Banjoman tells his story
Gordy Ohliger calls himself a “banjo-ologist,” a term he defines as a “performing musicologist” whose instrument is the banjo. But he’s the world’s only banjo-ologist, so obviously the best way to learn what a banjo-ologist does is to watch him perform.
Hundreds of people did just that on Saturday (Oct. 20), when he presented a new show created just for the occasion called Bidwell’s Little Town, performing it twice (afternoon and evening) at the Chico Women’s Club. It was vintage “banjo-ology” with a Chico twist, a combination history lesson, musical variety show and folksy gabfest from a guy who understands that the banjo, more than any other instrument, tells the story of America.
In this case Ohliger, decked out in a derby hat, a black vest and black cravat, contented himself with telling a particular America story, that of the cross-country journey and arrival in California of John Bidwell and the subsequent creation of Chico. He interspersed an amusing account of Bidwell’s life and times with examples of the kinds of music Bidwell and his wife, Annie, might have heard when they were alive, from Civil War-era hollers to vaudeville tunes.
A good example was a turn-of-the-century number called “Hello, Baby,” which provided Ohliger with an opportunity to tell us that the word “hello” was invented by the telephone company so people would know what to say when they answered the phone.
Mostly the show was a profile of a man who loved the earth, who was determined to find land to farm and overcome the obstacles he met in order to make his way in the world. “Land was the thing, soil was the thing,” Ohliger said, and he could have been talking about himself.
About 30 years ago, Gordy Ohliger made a decision: He was going to live in the woods and survive as an artist, and he wasn’t going to take any damn day job or food stamps to get by, even if it meant going hungry at times.
He’d just arrived in the Chico area and was residing in a hand-built cabin above Centerville, in Butte Creek Canyon. He had no electricity and no running water and “had to go outside to pee in the rain,” as he puts it—but he was happy to be living in nature.
He played music with the Butte Creek Family Band and with Peter Berkow in a comedy folk group, the Rhythm Rowdies, as well as in a couple of other bands. Back at his cabin, he’d noodle away on a 19th-century banjo.
He’d been playing banjo in a traditional style since he was 12 years old, which he says was “an incredibly dorky” thing to do back then but now, with Bela Fleck and the Duhks and the Wiyos making such excellent use of the instrument, is “all cool,” much to his delight.
He played the guitar, too, and would regularly go into town and do two-hour solo gigs singing folk-rock songs at such long-gone haunts as Nellie’s and Canal Street for 15 bucks and a plateful of food.
He played a couple of banjos, too—a four-string and a five-string—and soon discovered people were fascinated by them. “They’d go, ‘Wow, you play the banjo? What’s the diffence between the four-string and the five-string?’ “
It dawned on him that he could make an act out of the banjo. He started going to the Chico State library and doing research on the instrument. And he began collecting traditional banjos. He now has five of the historic instruments, ranging from a beautiful African m’banza, which is made from a gourd, goat skin and goat guts for strings and dates from the 1830s, to a 1911 Fairbanks No. 9, of which only seven are known to be in existence.
What evolved was a humorous musical history of American banjo styles from 1800 to 1940. He sold the idea to a few county fairs, then hit the road for a booking concert in Los Angeles, stopping first at the Salvation Army for some “new clothes.” Within six months he was playing Harrah’s and making more in a day than he had in a month in Chico.
It’s been gravy ever since. He’s received seven grants from the California Arts Council, performed for PBS television projects, played major concert series and festivals throughout the West, and even flown to London to perform a 45-minute show.
The banjo is a good instrument through which to view American history, and in fact, like the eagle and Uncle Sam, it is “a symbol of the American people,” Ohliger says.
Over the years, Ohliger has developed a variety of banjo-ology shows for different audiences, from school kids to folk festivals. One has a “Victorian Christmas” theme, for instance, and another is titled “Songs of the Pioneers” and emphasizes roots music for banjo. The full list can be found at his Web site, www.banjoman.info.
Ohliger is still living in his canyon cabin, but over the years, as finances have allowed, he’s worked on it, adding rooms and such amenities as hardwood floors, marble counters, Persian rugs and French doors to the deck.
He’s never borrowed a dollar, he says, since he was in high school, “when I got $5 from my dad and the Buick to take Debbie Dahlstrud to the movie.”
He installed a small solar system a few years ago, and this summer he finally hooked up to the grid, mostly so he could power his new well. “Every four minutes I go over to the faucet and squirt water for fun,” he said, and his wife, Pamela, is “ecstatic” about having hot water at the sink. “'Doing dishes is gonna be fun now.’ I heard her say it!”
He says he bought a bottle of El Patron “for the moment when the water came gushing out, and since there’s a bit left, I guess I’ll sit in my big chair by the fire and watch the leaves turn as the creek rises.”