My roommate plays banjo. He moved into the house in January. I saw his banjo case on moving day.
“Hey Gabe, cool, you play!”
“Yeah,” he smiled. “You?”
“Guitar and woodwinds,” I answered.
“Nice. We’ll have to play sometime,” he said.
We did play shortly after that for about twenty minutes one day, spur of the moment. I was headed out to a gig and Gabe had plans too but we played a few songs in the time we had, just to get it going. Then we set a time to play for real, when we’d have a few hours to hang out together.
Gabe’s never played professionally but he’s played banjo for twelve years and he’s good. Gabe Stratton. He’s a fisherman. He works on a boat out of Cedar Point. He’s thirty years old. He’s gay. No big deal, I just mention it because it’s part of him and I’m writing about him for the first time here. Would I mention it if he was straight? Hmmm, gotta think about that.
He moved here from Langley but he’s originally from Smithers in northwestern B.C. We’ve played together several times either in the living room or on the back deck. That second time we played together was when he’d only been living here for a little while and we hadn’t had much chance to talk. It was a good way to get to know each other.
We set aside two hours to play on a Saturday, late in the afternoon, we’d have supper together afterward. Our other roommate, Martelle, was away so we had the house to ourselves. With Gabe on the banjo, I played acoustic. I never play my acoustic guitar on a gig, it just hasn’t come up, I usually play it in my room, practicing.
That afternoon we played a bunch of country and bluegrass, the kind of stuff you’d expect to hear on the banjo. I’m not that familiar with a lot of those kind of tunes so I just followed Gabe. We had a good time. Gabe even sang a couple.
Afterward, we made and ate supper together and talked about music and playing. I’m always interested in talking to people about what music means in their life. You learn a lot about people from that.
Over spaghetti and meatballs, I asked Gabe how he got started.
“My grandfather taught me when I was a teenager. His father played the banjo on the radio in Vancouver in the 1920s. Grandpa taught me on a tenor banjo, that’s the four-string, when I was eighteen,” Gabe told me. “I’d been messing around on guitar for a couple years, like a lot of teenagers, but I wasn’t serious about it and I wasn’t really into rock and that’s all my friends ever played, so I didn’t play that much. But playing rhythm on the banjo, just strumming it like a guitar, with my grandfather doing the fancy finger-picking, that was fun! He was a good guy and I liked spending time with him. After a few months, I bought an old 5-string. He showed me a few things to get me started but I picked up a lot of it on my own. And I’d surprise him with some new trick I’d learned or some new way to play an old song.”
“What do you know about you great-grandfather?” I asked.
“In the 1920s, My great-grandfather was known on Vancouver radio as “Singin’ Stan, The Banjo Man.” I don’t know many details but he was popular, he played for several years on one station, then he played a few more on another station. And he did appearances around town, mostly to promote his sponsors. My father has a recording of Singin’ Stan from 1927 or ’28. He sings and plays ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ which was a fairly new song then, only a couple years old.” Gabe smiled as he recalled the recording. “It sounds…like the 1920s, you know? It’s a little funny to hear today, the style and all, but you can tell he’s a good player.”
“You have musical genes, I guess. Did your parents play?” I asked.
“Not really. My mother’s not musical. My father played guitar when he was young but he wasn’t into it that much. He didn’t play after high school. I saw him play once at a family reunion in Smithers, I was thirteen, it was the only time he’s played as an adult. It was just one song. A few people brought their instruments, they didn’t call it a jam, they just played. It was country and folk and bluegrass. Anyway my Grandma says to my father, “Joe, sit next to your father and play a song so I can get a nice picture of the two of you.” I don’t think he wanted to but he wasn’t going to argue with his mother in front of all the relatives. Somebody handed him a guitar and he strummed a couple chords and said, “Tennessee Waltz” and he started playing the chords. My grandfather jumped right in on the banjo. My cousin was playing fiddle and she sang that one. My uncles were playing, my aunt too. I’d seen them play before. It was fun to see my father join in. There were about forty relatives there. They’d been talking and the music was kind of off to the side, a couple people had been listening but you know, it’s a reunion, people are catching up with each other and eating and kids are running around. The musicians in the family were playing for themselves. But when my father started playing the guitar, the talking stopped and everyone watched and listened, it was a rare thing, probably brought back memories for some of them. The last verse, we all sang it. Everyone applauded at the end. It was a nice moment.”
We both smiled, me at the story, Gabe at the memory. I told Gabe about how I started playing. Then we talked about the musicians we listened to growing up who inspired us as players.
When we were done eating, we cleared our plates and cleaned up the kitchen. Then we went outside and shared a joint in the backyard, up against the house so no neighbours would notice. Afterward we settled in the living room. I was still nursing my beer from supper, Gabe got a refill from the fridge and cracked it open.
