Log Cabin Chronicles

Banjo player John Foster

Just Folks

Old timey gourd & gut-string banjos
John Foster builds 'em, plays 'em

JOHN MAHONEY
Sherbrooke, Quebec

john Steven Foster picks up his banjo and lightly plucks the gut strings.

"I love to play that early stuff."

This is not the ringing steel-string sound of Dueling Banjos -- the tone is sweet, mellow, muted.

There are no frets on the long wooded neck, -- which was salvaged from an old piano. The strings are made from natural gut. Foster stretched the calfskin top -- he bought the entire hide -- over a large gourd and secured it with snowshoe rawhides.

His new gourd banjos are a late 20th Century development of the classic banjars crafted and played for centuries by black slaves, who brought the tradition from their African homelands.

"I've always had a banjo since I was a teenager," says Foster. "A few years ago I became interested in the sound of the gourd banjo, so I set out to build one."

It takes a long, hot growing season to ripen the thick-skinned 12-inch gourds needed to build banjos, and Foster's are California-grown. "It's always a bit of a gamble -- you never know what you're getting until they arrive in the mail."

gourd banjo close-up In addition to cutting a series of small, ornate soundholes, he seals the gourd with rub-on varnish. The gourd is attached to the neck by a square wooden dowel that pierces it, and it is affixed with wedges. The gut strings bear on the bridge, then hook on to a tailpiece connected to the wooden dowel. "That's my own design," says Foster. "That way, there is no direct string pressure on the edge of the gourd,"

Foster ties the calfskin top on with babiche, which is the rawhide used to create crisscrossed snowshow lacings. "I soak it, then split it in half," he says.

banjos, front and back We're sitting under an apple tree between the house and the barn and Foster is plucking one sweet run after another and talking about Tom Biggs, the great black banjo player of the 19th century whose posthumously published Brigg's Banjo Instructor was the first of it's kind.

"People really like the sound," says Foster. "Because this banjo is fretless, it's easy to do slides...it lends itself to playing blues.

In the introduction to a reprint of Biggs' book, Joe Ayers writes of the old tradition that predated the then-famous banjoist Joel Walker Sweeney:

    ...Before this the banjo has been quite common with negro boatmen of James River, whom I have often heard playing it while their batteaux were lying and the landing of the river at Lynchburg, ready to discharge or receive their cargoes of goods.

    In the interim, the original negro banjo, or the banjo at the time I speak of, was usually a round gourd with a drum head of sheep skin or coon skin, and four twisted horse hair strings, with brides, pegs, etc., usual to the banjo now.

    Sometimes the rim would be made of maple, or the rim of a sugar box, would be used. I have watched and listened to these boatmen play on these banjos, and if anything could exceed their apparent happiness and general beatitude while thus engaged, I have never yet been able to discover it.

pegs, hand As for Biggs, as he lay dying he tried to play one last tune on his beloved banjo but he was so feeble that he could barely make a sound. He looked up at friend and said: "It's no use, Eph -- hang it up -- I cannot hit it any more."

Foster, however, is still hitting it and not just on the banjo -- he also plays piano, piano accordion, bagpipes, guitar, mandolin, and the tin whistle.

And he' s willing to sell you a gourd banjo, or a more traditional minstrel banjo with a larger head.

The gourd banjos cost $350 plus shipping; the minstrel banjos are $650 plus shipping.

John Foster, PO Box 766, Derby Line, VT 05830
John Foster, 2506 Laurentie, Sherbrooke, QC
Tel: 819.565.3400

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