Ragtime stays alive with Kettering Banjo Society

By Jimaur Calhoun

I will admit, I am not too familiar with the banjo. I grew up in the music video era and I never saw Michael Jackson, Prince or Public Enemy strumming on one, so the instrument wasn’t on my radar. However, the banjo has always had love in the Miami Valley in the form of the Kettering Banjo Society. Since the ’70s, the Banjo Society has wet the palate of those who long for the styles of bluegrass.

“It just started with two guys answering an ad in the local paper in 1975 for a banjo for sale. Which man actually purchased the banjo is unknown, but the two began talking about how much they enjoy the instrument and that is how the Kettering Banjo Society was founded,” says Dick Allen, the current president of the Banjo Society. A banjo aficionado since 1962, Allen is a retired factory worker who, when not strumming on his banjo, enjoys golfing. “Throughout the years, we’ve had about 60 members in the club and we used to call ourselves the biggest and the best band east of the Mississippi but through the years, our numbers have diminished down to about 28 members.”

When asked what is the influence of the Kettering Banjo Society, Allen says “I imagine that everyone’s influence in playing the banjo is a little different but a lot of us started out playing the ukulele. Most of us feel like the ukulele is the little brother of the banjo.”

Though the group has lost a number of banjo players, Allen says that the group has begun to incorporate other instruments into their music.

“Right now, we have about two piano players, a couple of accordion players, six to eight ukulele players, a couple of mandolins and people who play brass instruments like tubas, flutes and slide trombones,” he says.

“We’re an open group to those who want to come and watch us practice,” Allen continues. “We’re more of a close knit group, but if people like what they hear, we practice every Monday at an athletic club in Riverside from 7-8:30 p.m. Most of our members are just ordinary people throughout the Miami Valley, who were brought together by our love of ragtime music. We have the advantage of being the nearest banjo club throughout three states. We have members that travel from as far as Findlay and even Kentucky in our club.”

Now when most people of my generation think of banjo music, (without thinking of the video game “Banjo-Kazooie”) they mostly associate it to country and bluegrass music of the past, and for the most part, we would be right. Allen himself admits that this is the kind of music they play. However, the Kettering Banjo Society is looking to progress forward a little with their music.

“Traditionally, it was always old, late 1800s to 1900s, but a lot of that audience has been dying off, so I decided that we needed to update our sound a little,” Allen says. “Recently, we’ve been adding a lot of ’50s and ’60s music to our play list along with traditional music. We’ve even began to incorporate polka music into our shows every once in a while.”

Allen also explains that the group is changing the way they perform along with the music they play. “Originally, the group only had one singer but recently, we have eight singers we like to feature along with the new instruments that we incorporate into our shows. I want our audiences to have a toe tappin’ good time to our music because you can’t play a sad song on a banjo.”

The group has also played shows in Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan. “We’ve played at a banjo convention down in New Orleans where we got to march in a banjo parade that consisted of 175 banjo players from all over the United States and around the world,” Allen says.

Allen mentions that a similar convention will be taking place this year near the Cincinnati airport and that the group will be attending. As for local events, the group will perform at the Clifton Opera House on May 14.

The Kettering Banjo Society reminds us that we live in an era where everything that’s old is destined to become new again. The banjo has been used in modern songs like 2015’s “2 Heads” by Coleman Hell, Rascal Flatts’ 2012 ode to the banjo, titled “Banjo” and almost anything featuring Mumford and Sons. And no one can say they’ve never heard of Mumford and Sons.

If your interest in banjo and ragtime has recently sparked and you want to hear what a collective group of banjo players sounds like, check out the Kettering Banjo Society. Who knows, maybe the experience will inspire you to strum on a banjo or two.

The Kettering Banjo Society plays 7:30-9:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 14 at the Clifton Opera House, 5 S. Clay St. in Clifton. For more information, please visit ketteringbanjo.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Jimaur Calhoun at JimaurCalhoun@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Jimaur Calhoun at JimaurCalhoun@DaytonCityPaper.com

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