Opa’s Banjo: a fourstr story

John H. Daum was my wife’s maternal grandfather. To Andrea and her brothers and sisters he was their Opa.

One of the earliest memories that Andrea has of her Opa comes from when she was a very little girl and her family lived on Calvin Street in Washington Township, New Jersey.

Opa and Oma (Andrea’s grandmother, Ruth Sevester Daum) had just arrived for a Sunday afternoon visit. Andrea remembers that as she excitedly dashed across the lawn to greet them, Opa stepped out of the car pretending to play the guitar and singing, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…!” Then, after he swept her up in a big hug, still singing this silly song that Andrea had never heard before, her Opa told her about the man whose record of the song had been playing on the radio in the car, a man named Elvis Presley.

It seems that John – or Hank, as Ruth usually called him – had always been tuned in to the popular music of the day. When he was a young man, the banjo was the instrument of choice for anyone who liked to sing and wanted to accompany him/herself in style. As soon as he could afford to, John became the proud owner of a brand new Wurlitzer 4-string, tenor banjo. This handsome, open-back instrument sported friction-peg tuners with carved white (ivory?) knobs; a 17-fret, bound fingerboard; and a honey-colored, birds-eye maple rim.


IMG_2298 Banjo back


For the past thirty years or so, Opa’s Banjo has lived at our house; handed down by Andrea’s mother. Every now and then I take the instrument off its shelf, carefully slide it out of its thick, black cardboard case, tune her up and plunk out an old Folk song or two from the tarnished but still lively strings.

One day in the future, Andrea and I will fulfill what we know would have been Opa’s wishes and pass the instrument on to the next generations of our/his music-loving family.

This banjo will always be Opa’s Banjo – a cherished and unique reminder of this fun-loving, warm-hearted, deeply loved and still greatly missed man.

opa-June 1981

John George Harold Daum was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 26, 1906. He was the first born child and only son of John and Laura (Weick) Daum. The photograph above was taken on his 75th birthday.

Opa passed away on October 26, 1990 in Stamford, Connecticut.

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4 Responses to Opa’s Banjo: a fourstr story

  1. Kathe Klem TOCSIL says:

    Loved the recap about Opa and his banjo, and his ways of making an entrance! So fun! I remember these early days with much love and a smile. Thanks for sharing. 😊

  2. John McCann says:

    I’m a newcomer to tenor banjo. Recently bought an old 17-fret short-scale (1920s? 1930?). Identical construction to your Opa’s banjo but lacking *all* ornamentation. Must have been the very bottom, entry-level model. But it has cleaned up nicely and I restrung it (CDGA) the other day. Just a FUN instrument to play!

  3. Raymond Dreitlein says:

    Thank you for shearing your story as a grandpa that plays a teno banjo I can relate with this story as my 12 grandchidren just love to sit -stand-run-dance- when I play it, I have been “show and tell” at pre school- what a great experience-I have even written a song called ‘THE HAPPY BANJO’.
    Thank you, Grandpa Ray

    • efsinclair says:

      Dear Grandpa Ray,
      Thank you so much for your comment! I love your story about your tenor banjo playing for your grandchildren. I am Grampa to one grandchild and have so enjoyed playing my guitar and singing for him. My guitar playing has been about the only thing that gets him to stand still!
      Thanks again for writing, Grampa Eric
      P.S.: I’d love to hear your song!

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