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Banjoliers spread smiles for miles

MOLINE -- Open instrument cases were scattered on the tables as 13 people with a combined 400-plus years of playing experience sat in a circle, plucking, blowing, strumming or pounding their music-makers.

Their matching outfits were pressed with perfect creases. Some held instruments older than they are.

Dispatch/Argus Photo By John Greenwood

Members of the Banjoliers practice every Tuesday night at First Congregational Church in Moline. The group performs about 60 times a year. Members play an old-style four-string banjo, not to be confused with the bluegrass or Dixieland banjo, which uses five strings.

A tuba, piano, mandolin, tenor guitar, two fiddles, two plectrum banjos, five tenor banjos, and a few fun pieces of auxiliary percussion played and banged together in perfect harmony.

Each person sang the words to the old songs, throwing in a couple of ``yeahs'' here and there. Every song was followed by a ripple of laughter.

It was Tuesday night at First Congregational Church in Moline, and the Quad-City Banjoliers were gathered for their weekly practice.

The Banjoliers started in January 1982 when seven area men decided to get together and hone their skills on the oft-ignored instrument.

While it's not as popular as many other instruments, the banjo still is played by folk and bluegrass musicians. The Banjoliers, however, play an earlier version of the instrument -- the four-string tenor.

The group's goal is to promote the four-string banjo and its old-time sound, Jim Lyons, East Moline, an original member of the group, said.

The tenor banjo was widely played in the 1920s during the banjo's heyday, he said.

``In the 1930s, the guitar started to take the place of the banjo in bands,'' Mr. Lyons said. ``It had a bassier sound. By the end of the 1930s and into the '40s, you had to play guitar in addition to banjo in order to get a job.''

Young men and women today usually take up the guitar before the banjo, he said, and they normally play a five-string banjo in Scruggs or Clawhammer style.

The Banjoliers have about 13 members, most playing tenor or plectrum banjo.

Paul Jacobsen, 51, a professor at St. Ambrose University, is music director and the youngest member of the group. He whistled as he played his banjo, his red vest sporting a pin that read ``I love a Banjo.'' Mr. Jacobsen also plays the kazoo and washboard.

Don Wenos, 82, another original member of the group, plays the tenor guitar or tenor banjo. ``It depends upon the mood I'm in,'' he said. ``I got three tenor guitars, just one banjo, and an octaphone.''

Mr. Wenos started playing tenor guitar in 1929 and bought his first one in 1933. ``Never had a lesson yet, but I am planning on it one of these days,'' he said.

``Don't bother,'' someone yelled, as everyone laughed.

Kay Frysinger, 79, boasted she had the most years' playing experience in the room. She has played violin 72 years and does some vocals for the group. The group has tried to get her to try banjo, but she sticks with the fiddle, Mr. Lyons said.

Bob Taube is the newest member of the group. He keeps the brassy beat on his tuba to popular tunes from the 1920s through the 1940s.

The group has about 100 songs in its repertoire. Some of the Banjolier's most requested tunes are ``5-foot-2, Eyes of Blue,'' ``Ain't She Sweet,'' and ``Four Leaf Clover.'' One of their newest songs is ``Dream,'' written by Johnny Mercer in 1945.

They are perfect sing-along songs for an older crowd, Mr. Lyons said, adding that the group plays more than 60 times a year, averaging five dates a month.

``There ain't too much we haven't played for in the last 15 years,'' Mr. Lyons said. ``We've played everything from parades, benefits, fundraisers, out in the park, American Legion dinners and Arsenal picnics.''

The group used to play at banjoramas -- national banjo conventions. However, as group members get older, it's harder to travel, said Mr. Lyons, who still goes to five or six banjoramas a year, where he plays and sells his handcrafted banjos.

Mr. Lyons gives banjo lessons and plays plectrum banjo, mandolin and some guitar as well.

The Banjoliers is a non-profit group and wants to be affordable for everyone, especially nursing-home residents. The small amount of money members collect goes to equipment upkeep. Mr. Lyons said.

The nursing-home gigs are among the group's favorite. ``They don't get out to see us, so we come to see them,'' Mr. Lyons said. ``We like an audience that really likes our kind of music and appreciates us being there. That's what we thrive on.''

Mrs. Frysinger enjoys playing for nursing-home residents as well. ``They love it,'' she said. ``A lot of them have Alzheimer's, and they don't know the difference. All they know is that it's music.''

The group never gets tired of playing the banjo, Mr. Lyons said. ``That's the happiest instrument there is. You never see a banjo player that's not smiling. That's happy music there.''

-- By Kristen Foht (January 22, 1998)

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