A week or so ago, I was working on a review for the latest album from a modern banjo wizard, Cynthia Sayer, and it brought back some childhood memories. That’s not a particularly surprising occurrence because practically everything causes geezers to remember bygone days, but in this case it reminded me that I was sort of related to a banjo player.
That would be my Uncle Louie, who was married to my Mom’s half-sister, and was therefore my ‘half-uncle’ by marriage if you want to get technical about it, and I really don’t. After all, it’s not as if I’d run up to him when I was on a visit to their small farm and ask, “Hey, Half-Uncle Louie — can I milk the goats?”
But aside from the salutation, asking about the goats was something I might have been very likely to do because I was definitely fascinated by the little critters. And I was both repelled and intrigued by the fact that my cousins actually drank the milk they produced (the goats, not my cousins) while I had to drink whatever our milkman left in the box on our front step.
My Uncle and Aunt and my numerous cousins – mostly girls – weren’t really farmers though. Like a lot of other folks, they’d found that it helped if the family supplemented their income by gardening and raising small farm animals. Uncle Louie did have a regular job as a brakeman on the railroad, but unfortunately it was to lead to a deadly end.
One dark night, while he was working in the train switching yards, somebody apparently made a mistake. I say apparently because I’m not sure if the railroad company was ever really able to determine what happened – or even how hard they tried – but one indisputable fact remained: Uncle Louie met his end under the wheels of a train.
I don’t really recall much about any of what went on at that time except for one indelible image. I vividly remember being in their house before the funeral and seeing one of my young cousins sobbing and crying — while she stood at the ironing board putting the finishing touches on her funeral attire.
But even though Uncle Louie came to a sad end – especially tragic since he was a relatively young family man – I would hope that his children were always able to remember him from happier times, and there’s little doubt that those times would have included listening to him play the banjo at family gatherings.
I’m not sure how skillful Uncle Louie actually was with his banjo, but he sure impressed me at the time. And although there’s no way to know for sure, I’d like to think the following tune might sound a little like something he would have played for us. I also think the name of the tune is appropriate: “Home, Sweet Home” by Frank Jenkins.