I suppose you have heard of Mr. Bojangles, who danced his way throughout the American South. Bojangles was immortalized in song by artists including Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Our story concerns another famous music man, a local boy made good, known as Banjo Joe. I first made his acquaintance when he moved across the street from me several years ago, and gave me a little education concerning the instrument for which he is named.
Best known as an American stringed instrument, the banjo is most closely associated with Bluegrass and Country & Western music (remember the lively tune, Dueling Banjoes, from the film Deliverance?). The instrument’s roots can be traced back to Africa, the Middle East, and Japan, where it is still found today. Conceivably, the instrument was first constructed from a gourd, for the body, and a piece of bamboo that comprised its neck.
Various tribes in Africa named the instrument bangie, banjer, banjar and banza, while the Japanese called it the shamisen and the Persians, the tar. In the early 1700’s, Africans were sold into slavery and brought to America’s Deep South to toil in the cotton fields. With them, they brought music that helped them endure through their trials. Sung “call and answer” style between the rows of cotton, this music would later become known as Delta blues. When it went north, it altered somewhat, taking on the name of Chicago blues.
As Little Richard has said, “The blues had a baby and called it rock n’ roll.” Indeed, they did, and rock’s siblings are gospel music, soul music, and jazz. At the heart of all these genres lies the sounds birthed in the cotton fields, including the music presumably made on the African banjer. By the time the instrument had moved into the Appalachian region of the U.S., it became known as “the banjo.”
Introduced in the 1830’s to mainstream America by the American minstrel performer Joel Sweeney, the banjo became popular in Southern music halls. Sweeney’s band later brought the instrument to Great Britain in 1840’s.
The construction of a modern-day banjo consists of a neck connected to the body or “pot” made of a circular wooden ring, and a tension head similar to a drumhead that is fastened by a metal tone ring. Originally fashioned out of animal skin, today’s banjo head uses synthetic material. Banjos are made of four, five, or six strings, which are plucked and strummed to create the music. Some have resonator plates; others have an open back. While the six-string banjo is tuned and played like a guitar, other varieties feature tuning pegs or planetary gears, instead of the worm gear-tuning keys on the guitar.
The banjo is played in different styles. The clawhammer method uses downward rather than upward strokes with the fingernails, while frailing uses the thumb to catch the fifth string to create a drone effect. In the early 1960’s, Pete Seeger popularized the genre of folk music. Strumming the banjo, he combined the clawhammer method without the use of fingerpicks. Bluegrass music favors the five-string resonator banjo played in several styles, including the Scruggs style. This was named after musician Earl Scruggs, while the Reno style honored the music man named Don Reno.
Now that you know as much as I do regarding the history of the banjo, let’s turn back to our protagonist, Banjo Joe, whose story begins on April 6, 1935, when Joseph Dougherty entered this world. At an early age, his father died, leaving his mother the duty of raising her family alone. The Dougherty’s lived in a section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania known as Manayunk, a very hilly section on the Schuylkill River.
Inhabited by working class people, the area was known for the Manayunk Canal and the thirteen knitting mills that had sprung up around the waterway. After a long day’s work, the people of Manayunk often patronized the many saloons and bars in the area. In years to come, these pubs would welcome the entertainer who came to be known as Banjo Joe.
While still young, Joe was enrolled in Gerard College. This was a school founded by Stephen Gerard, a Philadelphia financier who established the institution for impoverished, fatherless boys, such as Joe. Here, the youngster was not only educated in academic subjects, he also learned to play the trumpet and violin; he also sang in the choir. Thus did destiny set the stage for music to figure prominently in Joe’s life.
When Joe was 15, his mother presented him with a banjo as a Christmas gift, which she’d picked up at a pawnshop for the sum of $37.50. A local barber kindly taught Joe the rudiments of playing the banjo.
Desiring to hone his skills, Joe joined the Uptown String Band that performed on New Year’s Day in the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. Of this association, he said, “I cut my teeth playing the banjo in this organization.” After a few years, he was recruited to play for Avalon and other string bands before setting out on his own.
