Happy Time Banjos

By Dorothy Horning

The group that was to become Happy Time Banjos first met on January 27, 1992. That day we had no intention of becoming a performing group. Like Glenn Atkinson's story of the proverbial "lonesome banjo students" who went on to form the Peninsula Banjo Band, we just wanted company. John Bartelme had sent out postcards summoning banjo players from the mid-peninsula area. About half of us were Peninsula Banjo Band members looking for additional banjo activity closer to home; the rest were unaffiliated and seeking other banjo players to practice with. John had arranged with the Veterans Memorial Senior Center in Redwood City to provide a room for us.

Paul Nearhood was coerced that day into saying "One! Two! Three!" to start us off, and a more jumbled outpouring of notes had never been heard. We had fun, though, and decided to meet again the following week. Little by little we improved, until it became possible to actually recognize what we were playing. Paul continued to be our patient and dedicated leader, and he and Goldie provided the lead melody. After several months our host senior center asked us to play for one of their events. From that time on we have been "paying our rent" by playing for several such events each year.

We plagiarized shamelessly from the Peninsula Banjo Band. We played from the PBB Music Book. No deviations from Charlie's arrangements were allowed. We followed the PBB style meticulously. We were up-the-peninsula PBB wannabes. In December 1992 we adopted the name "Happy Time Banjos".

In November 1993 the owner of the Straw Hat Pizza in Redwood City asked us to play regularly at his place. We started on a biweekly basis, but soon switched to regular weekly performances. The exposure which we got there led to requests to play at private parties and other events, so we began to do playouts, using our earnings to buy a sound system and pay other expenses. In addition to our pizza parlor performances every Wednesday evening, we continued to meet every Monday afternoon to practice for two hours.

In December 1995 disaster struck! Paul and Goldie decided to retire! This was catastrophic for our group. In one fell swoop we were losing our leader and both of our lead players! Our future looked very bleak indeed, and it was uncertain how we were to continue. Since I had occasionally filled in for Paul when he went on vacation, I became the "stuckee" and we struggled onward.

Gradually we deviated from the policy of trying to duplicate the Peninsula Banjo Band. We decided to try playing new songs, experiment with different types of music and develop new styles and techniques. We have now introduced over 100 new songs. Moreover, we have applied numerous approaches for varying our music, for example: special introductions and endings, the use of different tempos, double- and half-time, key changes, breaks, volume level changes, accents, pauses, multiple harmonizing parts, counter-melodies, different picking and strumming techniques and a wide variety of rhythm patterns. We have occasionally wandered outside of the traditional banjo band repertoire to try different genres, such as ragtime, boogie-woogie, hymn-style, light classical, and even rock-and-roll.

I no longer think of Happy Time Banjos as a "banjo band", but rather as a banjo and tub bass orchestra. What is the difference? In my mind an orchestra doesn't "jam", but is more structured and disciplined and has specific and detailed music arrangements. Most important, the key to the success of an orchestra is that dreaded p-word "practice"!

The surprising thing about Happy Time Banjos is that we have as much fun practicing as we do playing! No one wants to miss a Monday afternoon practice. That is where we wear ourselves out drilling and repeating and struggling with new techniques. We laugh at our mistakes and try to help each other and we applaud ourselves when we finally get something right. Then we try out the new numbers Wednesday evenings at the Straw Hat. Thus our practice sessions are key to the success of the group and membership is limited to those people who are willing and able to attend practices regularly.

Effective 1 January 1999 we officially initiated business as a nonprofit charitable corporation. We have a three-person Board of Directors. Each Director serves for three years. Thus, each year we elect one new member to the Board. At the start of each year the Board organizes itself by deciding who will be President, Secretary, and Treasurer for that year. For our first year the officers were: Gene Sandberg, President; Floyd Oatman, Secretary; and, Dorothy Horning, Treasurer. In addition, we have a Music Leader (currently myself), a Membership Coordinator (Gene Sandberg), and a Booking Agent (Lea Patterson).

Music books are provided to all members. New music is added to the book frequently. The content of the book changes significantly as we incorporate the new music that has worked well for us and drop some of the old. We still have many of Charlie's arrangements in our book.

Prospective new members start by sitting in at practices. Then, if they want to pursue membership and are able to commit to regular attendance at Monday practices, Wednesday pizza parlor performances, and playouts, a rudimentary "audition" is held in order for the applicant to demonstrate basic skills. Until membership is granted a person does not participate in pizza parlor performances or playouts.

We limit our playouts to two per month. We were chosen by the administration of Redwood City to provide the music for their Waterfront Festival, commemorating the bicentennial of the Gold Rush.

We invite the public and members of the PBB and other bands to come and visit us on Wednesday evenings at SOPRANOS, a newly remodeled, upscale pizza and Italian food restaurant on Main Street at the corner of Veteran's Boulevard in Redwood City. We play from 7:00 to 8:30 PM.  Although we do play some standards, most of our numbers are our own special arrangements. For this reason this is not an open jam and only our members play. We try never to compete with the Peninsula Banjo Band and, indeed, support and promote the PBB whenever possible. Our playouts are coordinated with those of the PBB in order to avoid schedule conflicts. About half of our members play with the PBB and three of us have sat on the PBB Board of Directors. For those of us who are members of both musical groups, we try to make the Happy Time Banjos experience complement that of the PBB, and we hope that practicing with Happy Time Banjos allows us to contribute more effectively to the Peninsula Banjo Band.

The band has made a studio CD of its favorite amd most popular arrangements, demonstrating the versatility and skill of the players, available by contracting Bob Hodson, President of the band. Phone (408) 745-0812 or e-mail: rwhodson@pacbell.net

Current 2009 members include:

Gordon Ashby (Plectrum)
Joe Dixon (Bass)
Alice Hamed (Gutbucket)
Bob Hodson (Plectrum, President)
Debra Hodson (Plectrum)
Dorothy Horning (Tenor)
Joyce Kistler (Plectrum)
Bill Lundgren (Tenor)
Dolores McGuigan (Plectrum)
Simone Morrow (Plectrum, Secretary)
Lea Patterson (Tenor)
Gene Sandberg (Plectrum, Treasurer)
Jim Strickland (Plectrum)
George Thum (Tenor)
Dorothea Walters (Plectrum)
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