On the Road
Banjo Connections -- by Jim Matthews
Many of us will be traveling over the coming holidays, so this may be a good time to share some of my experiences traveling with a banjo.
The banjo has historically been a favorite instrument for people on the move, including soldiers, prospectors, and itinerant peddlers. It won't fit in your pocket like a harmonica, but it's a lot easier to drag around than a piano. In the present day, if you take your banjo seriously, sooner or later you will have a gig on the road. Here is the latest I have heard about travel with a banjo:
By Air. You can assure your banjo's safety by buying it its own seat, or you can trust it to those airline checked baggage mashers. In the latter option, most airlines will provide insurance for loss or damage if it's in a hard case. Another option is to send it by a package express service ahead of your arrival. The land rates (including insurance) are usually very reasonable, and will virtually assure that your banjo will be waiting in good shape when you arrive. I have been told that the law now requires airlines to accept musical instruments as carry-on baggage (without requiring an extra seat), even if they exceed usual carry-on size limits. However, I have not been able to verify that such a law has been passed. And even if it has, you never know if airline employees will know about it. I have successfully taken my banjo as carry-on even though, as a 5-string, it's bigger than most. I did put all of my other carry-on items in my pockets or inside the case, so it was the ONLY carry-on item I had. I held it in an upright position when boarding, making it more out-of-the way than if carried horizontally by the handle. It was in a hard case so it would be insured if they did make me check it. The air travel option you select should depend on how easy it would be to replace your instrument, and if you need it immediately at your destination. If you are so much in demand that you have gigs immediately before and immediately after your flight, you can probably afford that extra seat. If there is any chance that your banjo will end up in the cargo hold of an airplane, loosen the strings, as cold temperatures can cause them to contract, and possibly break.
By Train. Because of security considerations, Amtrak is moving toward the same limitations for carry-on baggage as airlines. I think it would still be unlikely that Amtrak would make you check your banjo, but if they do, it would be handled more gently in a railroad baggage car than in an airline cargo hold. And you would always have time to talk your conductor into letting you take it out of the baggage car en route. You may be asked to play it. Incidentally, the Snow Trains that Jack Convery has invited us to jam with him on are not operated by Amtrak (although the do rent some cars from Amtrak).
By Automobile. We all move our banjos in our vehicles almost every time we play them. If the banjo is to be left in a parked car for a long time when cold temperatures are expected, such as on a camping trip, the strings should be loosened, for the previously stated reason.
Back Packing. Banjos were popular with Civil War soldiers. So they must have carried them on their backs with the rest of their gear. Banjos were probably lighter then, being made from such material as gourd rather than metal. I have heard of the present-day availability of a "traveling banjo" or "tranjo" that can be disassembled and could fit in a back pack.
Hitchhiking. According to the lyrics to "Washington Square," all you have to do is write your destination on your banjo case and somebody will give you a ride. If this gets you there, it will not be by the most direct route. Not recommended now-a-days.
Have a good and safe holiday season, whether you are home or on the road.
Reprinted from the Sacrament Banjo Band Newsletter, December 2005, page 2.