“So your grandfather who taught you, did he play professionally?” I asked from the couch.
“Oh yeah,” said Gabe as he settled into a comfy chair. “He had a day job but he was a weekend musician. Played all around Smithers and the nearby towns.”
And then Gabe told me the most amazing and funny story…
“My grandfather played banjo in a duo, the other guy, Phil, played guitar. They’d play and sing and tell a few jokes. They called it ‘good time music.’ It wasn’t a fancy show, just a couple guys playing for you and talking to you like you were in their living room. They just billed themselves as Phil & John. They weren’t related but they looked like could have been, people would always ask. After awhile they called themselves The Smithers Brothers.
“In the late 1960s, a reporter from a San Francisco newspaper came up to Smithers, doing an article about the environment. He liked the area and he wrote a second article about the town, the people and the growing arts community. He saw Grandpa and Phil play and included a couple of paragraphs about them in his article. A few weeks later, Grandpa got a letter from some big law firm in Los Angeles. A big TV network in the States was demanding that Grandpa and Phil stop using the name, The Smithers Brothers. They said it infringed on The Smothers Brothers TV show. It was a pretty popular show in the States in those days. You ever see it?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, “I’ve heard of them though.”
“Yeah, me too, I learned their name when I first heard this story in the family but I’ve heard of them otherwise over the years. I watched some clips on Youtube a few years ago. They were funny, the parts that I got. A lot of political humour, U.S. politics from 1968,” he laughed, “I guess it was funny, the audience sure thought so.
“Anyway, those big companies figure regular people will be scared off and just do what they say. But not Grandpa, he thought the whole thing was funny. He thought it’d be even funnier if he put up a fight. So he went to court and sued CBS! He claimed The Smithers Brothers were working before The Smothers Brothers and he demanded they change the name of the TV show or pay him and his partner a thousand dollars a piece, U.S.”
I was laughing. “A thousand dollars!”
“Yeah,” Gabe said, “People were like, ‘John, you should have sued them for a million.’ But it was all part of the joke to him.
“My grandfather was a printer. He did a lot of work for the courthouse and local law firms. So he bartered. He gave a lawyer he knew a cut rate on all his printing for two years or until the law suit was settled if it took longer than that and the lawyer didn’t charge him anything for legal services.
“A date was set for a settlement conference and a bunch of high-priced lawyers from New York and Los Angeles came up to Smithers. It was a big deal in town. It got big coverage from the local newspapers and radio. A bunch of musicians and local artsy people showed up at the courthouse with signs and they chanted and marched and they booed the CBS lawyers when they entered the courthouse. The protesters were just kidding, having fun. They were all friends of my grandfather and they wanted in on the joke.
“The CBS lawyers wanted the case moved to Vancouver and brought to the Supreme Court. But Grandpa had filed the case in Small Claims Court and the judge saw no reason for it to be sent to another court. That’s part of why Grandpa only sued for two-thousand dollars. The idea of taking a multi-million dollar international corporation to Small Claims Court in the middle of nowhere in British Columbia was a riot!,” Gabe laughed and I did too. “At that point, CBS wasn’t interested in settling the suit, they were playing tough so Grandpa would give in. But that was fine with my grandfather, he was having fun. The judge set a date for a trial.
“When the date was coming up, CBS tried to get it postponed. The judge denied it. Then something happened that changed the whole situation, one of the actual Smothers Brothers got involved. He gave an interview to The Los Angeles Times and mocked CBS for trying to strong-arm two regular guys for no good reason and he offered to pay the legal fees for my grandfather. He said The Smothers Brothers might come up to Smithers to watch the trial. And he said they’d bring their instruments so The Smothers Brothers could jam with The Smithers Brothers. Probably every newspaper in North America ran that story. Grandma says when Grandpa read the story to her, he was laughing so hard, she couldn’t understand him, so she had to read it herself.
“It wasn’t the kind of publicity CBS wanted. They asked to meet with my grandfather before the trial and he agreed. This time they only sent two lawyers. They met at the office of Grandpa’s lawyer. CBS wanted to settle. They wanted Grandpa to drop the suit and agree that The Smithers Brothers would never use that name outside of Bulkley Valley. CBS would pay the two-thousand dollars and cover my grandfather’s legal fees.
“But Grandpa didn’t like those terms. My grandfather – he was around my age at the time – he’d only been to Vancouver once in his life and didn’t really have any plans to go there again. But he told the CBS attorneys about his father, playing banjo on the radio in Vancouver in the 1920s. He said if a Vancouver radio station ever wanted him to play the banjo, he’d want to say yes and play with Phil as The Smithers Brothers. He said it would be important to him, to do something his father had done over forty years earlier.
“The CBS lawyers wanted to make him happy, make him go away, so they agreed to allow The Smithers Brothers to use that name within the borders of British Columbia. Then Grandpa says, “We played up in Whitehorse one time…..”
