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July 5, 2010 - Bill Ackerbauer
Here's story from the Associated Press that I enjoyed. I pass it along for the benefit of readers who can't get enough banjo-related brain food, and for those who appreciate the value of fine things made by hand:
Man builds banjos by hand, documents luthiers
By ASHLEY BOYD
The Tuscaloosa News
FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — When the economic recession hit, Randy Arnold of Northport fell back on an old hobby for income.
The third generation of his family to work with wood, Arnold builds banjos.
"Today, music is a passive experience, but there was a time when you listened to music or played instruments that you made yourself," Arnold said. "It's not common today for people to work with their hands like they used to." By Ashley Boyd, The Tuscaloosa News.
Arnold is a luthier, someone who makes and repairs stringed instruments. He earned national attention and helped promote his craft when he was asked to document luthiers and other artists in Alabama for New Harmonies, the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit.
The New Harmonies exhibit in Alabama, which was funded by a partnership between the Alabama Humanities Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, explored the cultural identities of musical genres with American roots. The exhibit was displayed in six cities across Alabama in 2009.
Arnold's contribution to the exhibit included interviews with Sand Mountain fiddle makers and a feature about the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention.
Arnold's work was going to be part of this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival held each summer in Washington, D.C., but Alabama's portion of the festival was eliminated because of budget cuts, according to Joyce Cauthen, executive director of the Alabama Folklife Association.
The work is expected to be featured at the annual festival in the near future.
"We went ahead and developed the content. We're going around interviewing people and taking pictures and have been using content in local exhibits and programs," she said.
Cauthen said Arnold's experience building musical instruments and his connection to the Alabama Folklife Association played a role in asking him to interview and document luthiers and other artists in Alabama. Finding luthiers, she said, can be difficult since few people still practice the craft.
"It's hard to support yourself making instruments," Cauthen said. "Most people do it as a hobby or something on the side, but there are few who do it full time. It's what people aspire to do."
Among Arnold's interview subjects were Lebron Batey and Gene Ivey, two fiddle makers from Sand Mountain. Ivey, who was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1997, has constructed more than 270 musical instruments throughout his career, including the fiddles he plays.
In his interview with Ivey, Arnold said he was impressed by how Ivey incorporated modern technology into his work and veered away from the traditional approach.
"While I still used hide glue and shape necks with a spokeshave, talking to Gene taught me to just relax and let the craft happen. After talking to Gene, I worry less about the idea of craftsmanship and more on getting to work.
"Anytime you see someone else in your field, it gives you a lot of ideas. It's liberating to see that people are doing things different."
Arnold has been crafting banjos in his grandfather's shop in Northport since 2004. Like his grandfather and father, he said he enjoys the precision and technique of woodworking.
"I was a kid when my grandfather died, but he'd love to know that I've got the shop going."
Arnold said he chooses to use expensive wood when building his banjos, but the craft can be done inexpensively depending on the wood and type of tools used. Arnold prefers using woods like ebony, rosewood and maple.
In addition to musical instruments, Arnold also creates hand-crafted bookbinders' tools. His tools, which are sold across the U.S., are featured this month at the Kentuck Museum in Northport. Arnold also provided demonstrations at Kentuck's June Ala cARTe event alongside the University of Alabama Book Arts Program.
"I've always wanted to do this, but never had the chance to pursue it. The recession was the greatest thing that happened to me. It forced me to explore my options and give this a shot.
"Working with your hands is really special. The whole hand, heart and brain process that goes into this is a beautiful concept."
(Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.)
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(AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Robert Sutton) Randy Arnold makes musical instruments in the shop his grandfather built in the 1940s in Northport, Ala.