Banjos on their knees

Sean C. Morgan

Some 150 banjo players gathered at the home of Dick Martin on west end of North River Drive over the weekend to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Monday, a contingent of them played at the Vets Club, continuing an annual tradition. The gathering officially runs from July 1 to July 4.

Martin’s late parents, Ralph and Joyce, started the Oregon Trail Camp 15 or 16 years ago, he said. They were joined by his late wife, Helen, who played the gut bucket.

Market has continued the camp since his father died two years ago.

“The first few years were very small, and it just kept growing,” Martin said. “It’s basically just a big private party for banjo players. We probably ended up with 150. A few years ago, we were over 200, but more people are staying home because of the cost of travel.”

Most are from the West Coast, but over the years a few musicians have traveled from Montana, Detroit, Tennessee, Arizona, Texas and other places.

He even hosted a couple from Germany, he said. This was one of the main reasons they were visiting the states.

The banjo is an American instrument, Martin said, but it is played just about everywhere in the world.

“It’s a worthwhile thing to the banjo community,” Martin said. It’s an annual highlight for banjo players, many of whom see each other at conventions.

“It’s just fun,” Martin said.

“This is my favorite thing of the year,” said Ron Ingram of Sacramento, Calif. “The only thing that could keep me from coming up here is God. It’s laid back, relaxed. You just show up here and do what you want to do. These people are just wonderful.”

What they want to do is visit and play music. Small groups spent the weekend gathered around picnic tables, chatting, playing or listening. Banjos were everywhere, accented by a keyboard here, a wind instrument there, washboards and the booming voice of a couple of tubas. Gradually, the players would come together inside a large open shop area, filling dozens of seats to create a banjo crescendo.

Among the players were Donna and Larry Caputo of San Jose, Calif. They are members of the Peninsula Banjo Band in Sunnyvale, Calif. Larry plays banjo. Donna plays the tambourine.

It’s a place to learn and a great place for jam sessions, Larry said. “I go home, and I’m hopped up on all of the new stuff I learned.”

“I come up here to mingle with the people,” Donna said. She is able to listen to people like Dick “Montana Red” Lewis.

“He’s probably one of the best tenor banjo players in the country,” Donna said.