An old friend will sit in with the Holy Trinity Music Team once again this Sunday, as we say Vaya con dios to another Stampede Week in Calgary.
No, I’m not referring to vertically gifted bassist Brian McKenzie. Brian is making a guest appearance with the band again this week, and he’s definitely a friend – but he’s not that old.
Nope, the friend in question today is Old Gib – my banjo! Yup, we’re having another Holy Hoedown at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. I’ll be plucking the plectrum to the delight (or disdain) of worshippers young and old during our regular Holy Communion service, which starts at 10 a.m. sharp-ish.
I inherited this 1957 four-string Gibson banjo from my Granddad, Francis Earl Kenworthy – a sweet and generous man who I remember very fondly. His family immigrated to Rockyford, Alberta from Kansas in the 1920s, and he farmed there for much of the 20th Century. He was a highly-respected member of the Rockyford community and a pillar of the village’s United Church.
He couldn’t carry a tune very far, as I recall, but he loved music as much as anyone I ever met. My mom has old photos of him and his siblings strumming, plucking or plunking enthusiastically on a variety of instruments at house parties, back in the day – but I get the feeling that for Granddad, at least, it was more about good fun and good effort than technically good music.
Even after he retired from the farm, Granddad didn’t play Old Gib all that much, so his huge, callused hands couldn’t coax much music out of its strings the few times I heard him play. But I was a budding guitarist at the time, and was grateful for any one-on-one time I got with Granddad, so I was proud that he and I had musicianship in common.
Granddad was calm, soft-spoken and kind. He loved to laugh, and his chuckle was disarming and contagious. He doted on each of his grandchildren – somehow making each of us feel like we were his favourite (It was really me, though).
Sadly, though, Granddad struggled with depression for much of his life, and in the latter part of his 70s, the illness took hold and he never really was himself again. The youngest of his 19 grandkids never knew how awesome he was. But I did, and I’m very grateful for that.
As my brother Barry and I became more proficient musically, Granddad loved to hear us play and sing – even in his latter years. We used a makeshift home recording studio to record fairly credible versions of some of his favourite songs for him to listen to while he was in nursing homes in his 80s, and he loved it. (Shh. Don’t tell the original artists, OK?)
When he passed away in the fall of 1994, Barry and I sang All His Children, one of Granddad’s favourite Charley Pride songs, at his funeral. (We played acoustic guitars; Old Gib found its way home to me about a decade later, but our Uncle David performed Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain at Grandma Mary’s funeral in 2001, using Granddad’s other, even older, banjo.)
The thought of playing some of the songs Granddad loved, for the God he loves, on his banjo, gives me great joy. So every time I haul out Old Gib and fumble and bluff my way through old-timey bluegrass worship tunes at my church, the activity is as almost much about remembering my maternal grandfather as it is about worshipping God.
And I think that’s OK with him – and Him.
But this year’s Hoedown will also allow me to also give a small nod to my paternal grandparents, David and Elizabeth Petkau, who farmed for much of the 20th Century near Vauxhall, Alberta, and were pillars of the Mennonite Brethren Church in that community.
You see, in 1979, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and all 13 of their children and 60-odd grandchildren (yes, I did mean six-zero, and I did mean odd) made their way to Abbotsford, B.C. – where they had settled down after retiring and selling the Vauxhall homestead – for a family reunion to celebrate the milestone.
While my mom’s family could have been described as a lively-but-unpolished band, my dad’s family was an undeniably excellent choir. Many of them could play instruments competently, but they shone (and presumably still shine) as choral singers. The way my mom describes visits to her in-laws’ churches in the 1960s, every hymn was sung in thunderous, flawless, four-part harmony. In those days, the Petkaus’ family church didn’t have a choir, it was a choir.
(Initially I wrote ‘three-part harmony’ in the paragraph above, but my dad corrected me in an email just now, saying, “The only time we sang three-part harmony was when there were only three singers. It was always four-part harmony … and would you believe I sang high tenor until I was 16?” Anyone who’s heard Henry Petkau’s rumbly, bass voice would likely have trouble imagine him ever singing tenor! Johnny Cash’s famous song, Daddy Sang Bass (written by Carl Perkins), will always be about the Hankster for me.)
So, naturally, the grandparents’ 50th anniversary party in Abbotsford featured a number of large choral groups. My dad’s siblings and their spouses formed one choir (I don’t remember what they sang), and we grandchildren also got a turn. All 60 or so of us (some of whom were already adults with children of their own – ‘Procreate early, procreate often’ was the de-facto Mennonite Motto in those days) joined our voices for two songs: Count Your Blessings and Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.
To my eight-year-old ears, we sounded fantastic. We young ‘uns just sang the melody, but the older cousins followed in their parents’ footsteps, belting out exquisite alto/baritone and tenor/soprano parts that blended beautifully and made a real impression on me.
The two- or three-week camping trip, travelling in convoy with several of my uncles’ families from Grande Prairie in northern Alberta, all the way down to southwestern B.C., is one of the highlights of my childhood (thanks in large part to the rose-coloured goggles of nostalgia, no doubt).
The trip was memorable, but the songs themselves didn’t occupy a lot of space in my mental archives … until last summer, when I picked up Paul Brandt‘s Just As I Am album. Track 3 is a lively bluegrass number featuring Ricky Skaggs and The Whites, and it’s called Life’s Railway to Heaven. Yes, that’s the same song, by a slightly different name, that we sang for my grandparents in Abbotsford 25 years ago.
And when I listened to Brandt’s recording, a flood of new memories gushed back to me. I remembered more details of what those gorgeous harmonies sounded like. I recalled rehearsing these tunes with my siblings, cousins and uncles around the campfire on the way to Abbotsford, and watching an assortment of freight trains clickety-clack along real-life mountain railways as we made our way through Alberlumbia.
And I remember (or maybe imagine) seeing a smile of joy on Grandma’s face and a stoic look of profound non-irritation on Grandpa’s after we finished singing our songs for them. Stoic non-irritation was about all you could hope for from him. He wasn’t the most demonstrative or expressive of patriarchs, as I recall.
But he had to have been proud to have so many talented grandkids, all singing God’s praises in a song he probably chose, at his 50th wedding anniversary party.
And apparently, my grandparents’ love for this ditty wasn’t a short-term thing. When Grandma died in 2002, her sons and sons-in-law sang Life’s Railway to Heaven at her funeral, at her request.
I was never as close with Dad’s parents as I was with Mom’s, but there’s just as much of Petkau in me as Kenworthy – in terms of both nature and nurture – so I’m pretty excited that this Sunday, I get to play Grandpa and Grandma’s song from 1979, on Granddad’s banjo from 1957, for my church family in 2014.
Please bear with me if I get a little choked up.
Peace be with you.
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