By Kim Davenport
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with my longtime neighbor, Loraine Lewis, to learn more about the history of the Tacoma Banjo Club, a group with which she has been involved since its inception in 1985. That 30+ year history was enough to engage my curiosity as a Tacoma music history buff. But I quickly learned that Loraine’s connection to the instrument goes back even farther, and connects her to a local legend in the banjo world, Myron Hinkle.
The modern American banjo has a history as complex as that of our nation. The earliest banjos were played by African-American slaves, modeled after African instruments of similar design. In the mid-nineteenth century, the instrument was commonly used in minstrel shows in both the US and Britain. By the early twentieth century, the banjo, alongside the fiddle, found a home in “old-time” music, bluegrass, and traditional jazz.
Loraine’s connection to the instrument began in her hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. If that now-sleepy town in Grays Harbor County brings up any musical connections in the minds of most people, it is likely because of Kurt Cobain and other pioneers in the world of grunge. But it was also home for many years to Myron Hinkle (1916-2001), who was inducted into the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame in 2009.
Hinkle founded the Seattle Banjo Club in 1962, released a few albums, and played for many years at the “Blue Banjo” a popular bar in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, before work as a draftsman drew him to a position in Aberdeen in the late 1960s.
The new job and new hometown did nothing to dampen Hinkle’s enthusiasm for the banjo, specifically the 4-string banjo used in Dixieland and traditional jazz music. Upon arriving in Aberdeen, he continued to perform, teach, and otherwise share his favorite instrument with the community.
It was at Sourdough Lil’s, an institution in Westport, Washington, that Loraine first heard Hinkle perform. Her then-husband Vance already owned a banjo, and she soon picked one up and took a few lessons from Hinkle. Before long, there was talk of a Banjo Club forming, and it was in Loraine’s living room that the first meeting took place, with just 5 or 6 enthusiasts.
By 1969, the new group, Grays Harbor Banjo Band, was in full swing, performing at venues around the region – and having their first professional photo taken – Loraine is third from left in the middle row, seated next to Hinkle:
The women in the group wore fringe dresses and took dance lessons, and Loraine in particular was known for her Charleston. Hinkle’s daughter Linda joined the group as a teenager, and she and Loraine were the primary dancers. Loraine also enjoyed playing melody, a skill she learned from Hinkle, even though most other members of the group preferred to stick to rhythm chords.
Loraine and Linda typically played Friday nights at Sourdough Lil’s, accompanied by Hinkle on the piano, and it was there that she first met Walt Lewis, who came down from Tacoma to hear the entertainment and play himself, often on Saturdays. After her first marriage ended, Loraine ended up following Walt to Tacoma, starting a whole new life here. Soon after moving in with Walt, she saw an advertisement in the Tacoma paper, announcing a banjo group forming in Tacoma, and knew she wanted to be involved.
Once again, she attended that first meeting with just a few other enthusiasts, but the rest, as they say, is history. The Tacoma Banjo Club was founded in September 1985, and has been rehearsing weekly and performing around the region ever since.
Walt was still working full-time as a machinist for Globe in the early years of the club, and Loraine was working part-time as well. This led the club to set its rehearsal schedule such that Loraine could attend – a schedule which remains the same to this day. After both retired, they became much more involved, sharing the stage during the group’s performances and even traveling to banjo festivals around the region.
Since Walt’s passing in 2012, Loraine has remained involved with her Tacoma Banjo Club family – a word she uses often when discussing the group. After so many years together, the group is close-knit.
The Tacoma Banjo Club is made up primarily of banjos – all of the 4-string variety, along with tuba, piano, and the occasional addition of washboard, courtesy of Loraine. It was the tune ‘Coney Island Washboard’ that first got her into adding the instrument to the group’s performances.
The group’s repertoire is made up of songs as old as ‘Bird in a Gilded Cage‘, one of the most popular songs of the year 1900, but primarily draws from music of the 1920s-1940s. Several different members of the group take turns providing the vocals. Loraine still prefers to play melody on her banjo, just as she did with the Grays Harbor group, under the influence of Hinkle.
In addition to her performing responsibilities, Loraine is the group’s longtime treasurer, and she was proud to share with me the Tacoma Banjo Club’s commitment to supporting a variety of charities. The ensemble typically has 1-2 performances per week, inviting donations from audiences. After taking care of the group’s expenses, any remaining funds go to the Children’s Therapy Unit at Good Samaritan Hospital, the Tacoma Rescue Mission, and the Salvation Army. In the past few years, the group has also donated to local disaster relief efforts such as flooding in Grays Harbor County, and wildfires in Central Washington.
The group is very aware that they are aging, with many members in their 80s and 90s, and are welcoming of anyone who might like to become involved. If you are curious, you are invited to attend one of their rehearsals, which take place every Friday morning, 10-12, at the facilities of the Asia Pacific Cultural Center, 4851 South Tacoma Way.