Playing at local bars and saloons in Manyunk, Joe met up with other performers. With them, the banjo player formed an act whose repertoire included singing, telling jokes, and impersonations. Soon, he became known as “Banjo Joe” throughout the neighborhood.
Joe’s first professional appearance occurred at the Head House in the Old Society Hill section of Philadelphia. At this venue, he entertained enthusiastic audiences for the next 21 months. During this time, he caught the attention of Jack Downey and was offered a job at the new Downey Saloon, which was located in Philadelphia.
Striking out on his own, Banjo Joe gave personal appearances at private parties on the Main Line as well as local nursing homes and senior complexes. His lighthearted music and personality overflowed into the audience, who joined in on the refrains of the songs dear to their hearts.
Ever the perfectionist, Joe wished to distinguish himself from other banjo players by creating a new sound. Thus did he develop Banjo Joe’s Revolutionary Resonator Banjo: an instrument whose head was 56% larger than the normal banjo and included a fluted resonator. The resonator added a mellow quality to the powerful, 125-year old history of the banjo. Joe’s new sound was called, “The Riverboat King.”
Footloose and fancy free, Banjo Joe toured Europe. From the pubs of Ireland to the beer halls of Bavaria, Joe went on to headline Dusseldorf, The Continent’s Dixieland Capital.
Alone on the road, Joe missed the love of friends and family he’d left behind, as well as the music that was uniquely Manyunk’s. This was not the music crafted of eight notes but the bustling sounds of the business district, the children’s carousels, the tolling of the church bells, rumble of the freight trains, and the whisper of the cool breeze from the river on a hot summer’s day. Little did homesick Joe know that his next tour would change his life forever.
Returning from Europe, he was signed to play six nights a week for 15 weeks aboard a stern-wheeler in Marietta, Ohio. This dry-docked ship had been christened The Becky Thatcher. For the first three weeks of this gig, Joe also played at the Lafayette Hotel to entertain the dinner crowd just up the street from the Betsy Thatcher.
One evening, a young woman accompanied by her grandfather came to see and hear the entertainment. Of this young lady, Joe said, “At first it was a passing fancy. But when she came back many times and we made eye contact, I found myself captivated by her gorgeous coffee brown eyes, rosebud lips, and long brown hair. I was hopelessly in love! Her name was Ilene and the feelings were mutual. She was attending Ohio State University, but there was a problem in our budding romance, as I was years older than she was.”
After Joe returned to Manayunk, he and Ilene maintained contact, for it was serious between them. Finally, on Valentine’s Day, Joe proposed marriage and his beloved readily accepted. With that, he returned to Marietta, Ohio to ask her family for her hand in marriage. On February 16, 1980, they were married in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and resided in Manayunk. Several years later, they moved to a quiet little town not far from where they were married.
2010 marks the celebration of Joe and Ilene’s 30 years of happily married life. In addition to playing a mean banjo, Joe’s other interest is as an avid gardener. He can advise you regarding the pH factor of soil needed to grow specific fruits and vegetables. Banjo Joe is also available for entertaining private parties and visits to nursing homes, and I can personally attest to his abilities as a fine entertainer.
Inn 2007, I hosted a Pearl Harbor Memorial Service at the VFW Hall in Maple Shade, New Jersey. Joe had volunteered his services, playing a medley of songs dating back to World War I. These included It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Over There, in addition to God Bless America. From an audience of post members, schoolchildren, and visiting dignitaries, Joe drew thunderous applause.
Like the locomotive and, indeed, the way of life depicted in the song The City of New Orleans by Arlo Guthrie, Banjo Joe is part of a breed I call “Vanishing America.” He is truly a one-man minstrel show. With his nostalgic songs and witty stories, Joe brings back the days when chivalry existed and life moved at a slower pace. Sadly, that way of life has all but disappeared from our landscape. Like the American cowboy, the American Indian, the buffalo, and Mr. Bojangles, the good old days are, to steal a very famous title from Martha Mitchell, Gone with the Wind.