Local man a leading voice for 4-string banjo

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

It’s a sight to behold: 50-plus musicians, most of them playing four-string banjos, with a smattering of tubas, woodwinds and gutbuckets mixed in with a washboard and an accordion.

They’re crowded along one wall of the VFW Hall in Sweet Home, as they crank out spirited rendition of “The Beer Barrel Polka” and a score of other old standards in semi-perfect unison.

They come from around the nation and the world to Sweet Home, where they camp out at Ralph Martin’s place on North River Road – and fill local motels – during the first week of July for the annual Oregon Trail Banjo Camp. At the camp they can sit in the shade and teach each other new techniques, new tunes, and jam to their hearts’ content.

They range from beginners to some of the best in the world.

The camp culminates on the Fourth of July with a free mass performance at the VFW.

The camp is the brainchild and labor of love for Ralph, 81, who’s been playing the banjo and leading banjo bands for nearly 50 years, assisted increasingly in recent years by his son Dick, now 55.

Ralph said his father was a musician when he was growing up.

“He played everything – the violin, trumpet, piano. But I don’t think he ever did learn to play the banjo,” he said. “He probably could have figured it out real quick.”

Ralph was introduced to the four-string banjo in 1961 while he was on a trip to Alaska; he decided to learn to play.

“I bought a cheap banjo and that got me started,” he said.

He returned to Southern California, where he was a longshoreman at the Los Angeles harbor, and learned from a friend about a weekly jam session at the Pizza Palace in Torrance, developing his skills with the two four-string banjos, the tenor and the plectrum, which is tuned slightly higher and used more for melody,

In 1967 Ralph attended the Sacramento BanjoRama, one of several large banjo conventions held around the country. The following year he decided to form a banjo band in the L.A. area, so he and his sons, Dick and John, who also had learned to play, and his wife Joyce began distributing flyers in Laundromats and on car windshields in parking lots throughout the area.

“When he got back from Sacramento, he got excited,” said his daughter-in-law Helen, who joined the family when she and Dick were married 15 years ago. Helen, who plays bass lines for banjo performances on her gutbucket, played in a band in San Jose, in the San Francisco Bay Area, before she met and married Dick, she said.

The response to the Martins’ flyers was encouraging. Seventeen musicians showed up, and Ralph’s career as a band leader was off and running with the newly formed Southern California Banjo Band. The band eventually numbered over 100 musicians and recorded three LPs during its first 10 years, which have been converted into CDs.

Ralph also hosted annual get-togethers, which were the forerunners of the Oregon Trail Banjo Camp, some held at property he owned in the Joshua Tree area of the Southern California desert. Those were held in April, before the weather got too hot.

“We called it ‘Shaky Acres’ because of the earthquakes,” recalled Curtis Williams, a professional banjo player who now lives in Sweet Home and plays with the Martins.

Ralph retired after 38 years as a longshoreman and crane operator at the harbor and he and Joyce moved to Sweet Home in 1985, where he founded the local banjo camp.

Ralph’s contributions to the four-string banjo world were recognized on May 22, 2003 when he was initiated into the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame, in a ceremony held in Guthrey, Okla., in recognition of his efforts to promote the instrument.

“He’s an icon, Ralph is,” Williams said.

Dick and Helen have headlined banjo gatherings all over the nation, Dick playing the plectrum or the tenor banjo, and Helen accompanying him on the washtub bass. They specialize in what’s commonly called “jazz banjo” music, which, Dick said, “is really just old standards.” That’s the fare at the banjo camp as well.

After suffering a stroke last year, Ralph’s activities have been curtailed, but Dick and Helen said they plan to put on the camp once again this July 1-4, with a Fourth of July performance from 1:30 to 4 p.m. at the Vets Hall.

“It’s really phenomenal what they do for the community,” Helen said of her parents-in-law’s involvement in the camps they’ve run. “It’s a real challenge to do that for 30 years or longer.”

Participants in the Oregon Trail camp fill up the two Sweet Home motels and the Martins’ yard, she said. The Martins put on an evening feed for everybody and there are seminars and informal lessons throughout the camp’s four-day duration.

“We have a lot of fun,” Helen said. Participants vary, since many travel from across the country and can’t make the trip every year.

“It’s a great place to come in July when the rest of the country is hot.”

One of the participants last year was John Martin, Dick’s older brother, who still plays the banjo but whose schedule as a commercial airline pilot isn’t flexible enough to allow him to attend every year, Helen said.

“It’s a lot of work for them and a lot of expense, too,” said Williams, who has known the Martins since the mid-1960s and sat in from time to time with the Southern California band when he wasn’t on gigs of his own.

He noted that participants come from Alaska and many points east.

Williams said he was playing recently with a Dixieland band when a man walked over to him, speaking with a German accent. Turned out, he was a collector, searching for old banjos to buy and he’s planning to be at this year’s banjo camp.

“It’s a small world when you’re into banjos,” Williams said.