Local banjo master and musical historian to be subject of PBS documentary
“Most people who come up here say, ‘Oh, he’s got bare feet and he lives in a hobbit house,’ ” offered Gordy Ohliger, munching on a plate of blueberry pancakes.
Ohliger did have bare feet for his interview at the little, fairytale-like, unpainted shingle house that he built in the woods above Butte Creek Canyon, but he is much more than that.
He is a self-described “banjo-ologist” and “musical Mark Twain” who has played all over California and the United States, even in other parts of the world, such as London and Samois, France,
Thanks to a new PBS documentary due out in September, produced by widely known Chico-based videographer Peter Berkow, Ohliger’s talents for song and storytelling will be showcased for the entire country to watch on television—even folks in Chico, many of whom might just think of Ohliger as the barefoot guy who lives in a hobbit house.
While there are those who know Ohliger received a CAMMIE award earlier this year for being a “Local Bad-Ass,” there are probably many more who don’t know that he regularly hops in that old truck of his and drives down Helltown Road on his way to prestigious venues such as Los Angeles’ Getty Museum or Sacramento’s Crocker. There he puts on his in-demand show featuring the banjo (of which he has many, including an m’banza, an early African precursor to the banjo made from a gourd) and music spanning the 1800s through 1940.
Ohliger gets calls regularly from school districts and libraries around California to perform his always historically precise, entertaining shows on vintage instruments, and to put together study guides and bibliographies of recommended reading and listening on such topics as the Dust Bowl and the California Gold Rush.
He’s what you could call a California griot, a modern-day bard keeping the old musical traditions—and the history of California—alive through spoken word and song.
Freshly back from performing and being filmed for PBS at Cal WorldFest in Grass Valley, Ohliger chatted about the PBS project—what he humbly calls his “15 minutes of fame”—and how he got to where he is now: i.e., famous everywhere except in his hometown.
Born in San Mateo in 1947, Ohliger moved with his family to Colusa in 1963 after his father quit a 34-year career as a Pan Am flight engineer to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a farmer.
“People thought we’d be gentleman farmers,” recalled Ohliger, “but me, my mom and dad and my two sisters, we planted 3,324 walnut trees. It was my job to water them in the summer till they grew.”
An early career as a visual artist followed his farming days—Ohliger is an amazingly good sketch artist and painter, who used to show his work in Bay Area and Monterey galleries.
In the late 1970s, Ohliger went on a what he calls a “vision quest” that led him from Colusa “to the end of the road here” (points outside) where he parked his car and spent a couple of days in the woods in deep, spiritual thought about the direction of his life.
“Then I went back to Colusa and came back here and camped in the canyon till I found a place, and I guess I moved,” Ohliger said matter-of-factly.
Next came a career move away from art as a profession and a deep dive into his passion for playing the banjo, which he has played since he was 12.
“I decided to become a banjo-ologist,” Ohliger said. “It was less solitary than art. I didn’t want to live in a cabin and be a recluse. The Buddha would meditate quietly, but he would also talk to people.”
To watch Ohliger ham it up onstage, dressed in period costume (with shoes!), telling his funny, well-researched stories and singing songs such as the 1832 gem, “Clare de Kitchen” or 1937’s “Doe-Ray-Mi,” accompanied by whichever banjo is appropriate for that time period, is truly to be transported back in time. He’s so convincing it’s as if you are watching a Vaudeville act back in the day.
“I never thought this was a big deal,” said Ohliger of his life as The Banjo-ologist (there isn’t another in the world), “but as I get older, I do. Keeping the old styles alive—not just writing a book about it—performing old styles of music on vintage instruments … that’s just what I do.”
Ohliger clearly loves what he does. As he wrote in the liner notes of his new CD, American Banjo, “To have a conversation with an old instrument/To embrace it under the moon, to sing together/and to know that a century ago/another felt this way/This warms me deeply.”