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Niwot Historical Society presents Dr. Banjo

 

October 16, 2019 | View PDF

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Pete Wernick of Hot Rize fame will be the Niwot Historical Society's featured lecturer on Wednesday, Oct. 23. He'll explore the history of the banjo, the instrument he has mastered and been transfixed by since he was a teen.

Pete Wernick, aka Dr. Banjo, fell for the stringed instrument in his teens. What brought a banjo into the hands of a NYC kid? It was the legendary Earl Scruggs of Grand Ole Opry fame that first piqued Wernick's musical taste buds. Decades of picking and plucking have made Wernick a world-renowned musician, songwriter, and educator who calls Niwot, CO his home.

Dr. Banjo has entertained audiences at Niwot's Left Hand Valley Grange more times than he can count. The next appearance at his hometown venue will be a different sort of production-a lecture on the history of the instrument that is his namesake, hosted by the Niwot Historical Society. Wernick was one of the original members of the Niwot Historical Society and is thrilled to be part of this season's lecture series.

Bluegrass artist Scruggs and Wernick's other inspirational influence, folk singer Pete Seeger, helped to bring banjo music to the American masses. Scruggs iconic theme song for the 1960s television show, the Beverly Hillbillies, is probably one of the most recognizable pieces ever played on the banjo. Wernick made it a point to meet and spend quality time with Scruggs, and the two have performed together.

There were no learning materials for him to turn to when Wernick first picked up the banjo so he taught himself complicated, quick-fingered tunes by listening to Scruggs' and Seeger's albums. While in college, Wernick side-lined as the disc jockey for New York City's only bluegrass radio show. His talent on the instrument and his love of that style of music intensified and over time he evolved into an expert on all things bluegrass.

He's not called doctor simply because he has dedicated himself to music created on the banjo - Wernick actually has a doctorate degree in sociology from Columbia University. He became a sociology professor at Cornell University during the day and by night he formed the recording band Country Cooking.

"What really became my breakthrough though," Wernick said, "was that I wrote an instruction book on banjo since there hadn't been any. There I was at the age of 27 writing an instruction book and the book sold in the hundred thousands. So that was a pretty nice windfall."

He wrote a second best-selling book on the heels of the Wernick Method of instruction, and with those royalties he departed the world of academia and officially made music his career. With his wife Joan, a Colorado native and fellow bluegrass musician, the couple moved to this area to escape the dreariness of NY weather. They settled in Niwot In 1976.

In 1978 Wernick formed his popular bluegrass band Hot Rize. The four-man group appeared frequently on television, recorded albums, earned a Grammy nomination, and toured nationally and internationally.

Wernick served as the president of the International Bluegrass Music Association for 15 years, ran banjo camps for 30 years and has performed with his wife and in a variety of bands over the last five decades. These days, he supervises a network of 70 instructors worldwide who are certified to teach the Wernick Method.

Now 73, Wernick has lived and breathed banjos making him the quintessential speaker on the many roads the instrument has taken. Lecture attendees will find tales of the banjos past fascinating.

Originally from Africa, the instrument came to America by way of slaves. In the 1800s it was picked up by southern white musicians.

Wernick said, "It has a very strange and somewhat tragic and very interesting history. It was not a pretty part of American history."

Wernick's presentation will elaborate on the banjo's humble beginnings, how it morphed from a drum to a four and then a five-string instrument, its cultural twists and turns, along with the musical styles it has played a role in - from minstrels to present day bluegrass, country, and jazz, and how it was used to form social associations.

Dr. Banjo will bring "old-style" banjos to the presentation and will perform for the audience. The presentation will be accompanied by slides and recordings.

"The history of the banjo is rather unique...I can't imagine any other instrument having a history like that," Wernick said.

The Wernicks continue to perform in the area and will take to the Grange stage again on Nov. 15 as part of the monthly entertainment showcase, Willowdale Live.

The lecture will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the Left Hand Grange, 195 2nd Avenue, Niwot. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for pre-lecture coffee, snacks, and conversation. The presentation begins at 7 p.m. Admission is free to Niwot Historical Society members and $5 for non-members. The hall is handicap accessible. For additional information, please visit NiwotHistoricalSociety.org.

 

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