For a year and a half, roosters interrupted Craig Evans’ most exciting moments.
The Rosemount resident had purchased a video camera from Craigslist and set off across the continent to document builders who crafted the instrument that he says changed his life — the open-back banjo.
“There was an uncanny number of roosters,” Evans, 60, said. “Anytime I was interviewing, they would begin to crow, and they were so loud, I’d have to stop. Roosters, of all things.”
Calling himself the “CNN of banjos,” Evans traveled 12,000 miles across United States and Canada to meet banjo builders. The result would be a nine-hour documentary series. The initial two volumes, “Conversations With North American Banjo Builders,” tells stories of 26 people.
Afterward, he won a $10,000 grant to produce the third volume, “Conversations With Banjo Historians.”
The Smithsonian caught wind of what he was doing and began an Instrument Builders’ Collection, starting with his series. His DVDs will soon be housed in the Smithsonian Folkways Library.
“I kept looking through the camera going, ‘Thanks, God. I can’t believe I’m sitting here listening to this stuff,’ ” he said.
They include the tale of a man who lost his arm and leg and now builds machines that build banjos. And another of a man who used banjo strings to stitch a patient during his time with Doctors Without Borders.
“When I left home to the time I got back, it was like I was three feet off the ground,” Evans said. “It was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done.”
Following a dream
Evans was going through an “acrimonious” divorce in 2000 when he had a dream that inspired him to “trust that the banjo would lead me on the journey I would never forget.”
“It sounds crazy, but it wasn’t,” Evans said. “Because I found peace in learning that.”
What began as a quest to document how banjos are built ended up being a more powerful story.
“It ended up being a treatise on human creativity and how people will work to pursue their gifting,” Evans said.
Evans had put away his banjo after high school, and for the next 25 years he focused on his careers in science, business, marketing, communications and later building websites.
When he reconnected with the instrument, “from that point on it seems that if every time I touched a banjo, astonishing things happened,” he said. “I have just found an instrument that is so appealing that I’m literally obsessed with it.”
Taking lessons from a 60-year-old Mennonite minister, he joined two bands at age 50 and has since had his music recorded on five CDs.
“When I play banjo, be it at a festival in front of a crowd, or under a tree at an apple orchard, it’s astonishing to me how it can compel a human being, especially a young human being, to stop what they’re doing and literally let music take over their body and dance … and for a brief moment, you’ll see this joy pop out of nowhere.”
Evans gained a deeper appreciation of the banjo when he learned that it came from Africa and was a merging of several instruments brought over by slaves. On their day of rest, the slaves would gather to cook, tell stories, dance and sing.
“These people were so homesick that they would look at other black people, and it didn’t matter what their religions were, what their languages were — they were from Africa, so they were home,” he said. That’s why “old-time traditional Americana” music is more appealing to Evans than bluegrass — it’s historic.
Banjos have gained and waned in popularity throughout the years, but today is a renaissance period, Evans said.
However, “even today, there are few black banjo players and no black builders,” he said. “The few players, they are only now starting to rediscover their roots. And that’s terribly exciting. I mean, this is their instrument.”
Evans calls himself an “encourager” — he wants to encourage people to follow their gift and learn what makes them happy. He incorporates that into his job teaching marketing classes at Dakota County Technical College. He hopes young people who watch his series will be inspired to follow their artistic gift.
‘A timeless connection’
Every Saturday morning, Evans joins a group of old-time musicians who put on a “public jam,” sitting in a circle at Black Bear Crossings in St. Paul, in the corner of a cafe.
This is how traditional string instrument music is passed on to the younger generation, Evans said — no music or tablature is allowed. The learning is done by ear.
“Once you get into it, you are so passionate and in love with the instrument, and now you want others to appreciate it for the history and beauty that it can portray,” he said.
One cafe customer said the music brought her back to her childhood, when people gathered at her house in a circle to play.
“It’s just exciting,” Mary Hartman of Brooklyn Center said. “It’s kind of uplifting — reminds me of my younger years.”
When Evans plays, he’ll quickly change from a serious, somber expression to an upbeat smile and laugh — the moment he starts to feel what the music expresses.
“He’s very connected with it. It becomes a part of him,” said group member Joe Fishbein of West St. Paul, who was featured in the festival at the end of Evans’ documentary. “He’s really in tune with the music.”