Banjo Claus! Pete and Don Rigsby give away banjos in Kentucky elementary schools
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From the November 12th 2007 edition of The Daily Independent
By Mike JamesGetting started on the banjo is easy, said Pete Wernick, who has played with Earl Scruggs and other greats.
"The first rung on the ladder is very low to the ground and the next one is not that far up," he said.
It's just that there are a lot of rungs to climb before one can blister through "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" the way Wernick did Friday morning at Cannonsburg Elementary School, fingers flying over the five strings of his instrument.
Wernick lives in Colorado but plays banjo all around the world. Friday he was playing with Don Rigsby, who also has played all around the world but lives in Rowan County, where he is director of Morehead State University's Kentucky Center for Traditional Music.
The two master musicians played for an audience of fourth- and fifth-graders, whose studies are heavy on history, music and humanities — all of which will be on their state accountability tests this year, according to humanities teacher Teresa Cassity.
Their appearance was arranged through the center's educational outreach program, which seeks to promote traditional music to a new generation while meeting core content instructional areas.
So after warming up his crowd with a rendition of Scruggs' familiar television theme to "The Beverly Hillbillies," Wernick walked them through a brief history of the banjo and demonstrated some basic chords and picking styles.
When he was finished the children wanted to know a few things:
Is the banjo easy to learn?
(Easy to learn but hard to master.)
Do you need lessons?
(No, but it helps.)
How much do you have to practice?
(If you like to play, you'll want to practice.)
Do your fingers get sore?
(Yes, until you develop callouses.)
Then came what they'd been waiting for — the center had asked that all the students write essays and promised that they'd reward the writer of the best one a banjo.
And that was 9-year-old Logan Meade, who wrote about his grandfather, and musical role model, R.C. Meade.
"My papaw plays and I just want to be like him," Logan said later.
Logan already plays some guitar but wants to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. "I'd rather play the banjo because it's louder and it has a higher sound," he said.
You might not expect players as accomplished as Rigsby and Wernick to play in an elementary school gym at a time in the morning when most musicians are still snoring. There are compelling reasons, however.
"I have to do this, because it's a passion for me," Rigsby said. "When I was their age, it made me want to get up every day."
Pop culture's cacaphony of musical styles sometimes leaves Rigsby feeling that traditional music is shoved into a drawer labeled "backwoods," he said. "The kind of music I do doesn't always get a fair shake."
He figures if he plays in enough elementary schools, maybe the children who hear the music will embrace it and be proud of their heritage. "That's our mission," he said.