Tri-County Banjo Band does what it can to keep sound of another era alive
Bert Murphy knows Mrs. Bailey’s lament by heart.
A long time ago, she threw out husband Bill on a rainy night. Poor Bill managed to pack only a fine-tooth comb before his exposure to the elements.
Murphy and other people who like old-fashioned music know Mrs. Bailey eventually changed her mind. “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey,” she moaned all night long. “I’ll do the cookin’ darlin’, I’ll pay the rent. I know I’ve done you wrong.”
Murphy sang the words of “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey” last weekend, striking up the Tri-County Banjo Band at an annual gathering at Coburg Village retirement center in Rexford. Seventeen members of the band, all dressed in bright red shirts and black slacks, played four-string banjos, drums and base fiddle. They celebrated nostalgia.
Castleton resident Murphy, 80, says keeping alive favorites from another era is one of the band’s chief missions. Senior citizens are the band’s core audience, and that’s why the men and women in the group play retirement centers, nursing homes, park concerts and other community events.
Formed in 1967
“If we see gray hair in the audience, we know we’re in good company,” said Murphy, who has been playing banjo for 40 years and has been with the group for the past 12. “If we see people in their 40s, we know we’re in trouble, because most of them don’t know our songs.”
Seniors and younger people at Coburg seemed to appreciate the band’s Sunday playbook, which also included “Satin Doll,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Moonlight Bay.” On other days, they might play old faves like “Five-Foot-Two,” “Baby Face,” “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.”
The men and women behind the instruments are part of a legacy — the band formed in South Troy in 1967. Club history says George Foley heard a banjo bunch in California, and was sufficiently enthused to begin a Capital Region troupe. Foley and fellow banjo player Jim Devlin assembled the first group.
At first, members from Rensselaer, Albany and Greene counties joined. And while the “Tri-County” name has stuck around for 46 years, players have come from counties all over the Northeast. Banjo fans from Schenectady, Columbia, Otsego, Saratoga, Schoharie, Herkimer and Warren counties are now on the roster.
Banjo outfits are playing all over the country. According to The Resonator, a newsletter for the banjo aficionado, the Riverbank Banjo Band operates in Poughkeepsie, the Stone Street Strummers are based in Walpole, Mass., and the Windy City Jammers call Chicago home — just to name a few.
Frank Rossi, editor of The Resonator and leader of the 80-member Pittsburgh Banjo Club, said banjo bands are keeping the four-string version of the banjo alive. Bluegrass and country musicians play five-string models.
“We’re out there playing for the general public, we’re playing the songs from the 1920s and 1930s, the Tin Pan Alley songs,” Rossi said. “They were great sing-along songs like “Four Leaf Clover” and “Baby Face.”
In Pittsburgh, Rossi said, some young people are hearing the old songs for the first time. He said the Pittsburgh group’s weekly rehearsals are open to the public and crowded with college-aged men and women.
“They’ve never heard that music before, it’s new to them,” Rossi said. “The young kids just love that kind of music; they’ve never been exposed to it. They’re learning the history of those songs.”
Amazed by the sound
Tri-County members have different reasons for sitting in. Tom Ludwig, 75, of Schenectady, has been a strummer since 1962.
“It’s the music, the sound,” Ludwig said, explaining his devotion to banjo strings and circular pot. “When I was in grade school in Chicago, they used to have minstrel shows in school; there was always a banjo player up there. I was amazed by the sound it produced . . . it stuck with me.”
For Joe Santa Lucia, 74, of Lansingburgh, learning the banjo became a family affair. His uncle, Tony Morgia, played the strings during the speakeasy days of the 1920s and early 1930s, the Prohibition era. “Some of the stories he had were unbelievable,” Santa Lucia said. “He played for Jack “Legs” Diamond in the hotels. Jack always had a corner room and he would always sit in the corner so they couldn’t get at him.”
Jack’s enemies did get him. On Dec. 18, 1931, he was shot to death inside an Albany rooming house.
The banjo is more often associated with less dramatic incidents. “You can’t play a sad song on the banjo,” Murphy said. “That’s one of our mottoes.”
Twenty-three musicians are currently in the band, playing Gibson, Paramount, Bacon or Vega banjos, many of them 75 years old.
“We’re kind of holding our own,” said club president Jim Lavery, 74, of Ballston Spa. “We gain a few members, we lose a few members.”
For Lavery, a retired Methodist minister who has been wearing red since 1998, playing banjo gives him the chance to meet people. “For me, it’s sort of my primary social outlet,” he said. “I took lessons when I was 14 and I picked it up again later in life. It’s a growing experience, . . . and I enjoy the camaraderie.”
The group is always looking for new members. Jesse Rock joined four years ago, at age 12. Now 16, Stillwater resident Rock is the youngest banjo man in the band. For Rock, the music is the main appeal. Rock and rap popular with his peers are not his music.
“They just don’t use as many instruments as they used to,” Rock said. “I just like being with the guys. Nice people, good friends.”
Like Santa Lucia, Susie Barger has a family connection to the instrument. Her mother, Annette Mendel, used to lead the band during the 1990s. She began playing in 1997, after her mother passed away. Her uncle, Jack Keppler, and longtime banjo band member Floyd Smith — the oldest member at age 93 — taught her how to play.
“It’s the people you’re with and the response of the audience,” said Barger, 64, of Westerlo. “It’s happy music.”