I burst into laughter. Gabe paused, laughed, and continued…
“Grandpa says, “Phil’s cousin was getting married, so we played their reception. Their tenth anniversary is coming up next year and Phil already told them we’d go up to play it. I’d hate to disappoint them. I’d hate to disappoint my wife too, we were planning to make a holiday of it.”
I was rolling on the couch now, I was laughing so hard. Gabe was laughing too as he continued…
“The CBS lawyers missed the point so Grandpa’s lawyer explained that Whitehorse is in another province. So they changed their offer to allow The Smithers Brothers to perform under that name in British Columbia and Yukon Territory. Grandpa agreed.”
“Oh my God, this is great,” I said, still laughing.
“Then they negotiated the financial settlement,” Gabe said.
“Grandpa said he thought two-thousand dollars in damages was appropriate to compensate for the suffering he’d been through after receiving the original letter demanding they drop The Smithers Brothers name. “But I’ve been through a lot more suffering since,” he said. He told about all the reporters who called him at home asking for interviews. He had turned every one of them down because he wasn’t interested in being famous. He pointed out that CBS would have looked a lot worse if he’d granted those interviews and spoken his mind. He thought they owed him something for that.
“The lead CBS attorney offered him five-thousand dollars, U.S. Grandpa thought that was fair, to a point. “That’s okay for me,” he said, “but I got a partner.” As he said it, he realized it was a line from a Marx Brothers film and it was all he could do to keep from laughing. “What about Phil?” Grandpa said, “He suffered too.” The attorney offered another five-thousand dollars for Phil. My grandfather agreed.
“Grandpa accepted the CBS offer to pay his legal fees, then he explained those fees would be the cost of print work for his attorney’s practice for the next two years. The CBS attorney offered another five-thousand dollars. “How much printing you planning to do, Tom?” Grandpa asked his lawyer. “Well, we do need new letterhead…” Tom began to reply. “Seventy-five hundred,” the CBS lawyer said, “Final offer.” Grandpa looked at Tom who nodded. “Okay, Mr. Kuppman,” Grandpa said as he extended his hand, “we have a deal.”
“When it was over and the CBS attorneys had left the office and were on the street, out of earshot, my Grandpa and his lawyer laughed their asses off.”
Then I did the same thing, Gabe was laughing too. But he wasn’t finished.
“The icing on the cake happened a few weeks later after the settlement was in the news. The details of the settlement weren’t made public but it was obvious my grandfather had won, beating the huge corporation. It was pretty big news in B.C. A radio station in Vancouver paid for Grandpa and Phil and their wives to fly down to Vancouver for a weekend. They saw the sights, ate in a fancy restaurant, took in a show, all expenses paid. And on the Sunday night, The Smithers Brothers performed an hour-long concert that was broadcast live. The whole story had received so much attention that CBC Radio wanted to air it nationally but Grandpa’s attorney thought it might violate the settlement so he advised against it. Grandpa didn’t want to talk to any more lawyers from New York so he turned CBC down. He didn’t care about it anyway. He was just glad to be playing on the radio in Vancouver, like his father had. My great-grandfather was still around then, he was close to 70, but he was quite ill and could barely talk. He wasn’t aware of all the legal stuff or Grandpa’s big joke on CBS. But Grandpa played him a tape of the radio concert. His father tapped his foot to the music and hummed along to a few of the songs. When it was over, he took his son’s hand and held it tight and smiled at him and with his hoarse voice he struggled to say, “So proud.” My Grandpa had tears in his eyes when he told me that.”
I nodded, seeing the moment in my mind.
Gabe had more. “A couple weeks after the Vancouver trip, a big package arrived in the post, it was from Los Angeles. The Smothers Brothers had sent Grandpa a brand new top-of-the-line banjo.”
“Wow,” I said, smiling big. “How cool is that?”
“Over the years,” Gabe said, “whenever anyone would bring it up, “John, tell ’em about the time you sued CBS!” he loved telling the story. Most people would say, why didn’t you sue for more? I heard Grandpa answer once, “The whole thing was a joke. I never expected it to turn into that big a joke. The sight of this team of lawyers, coming all the way from New York and Los Angeles up here to little old Smithers, and making a stink about two-thousand dollars was more hilarious than anything! Imagine how much it cost just to send those high-priced lawyers here. CBS must have paid more than two-thousand dollars in legal fees before those lawyers even got here! That was enough for me, right there!” he laughed. “And then to actually get money out of it?…” he just shook his head, amazed at the silliness of the whole thing.”
“And that story, which has been told in the family many times over the years, it pretty much sums up my Grandpa. A good guy who enjoys a good joke,” Gabe said. He chuckled.
“That’s a great story, Gabe,” I said. “You really should write it down.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, “you’re right. Maybe someday.”