I found a homemade fretless banjo in a junk shop across the street from Parliament

By Frank I. Sillay

It is my good fortune to have been asked to write the “Email from New Zealand” for Natural Traveler and seems appropriate that I begin by introducing myself and explain how I came to be here.

I was born and raised in Atlanta and exposed to education at the Sewanee Military Academy and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.  While at MIT in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I had a student job, which involved my learning about computer programming.  I found this a lot more interesting that what was going on in the classrooms and made decisions on that basis.

Skipping forward, I woke up one day in the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, California.  The Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, filling me with fear, excitement, disappointment and, eventually, relief.  By the time the Vietnam was in headlines, I was very clear in my mind that we had no interest at stake in that unhappy country and my attention became fixed on my scheduled discharge date of 13 December 1965.  A couple of months before that date arrived, all regulars in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps had our enlistments extended by four months.  I had recently read “Catch 22,” by Joseph Heller, and while most people saw it as a work of comic genius, it provided me with nightmares for a long time.

I worked my MIT contacts and got job offers in London, Colombia, Venezuela and New Zealand.  The last of the World War II Marines, who had spent a lot of 1943 in Wellington, were coming up to retirement and when asked they told me it was like going to heaven without the inconvenience of dying first, so, having already been to London, I took a job with the New Zealand Ministry of Works, which was launching a project to start using computers. in engineering applications and was recruiting experience programmers.

That’s how I got here.  How I accumulated a wife, two sons and four grandchildren.  New Zealand citizenship may become clear over time.

Reconnecting with My Music 

In 1967 I found a homemade fretless banjo in a junk shop across the street from Parliament in Wellington. It probably dates from about 1870. It needed strings and a bridge, so I went to get them from a little music shop in town, where I saw a poster for the “First National Banjo Pickers’ Convention.”

I had previously had a look around the live music venues around Wellington, and found people playing Bob Dylan material, Peter Paul & Mary, etc. which I wasn’t interested in, and I concluded the old-time string band stuff I wanted to reconnect with was unknown in New Zealand.

When I saw the poster, I figured somebody had seen something similar in an American magazine, and thought it would be a good way of advertising their upcoming pop music gathering. On the off-chance I was wrong, I wrote to them, describing myself as a mediocre, but genuine Georgia banjo picker, and sought further details. The organizers were as skeptical of my letter as I was of their poster, but I ended up traveling the 400 miles to attend, the first of the four New Zealand National Banjo Pickers’ Conventions.

The Fourth convention was immortalized on film by a guy who was both a jug band musician and commercial filmmaker. The film as you see it was broadcast on the sole (at the time) television channel and then disappeared from view. The filmmaker has since died and his widow descended into addiction, but another fellow who appears playing fiddle in the concert finale tracked it down, and got it to the NZ Film Archive.

Ten or twelve years ago, I traveled around and interviewed lots of people, gathered lots of photos, ephemera, etc., intending to write a book about the Banjo Pickers conventions, but couldn’t get it going to my satisfaction, so have given it all to the National archive.

A friend forwarded me the link to the documentary, and asked me a few questions about the conventions, and it occurred to me that this link is an easier way to distribute the original film to anyone who might be interested

Eighty percent of my friends today, I either met at one of the Banjo Pickers’ Conventions, or met through people I met there. I first saw Meg at the first convention, though we didn’t really get acquainted until we were back in Wellington.

I expect I look so young in the film because of my discovery of the fountain of youth here in New Zealand.  But that would need to be the subject of another Email from New Zealand.

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