sometime, and as incredible as all of this is going to sound, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles that it’s 100% the truth. I’m going to have to give you a little background information to get you up to speed on this little deal, so bear with me.
I used to have an old Great Uncle that lived down in the Oxark Mountains of southern Missouri. His name was Melvin Reese, but everyone just called him “Muck”. Exactly how he got that handle, I don’t have a clue. It seems like all of those hillbilly relatives of mine have nicknames for some reason.
Because I was the oldest, smartest, and handsomest of all their grandchildren, my Grandad and granny used to haul me all over the place on big road trips to visit our kin folks. Uncle Muck was always everyone’s favorite. A tall, long-armed, red headed character with a contagious laugh, he was always jokin’ around about something. When he’d tell a story, he’d get so tickled at it himself that he’d have the entire room crackin’ up just watching him laugh at his own story.
In true hillbilly style, Uncle Muck would rather hunt and fish than eat. He also played a mean five-string banjo, and I can just see him with his head reared back and his mouth wide open, belting out his famous Ozark rendition of “Cripple Creek”. He was a real hero of mine.
On one occasion we were down in “Bugger County” in the Ozarks on a little visit, and I convinced Uncle Muck to get out his banjo. He did, and (again) I was totally enthralled. “Ah, I don’t play it much anymore … in fact I don’t think I’ve picked ‘er up since the last time you was here. … got arthur-ite-us in m’ fingers.”
Bein’ smart like I am, I picked up right away that a budding young musician such as myself (probably 8 or 9 years old … without arthur-ite-us) could probably use a good banjo like that, and I spent the biggest part of the next couple of days trying to talk my favorite Uncle out of that good banjo of his. After all, he’d already said that he didn’t play it much anymore.
Finally, probably out of desperation … to get me to shut up, he told me that he just couldn’t bear to part with that old banjo, but there was one up in the attic that I could have if I wanted it. “She might need a little fixin’ up, though … to make ‘er work right.”
Well, Uncle Muck could possibly have been the Ozark King of Understatement. The head was busted, the strings and tuning pegs were missing, and it had been played so much that there were holes in the neck where the favorite chords had been played for the last 75 years or so. It needed a “little fixin’ up” al right.
Fast forward about 40 years or so now, and that old 1880’s model relic was still hangin’ on my wall. It really didn’t take a genius like me all that long to figure out that the old thing was way too far gone to fix up. But it DID have character, and it WAS Uncle Muck’s so it had earned its spot on the wall as a decoration. It brought back a lot of good ol’ memories of the long ago days and that favorite old Uncle, now passed on to his Reward.
A travelin’ band happened to be playing in town a few years ago, and because I knew some of them, they stopped out at our place for a visit before they headed back out on the road. One of the guys in the band was Jake Peters. Jake has been the Canadian Champion five string banjo picker so many times that he doesn’t even enter the contests anymore. He just doesn’t have any real competition.
Jake also builds and repairs instruments, and when he spied my old wall hanging, wanted to know the story behind it. I told him the tale, and he offered to take it back to Alberta with him and fix it all up as good as new. Because it was an old family heirloom, and it would be nice to see it play again, I agreed.
I got a call from my Canadian friend a year or so later, and he informed me that he’d found a banjo in a second hand store up north of Edmonton that was a dead ringer for Uncle Muck’s, and he figured that there were parts enough to make one good one out of the two.
Well, that’s just what he did. He had the metal parts re-plated and fixed the neck and tuning pegs as good as new. Although he’d been very careful to keep it entirely original, it probably looked even BETTER than it did when it was new.
“I never did fina a maker’s mark on it anywhere,” Jake grinned proudly as he handed over Uncle Munck’s pride and joy. It looked like it had just come out of a store window. “All I could see was a No. 25 written by hand on the inside of the wooden tone ring.”
“Did you ever look on the old parts banjo?” I asked. “if you think they’re made by the same guy, then maybe there’s a mark on that one.”
“Nope, I never did … let’s take a look.”
We had to back out a couple of screws and slide the shiny metal ring off to get a look at the inside of the wooden ring. There it was … for all the world to see … in the same hand writing as on Uncle Muck’s banjo … No.26!!
Here we had two banjos approximately 125 years old … made by the same guy, that were only one number apart! One of them had spent most of its life in the Ozark Mountains and the other one had somehow wound up over 2000 miles away in Canada/ It’s hard to imagine that they had actually lain side by side on their maker’s bench all those years before.
Fast forward withme once more … another six or eight years or so. I happened to get an email from a lady I’d never met. She’s a musician also, and was wondering if we were related. It turns out we are, as Uncle Muck was her Grandad. It’s funny how families drift apart, isn’t it? I just couldn’t resist telling her the entire banjo story, and how incredible the consecutive numbers were.
She was moved to tears … you see, her Mother had wound up with Uncle Muck’s good banjo when he’d died, but it had been stolen out of their house one day while they were away. That had been everal years ago now, and a thorough search of the pawn shops had turned up absolutely nothing. It appears that old banjo was lost forever … memories and all.
Was it just a coincidence that Jake Peters found the parts banjo north of Edmonton with a consecutive number, at least 2000 miles away from its old partner? … Maybe.
Was it purely accidental that a long lost cousin happened to contact me … a guy she’d never met, and then was moved to tears when she heard a simple story about a dumb banjo? … Perhaps.
Was it just a twist of fate that it happened to be the Christmas season … the time of year when we think most about giving gifts and blessing others? I heard a guy say once that giving can’t actually even be considered giving … until we give up something we REALLY want to keep. Well, just by coincidence, I REALLY wanted to keep that banjo … but, I also knew where it belonged.
There’s one thing that I KNOW wasn’t any coincidental accident. When my new-found cousin Jena got that surprise package with her Grandad’s banjo in it just before Christmas that year … she probably wet her pants.
Chapter 24 of “Sittin’ ‘Round the Stove” by Ken Overcast, © 2008 published by Bear Valley Press