Banjos and God

When I started making banjos, I had no knowledge of the workings of the banjo world and no connections to even a single banjo player. I didn’t play banjo and hadn’t ever build one. I wasn’t even familiar with the vast majority of well-known banjo players and music out there. All I had was a suspicion that the banjo was the direction that God wanted my artistic career to take, and I dove in to building one.

I have had those suspicions in my life before. A few years after I graduated from college, where my belief in a Biblical Creator had been beaten out of me, I had a suspicion that God would be coming back into my life in a renewed way, even though I did not consider myself a Christian at that point. I soon got a job at a small bronze foundry casting artwork for the owner, a sculptor who had curious views about God. He took literally the words and directives of the Bible, trying to follow them in the way that they first century church did, before they were corrupted by government dominated “religion”. Being a self-confident young educated person, I argued points with him only to have him explain his stances in ways that actually made sense. He pointed me to his library of books (kept in our “break room”, which was also his little studio apartment where he lived on the foundry premises), and I spent all my breaks and lunches in there reading, often being late back to work. I worked at that job for 4 years and believed much (not all) of what I read and that the owner told me, and it put me on a slow path back to faith, a new and much more real faith than I’d grown up with. It grew in a gradual way over the course of the next 10 years, when I was finally baptized.

Around the time I started that job, I also started getting to know my future wife, who lived overseas, through letters (old-fashioned, hand written ones – neither of us had email). She had been a mere acquaintance in college, but we had a close mutual friend whom I was living with when she called for him on the phone one day. We talked. I started tagging messages to the back of envelopes that my friend wrote her, and then we wrote our own letters to each other. Then she came to the states to visit friends and families that had helped her out when she was in college. I had moved to a different house, and the old roommate/friend was out of town, so she visited me. It was a simple evening of conversation and tea, but when I dropped her off where she was staying, we both had an unspoken sense that this was not the end. She went back to her country, but I knew I had to ask her to marry me, and had a suspicion she’d accept. I did ask her through the next letter I wrote, and through a series of expensive phone calls (again, before either of us had email or Skype or anything free like that) she eventually accepted. We were married just over a year after that visit.

Both my relationships with my wife and with my Creator have had their struggles, but both of those suspicions have proven correct. Struggles just mean growth, even if it is not always apparent. I have grown quite a bit over the last 15 years, yet know I have a long way to go in both relationships. In both cases I have been extremely glad I listened to whatever voice gave me those suspicions.

My banjo suspicion felt much the same, but with even more certainty. Because of that certainty and my past history of following those suspicions, I started into this one with a passion and haven’t looked back. So now, almost 2 years after my banjo conversion, my suspicion that the banjo would become part of my life has certainly proven correct. It has, however, given me its own share of struggles. I had built some guitars before and banjos looked simpler upon first glimpse, so I thought it would be easy to pump a few out. That was just as wrong as me thinking I knew anything about God or the Bible before studying on my own, and just as wrong as thinking I could have a good marriage without putting real work into it.

When I got back into Christianity, I did so by studying everything on my own, not believing what anyone told me without first proving it for myself. It was, and still is, a lot of hard work. It turns out there are a lot of things in the Bible that aren’t taught in most churches, and a lot of things taught in church that just aren’t Biblical. My new faith didn’t really resemble much of what I had previously thought of as being a Christian. I’m not a member of any church organization, for instance. But it was a lot more real to me because the world started to make much more sense, even as it became harder to take part in. One of the first things I discovered was that you don’t become a Christian expecting God to make your life easier.

I also took the different path in my marriage; one that took extra hard work. Any marriage takes work, but an international marriage has its own set of stresses that come with it, trying to build on cultural misunderstandings that cannot be known ahead of time. We also didn’t realize immediately how polar opposite we were personality-wise. Yes, opposites attract, but they don’t naturally complement without a lot of hard work to align those differences. As a result there have been struggles, fights and times when all seemed hopeless. We both have ideals that are often in seemingly complete contradiction, but because neither of us gives up on them, our struggles have, over time, and only visible now in retrospect, found ways to not only coexist, but to harmonize with each other in ways we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. That I started into Christianity (and a funny version of it at that) didn’t help our getting along (again God doesn’t make things easy…), but I kept on with the idea that God had given her to me and this gave me faith that all would work out best for Him in the end. She was baptized this last year. These are the kinds of problems our Creator helps us to solve when we show him we are serious and don’t give up.

