Poster of the Big Frog Bluegrass Festival, 2000
The CanJoe Company of Blountville, TN officially began operating as a licensed business in the year 1994, but prior to the legal beginning of the operation of the public commercial sales of these instruments by the proprietor, now known worldwide as “CanJoe*John”, Herschel Brown, the instrument’s creator, and CanJoe*John were very close friends who, at the time, both lived in the same town and who associated closely in the earliest manufacturing of them. The history of that association is found in nearly every one of the stories as available to any and all who read these blog posts, as well as, but more importantly, is fully documented and published in dozens of newspaper stories, magazine articles, on television newscasts and in extended news stories, or literally in hundreds of other published documents accessible to public view, and that date all the way back to the very beginning. Much more often than not, though, many now come along who have decided they are true authorities on the history, the facts, the origins, and are as self appointed ‘experts’ on how the instruments should be made, giving assundry and opined accounts of where the instruments supposedly got their start, etc. Recently, it was pointed out from yet another self designated authority and on his relatively new web site that the instrument is based on a “zither”. Also, that “they began with soda pop cans, but once they became popularized, now use bean and soup cans”…
There is a real history of these instruments. There is significant, documented evidence, too, of the history that when by indisputable documentation is presented, regardless, will still be attempted to be disputed and discredited. Nevertheless, the truth does always rise to the top, eventually. This post is about the true master craftsman of these instruments and who began by physically helping make them with the instrument’s genuine creator, Herschel R. Brown, from the very beginning, and who continues still to this day designing, creating new ones, hand making these instruments, and now with over 25 years experience. As officially and literally living the living history of these instruments one has no need to contrive or obfuscate the truth. Many have viewed and often peruse the many stories posted, but the photos of the instruments that are posted of each hand crafted by the artist, CanJoe*John, as well, tell a detailed story of themselves.
The poster at the top of this blog post has a history, too. It is of a festival in Cleveland, TN that brought “CanJoe*John” on as a headliner act to perform in the year 2000 (a date that precedes all other contemporary ‘canjo’ makers by nearly a decade). The story that follows, though written by CanJoe*John, is one not only witnessed by thousands, is clearly a testament of how these instruments grew to become known.
“King of the One Stringed Thing”
In the year 2000, I was invited and booked to headline the first “Big Frog Mountain Bluegrass Festival” near Cleveland, TN. I attended the event, was very well received by those gathered for the affair, gave a children’s workshop on ‘how to play a canjoe’, and on the Saturday night’s main stage closing act, I and Sonny Smith, who was the 1998 National Banjo Champion, had a pickoff as the grand finale, after our separately performed stage shows.
The reason I thought of this event, though it was quite memorable, I had someone who posted a comment on my official CanJoe Company blog site recently offering miscredit to its history. This individual touting himself a specialist on folk instruments has a photo of an early Herschel Brown made “canjoe” on his site, and with a sorta’ piecemealed, very brief “history” of the instruments. By his account, the instrument is based on a zither. Well, not quite … No, it’s always been based on a mountain dulcimer, but ‘whatever’… he’s the “expert”!
Anyway, as Sonny and I are together on stage preparing for the grand finish act, we were to choose a tune as a duet, totally unrehearsed, to prove for the audience who could out pick the other. As Sonny had appointed himself the MC for the act’s introduction, we were both front and center stage in the spot lights and I asked the sound engineer for a pickup cable and direct input box to plug my canjoe through the sound boards, into the main stage speakers. Sonny then being a smart alec commented to the crowd, “hey, sound man, pass me up a cable, too, so I can hook up my electric zither”… the crowd laughed. Like two professional wrestlers mouthing off before a match, the musical barbs flew back and forth as we prepared for the contest.
So, once ready, Sonny with his banjo, me with my canjoe, he asked, “well, Mr fastest, greatest canjoe picker in the world, what tune do you want to choose as you and I try to pull this off”, as he snickers with incredulity. I replied, “how about “Dueling Banjos“, and Sonny with a tone of jocular affability in his voice, “Oh boy! let’s kick her off”. He began with the intro, I followed. As the tune progressed, it got faster. Of course, I’m playing on just one string, Sonny’s picking with three fingers on a five string banjo. The tune grew faster and faster until it was blazing, but we stayed note for note throughout. On the very last note, after a blistering final stanza, we both simultaneously tagged the tune to a finish that brought the huge crowd to a spontaneous, roaring, cheering standing ovation that literally echoed off the Big Frog mountain, throughout the valley, and Sonny then immediately turned to me, stuck out his right hand to shake mine and jubilantly exclaimed, loudly and excitedly, “Mister CanJoe*John, you are TRULY the world’s greatest canjoe picker!!!“… and the “man on the can” was treated by all who witnessed, and from that point onward, as officially declared, crowned and titled, “king of the one-stringed thing”… lol. ~ CJ*J
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