VENICE, Fla. — It’s 11:30 a.m. on a chill forenoon. People are bundled up, unusual for a sunny Florida day when the temperature is a springy 55 degrees. They climb aboard what looks like a hayrack to Snook Haven along busy River Road, a highway south of here.
We choose to drive, though a couple of guys in orange vests warn, “You’ll never find a parking place.” Down a lane paved with seashells, we cruise under canopies of southern oak draped with Spanish moss. It is dim; sunshine cannot poke through this jungle of oaks and palm trees.
From a quarter-mile away on this rural roadway, we hear the music. It is a joy, unlike any sounds that might be heard anywhere in the U.S. We find a parking place and ahead of us are 55 banjo players, two accordionists and a trumpet player who would never make it in Manny Lopez’s Quad-City Big Band.
I’ve covered this ground in years past, but on this day I cannot resist. It is the 25th anniversary of the Gulf Coast Banjo Society.
Fifty-two guys and three women banjoliers gathered Thursday under the shady oaks and drooping moss to plink away. They play every Thursday from the first of October to the end of May,
11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The entertainment is free.
“The only charge is a smile,” says Paul Jacques, an officer of the banjo society.
There is no gathering of banjo fanatics quite like it, every society member will insist. They are devoted dudes and dames in Irish green blazers, white slacks and white shoes.
Oh, how they can play! And oh, how the crowd — probably a couple hundred — claps and sings and dances! Banjo music is happy music. You cannot resist grinning when the banjo concert is plinking outside Snook Haven restaurant. Snook Haven is almost hidden in the brush and pines and palms along the Mayaka River.
The tradition began when the restaurant welcomed two banjo players — one named Ollie —to plink away on the porch a quarter century ago. It grew to this every-Thursday outdoor concert. The banjo music lovers bring their lawn chairs or sit on picnic benches. An audience of at least 200 is always expected.
The average age of the banjo musicians is 75, Jacques says, “but we have had some dandies who played in their 90s.”
The director shouts, “Bring out the dancing girls” and two college coeds prance through the crowd to “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.”
These banjo players love to sing, and they’re pretty good. Jack Snyder croons, accompanied by the banjo band, “Good old Uncle Bill’s got a still on the hill, only five-foot two but he makes mighty fine mountain dew.”
Banjo players gather at Snook Haven each Thursday like lemmings flocking to the sea. There’s a show of hands for banjo players from a half-dozen states. Raynor Daub is here from Germany.
Sunlight glints off John Wilderman’s banjo. It is of gold, and the neck of the instrument is a carved elephant head with real (he says) ivory tusks. He says there are only five like it in the world; he has it insured for $35,000.
The afternoon winds down with a medley of old favorites that the late Eddie Peabody — world’s most acclaimed banjo player — performed in the 1930s.
The concert closes with 55 banjos, two accordions and a trumpet playing “God Bless America.”