My Dad's Banjo

My Dad's Banjo

With a blank weekend for Port Vale we’ve uploaded two fun features to take your mind off the football – Battleships and Concentration. But if it’s a quiet read you’re looking for Barry’s latest memoir may do the trick.

Ostensibly it’s a story about his mum with the very important ‘ingredient’ of his dad’s banjo.



My Dad’s Banjo
Johnny Aitch triggered the memory of it all, the anecdotal history of the time my dad helped to keep the financial wolves from the family door.

Johnny had shared with ovf the time he visited the US of A in November 2002 where he came across a store selling nothing but guns and banjos. This was followed by the forum thread ‘Johnny Aitch’s Guns N Banjos’ in which Johnny and several other posters stated their abiding love for the banjo. MikR went one step further by telling us he cannot imagine life without banjos and that to him they are simply ace. In fact MikR took Bad_Loser to task for making derogatory comments about them.

Some posters were less convinced that such an instrument was of any use other than ‘to smack a cow or donkey on the backside’ which prompted Sage to remind us all that such beasts have feelings too.

Elsewhere in onevalefan I have previously mentioned that for those of my parents’ generation, who had witnessed two world wars and The Great Depression – plus working in pots and pits, looking on the bright side of life would have been difficult at the best of times. But to my parents’ credit focusing on the good times, past and present, was an important part of their worldview. My dad was always reminding us that if we couldn’t say good things about anything or anyone, then it was best to say nothing at all.

I come from a large extended family – a blend of Staffordshire folk with strong Irish/Welsh connections. With the odd exceptions my family simply bristled with musical talent and nearly all of them had a flare for dancing. Several of my uncles played at least one brass instrument. One or two played the guitar. My aunts too were just as talented with one or two being able to play the piano.

My dad played the banjo – which he often referred to as ‘the shovel’.

In addition singing was standard in their respective repertoires. For instance: my mum loved to emulate Gracie Field’s style; my dad was a mad keen Nat King Cole fan; whilst my eldest brother gave great renditions of the songs sung by Josef Locke – especially ‘Goodbye’ from The White Horse Inn.

Me? Well yes, I love music full stop – whether classical, jazz, rock’n’roll, whatever. I just love music. But don’t ask me to sing or to play a musical instrument because I’m one of the odd exceptions mentioned above. Sure, I dance – after a fashion.

Where was I? Oh yes, my dad.

Mum and dad prided themselves in looking after their family and never once shirked their respective responsibilities in that regard. They’ve gone now and in God’s keeping. History will have noted their valued contribution to family and community and their record cards will, I am sure, be fully endorsed with top recommendations. But there was a time when financial matters were getting to a very desperate stage indeed causing a little friction in their marriage.

It was during the Great Depression, approximate mid 1930s, when the family’s financial matters hit rock bottom. Dad was getting some piecemeal labouring work. But he would be required to stand in long queues for long periods of time with other men similarly placed in the hope that when he reached the night watchman’s hut there would some hours going. Sadly, there was never enough work to go around and what was available was poorly paid.

My paternal grandfather was a labour hire contractor for the several collieries still operating. But he too was only able to offer limited hours to dad for fear of being seen as discriminatory to other men in and around Hanley. It was, after all, a small and close-knit pots and pits community.

The soup kitchens that existed were under siege to meet an increasing hungry population. The Salvation Army’s night shelters were full to overflowing and the free clothing outlets bereft of second hand stock.

Times were bleak indeed. What was to be done?

At first my mum and two of her sisters were anti the idea from the start. No way were they going to be party to my dad and Uncles Alf and Oswald busking on the streets. What would family, friends and neighbours think? For shame they wouldn’t dare show their faces again to the outside world. But my dad and uncles firmly stated that desperate times required desperate measures. There was no other way. Thankfully, a compromise was reached and agreement given by my mum and Aunties Nora and Margaret on the understanding the busking was done away from the Potteries.

So there they were: my dad with his six string banjo; my uncle Alf with his euphonium – a brass instrument similar to a tuba with a loud deep melodious tone; and my uncle Oswald with his cornet – a brass instrument similar to a trumpet but with a sweet singing tone. Their first port of call was Derby.

According to the anecdotal history things were going badly with little or no money making the cap. Sure, all three were excellent musicians. But their respective musical talents didn’t seem to be enough to get passers-by to part with their pennies and ha’pennies. The story goes that after several days sleeping rough and little food they were getting a tad fed up and regretting having set out in the first place and decided to pack up and go home. Dad suggested they do one last tune for the road and that he would sing as well. It was the stroke of luck they’d been looking for.

It goes without saying that my dad could sing. In fact, it didn’t matter how many times he played his banjo and sang one of our favourites, Mona Lisa, you would always be left with a lump in your throat and a tear in you eye.

The passers-by were now stopping to listen before chucking small coins into the cap – sometimes silver coin. Finally, the money they earned would be enough to make ends meet – just. At least the rent, basic food supplies and some clothing items could be covered.

And so for several months my dad and Uncles Alf and Oswald traipsed up and down the County of Derby busking to scrape enough money together to keep the financial wolves away from the door. But in their absence my mum and Aunties Nora and Margaret were traipsing a different countryside.

My mum recalled many times that she was steadfastly against the busking idea and although it helped to save the day for our respective families she had resolved to find steady work for dad. Also, that her sisters were in full agreement. They determined they would set out daily to door knock any and all business houses in and around Stoke-on-Trent. Further that they did so in the one belief they would be successful. During this period my mum was house cleaning two days a week for a family in Birches Head. But that’s another story for another day.

There could be no questioning my mum’s physical, mental and emotional strengths – ever. As I have stated elsewhere in onevalefan Bridget Edge nee McMahon was the decision taker for our family. Such as: holidays in Blackpool, plus north and west Wales; which secondary schools her children would attend; what household goods to buy and when; buying the family home; and moving to Western Australia – to mention just a few. These and many other decisions taken were hers. And the tougher the decision to take, the more comfortable she was in taking it. In addition, she took those decisions with amazing simplicity.

My mum would recall that the ‘struggle street’ of her childhood would not be brought to bear on her family and children. Don’t get me wrong, my mum absolutely loved her mum and dad, her three brothers and four sisters. And whilst the issues and events of The Great Depression were initially beyond mum’s control they served to influence the decisions taken. She would always seize the moment – just as she did in 1960 when we came to Oz.

My mum had the capacity to face life with a will and determination that would daunt many of her generation and since. Adversity was no worse than the common cold and when most around her would be trying to work out what the problems were, she had not only identified them, but had practical solutions in place

Was it a sublime coincidence? Did the men in charge show a degree of pity on the three women constantly calling and asking for work for their husbands? Or was it the raw and honest determination shown by them that impressed so much that offers of employment were finally given? Whatever it was my mum and Aunties Nora and Margaret were able to surprise my dad and uncles when next returning home from the Derbyshire countryside.

My uncles went back to the collieries and my dad started at the Michelin where he worked for 25 years before coming to Australia – a story already shared with onevalefan.

See you later…

Barry Edge
Western Australia
January 25, 2004

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