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Building a Truly American Instrument

A Master and His Apprentice Build Banjos
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A master banjo maker shares the secrets of his craft to his student.

Building a Truly American Instrument
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Parts of the south in the United States are known for a kind of country music called bluegrass. And there is one instrument that is an important part of the bluegrass sound.

The banjo is a truly American instrument. It was brought to the United States by African slaves and then was adopted by people of the south to create their country music.

"Really, the banjo is the American instrument and it was made by both black and white cultures [that] came together to produce this instrument."

That is Christian Stanfield. He and his teacher, Tom George, have made the complex art of banjo making their lifetime project.

It began decades ago when Stanfield moved from Washington, D.C. to Memphis, Tennessee. He went to a dance party that featured folk music and the banjo. He says as soon as he heard the banjo, he fell in love. He borrowed one from a banjo player and got some good advice on where to buy one.

"I fell in love with the banjo, I really wanted to learn that new instrument. So I borrowed a banjo from him for two or three months and when I was ready to get a banjo of my own, he recommended Tommy to me. He said, you know, don't buy a banjo on the Internet or in the store. There's a guy in Fayette County, [Tennessee] who builds them!"

That man was Tom George -- one of the best-known banjo makers in the U.S.

"I just like to make things -- woodwork and banjos, furniture … whatever!"

Tom George knows a true banjo-lover when he sees one. So, when Stanfield asked to become his student, George quickly agreed. He taught Stanfield his banjo-making secrets … after dinner, of course!

"I would come over and his wife would cook dinner. And we would eat dinner and then we would go out in the shop and work for a couple of hours. And in three months I had a banjo that I had made myself."

Tom George, however, did not have a teacher. He taught himself how to build banjos.

"I wanted a banjo when I was a teenager, so I mowed yards around my neighborhood to raise money and I bought a banjo. The one that I bought, which wasn't very good, and I said maybe I can improve it, so I started trying to improve that one… "

Today, George and Stanfield have a banjo-making workshop, an hour's drive from Memphis, Tennessee. Visitors can tour their shop and see the hundreds of small parts that all come together to make the finished banjo. The two men make everything by hand. So, it is not surprising that it takes around 4 to 6 months to make one banjo.

The banjo has two distinct parts: the round part and the straight part.

"There are two distinct parts. There's the round part and you have the straight part. And they're made separately."

The round part -- the body of the banjo -- is made of wood bent around a form to give the instrument its round shape.

Stanfield explains that part of the process.

"I will re-saw it into smaller pieces like this. And I'll put it in a steam box and the steam will make it very soft. And then I will put it in this form and it will actually be able to bend without breaking, it'll bend around this …”

After the banjo is finished, Tom George carefully wipes it clean. It is ready to be played. And then the team can do the other thing they love to do -- play the banjo.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Lesia Bakalets reported this story in Memphis, Tennessee for VOA News. Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

instrument n. a device used to produce music

folk adj. originating or traditional with the common people of a country or region and typically reflecting their lifestyle

recommend v. to say that (someone or something) is good and deserves to be chosen

shop (workshop) n. a commercial establishment for the making or repair of goods or machinery

mow v. to cut the standing plant cover from

layer n. a covering piece of material or a part that lies over or under another : – v. to form or arrange parts or pieces of something on top of each other : to form or arrange (something) in layers

steam n. water vapor kept under pressure so as to supply energy for heating, cooking, or mechanical work : – v. to apply steam to

distinct adj. noticeably different

bend v. to use force to cause (something, such as a wire or pipe) to become curved

form n. the shape and structure of something as distinguished from its material