Notice the theme here of not doing things the same as others. To a certain extent maybe this is just a contrarian personality trait of mine. But I think there is more going on. I really don’t try to do things differently just for the sake of being different. I try to be critical in all things and not assume that the popular opinion is the correct one until I have had a chance to prove it. God said that his true church would be scattered at the end time. That tells me that belonging to a major church organization is not the best way to go. He also says to “prove all things” and to “test the spirits,” which tells me I better start proving from the Bible any doctrine that tries to be passed off on me. So here I am, not completely alone, but in a very small minority, even among Christians, because I don’t do things like celebrate Christmas or Easter that aren’t found in the Bible, but instead keep things like a Saturday Sabbath and Holy Days that God did command, such as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. It makes my life far less convenient to do these things, but the Bible never teaches acting out of convenience as a character trait He looks for. In fact He appreciates quite the opposite – sacrifice, in a personal sense.

When it came to creating banjos, at first I didn’t even realize I was following the same pattern. But having a small amount of hindsight to look back on now, I see that I was doing exactly the same thing. I distanced myself in many ways from the rest of the banjo world, not because I felt in any way superior, but because I knew so little and saw so many conflicting opinions among the “experts” that I had to find the best way (for me) on my own. I’m now starting to see that this distancing will likely be to my benefit in the long run, as I find a niche of people who are looking for something that is different from the rest of the banjo world, but different in a way that has reason and functionality behind it, not just a new look on top of an old design. By choosing banjos as my instrument to focus on I had also stumbled inadvertently on an instrument that had room for experimenting and improving but surprisingly few builders doing that. There are thousands of guitar builders, almost all of them trying to find some way to set themselves apart in world that has already been almost perfected, but there are only a handful of banjo builders who are really trying to solve any of the problems inherent to the banjo, an instrument that is far from perfect.

This is not to say I am on easy street now. Far from it. I am still starting out, with no name recognition, in a market that is dominated by people who couldn’t care less about improving the banjo, preferring tradition to what actually works better.

Again, this is exactly what I find with my version of Christianity, too. People tend to think that because their minister/pastor/priest says that something is right, it must be, because they went to seminary and learned how to interpret the Bible and we didn’t. But when every denomination’s claims are different from one another, where does that leave us? The Bible tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Indeed, if that fear of going somewhere new with Christ isn’t there, there must be hardly any point in going at all. When Christ died for us, there was the sound of the curtain to the Holy of Holies being torn in two. This was the curtain that only the Levitical High Priest could enter on the people’s behalf, once per year. Back then it was required to have the Priest as an intermediary between God and us. But by that event, we are now able to come directly to our Creator, for there is no curtain keeping us out. We no longer have the need for an intermediary minister/pastor/priest. This is not to say we cannot learn from others, for that can certainly be necessary in our growth, it is just that we need to take what they teach at face value and look to God’s Word ourselves to see if the teaching fits with the patterns laid out there. I have and will continue to learn from others in my walk with God, and in learning the best route to building banjos, but I will check out everything myself before deciding the best route.

The question I am asked more often than any other lately is, “Why banjos?” I never know quite how to answer that. People obviously see the sudden change in trajectory in my life and wonder what caused it. Explaining about following a suspicion is a little like telling someone I’m listening to voices in my head, which is about as good of a conversation stopper as there is, so I usually just respond some vague way that doesn’t really answer the question. It is also a bit difficult to explain why when I haven’t really been able to understand completely myself. But after being exposed to the banjo world for a while now, I have come to see something quite unique about the people who play and build them. There seems to be a larger percentage of banjoists who have a genuine love for God than of any other musicians that I know of. Admittedly I have no scientific studies to back this up, and it is a big generalization with many exceptions, but I do think that it holds true in the general sense. Since being on the Banjo Hangout forum, I have seen many people offering prayers to those in need, forming groups for lovers of gospel music and for banjo playing pastors, and there seems to be an overall sense of community and mutual respect among each other. Yes, we all know the exceptions to those cases, too, but I just don’t see those things happening on a guitar forum, for instance (this is not meant to bash guitar players by any means, so please don’t go there). And the banjo music I have found has an incredibly high rate of songs relating to faith in a very real God. Maybe it is the banjos historic roots in old-time gospel oriented music or simply the faith that permeates the southern states where the banjo took hold. But whatever the reason I have seen it, even if it is not true, it is something that has helped me to embrace it even more. If it is something that brings people closer to their Creator or helps express a closeness that is already there, I want more of that, and if I can be part of that community and make banjos in the same way that I believe in God, then that is where I want to be.

I am interested in hearing stories from other people who may have a similar link in their life, be it banjos or anything else. Email me your stories in the Contact Form. I don’t allow comments on these pages because of spam and the tendency for select individuals to ruin an open forum.