In 1947, then-U.S. President Harry S. Truman declared the banjo to be “America’s national instrument.”
To Ernie May, of Oxford, the banjo represents more than a nationally-revered instrument – it represents tradition.
Ever since the age of 13, May has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father by strumming the banjo. Forty-six years later, May is still playing and performs with a variety of musical groups and organizations.
“It’s been kind of second nature to be part of it,” he said. “Its kind of like an honor thing, a family tradition, and I just plain enjoy it.”
According to May, there have been several inspirations behind his commitment to the four-to-six-stringed instrument typically associated with country, folk, Irish and bluegrass music.
May’s ventures with the banjo also led him to his wife, Virginia “Ginny” May.
As a young student at Rochester College, formerly Michigan Christian College, May was invited to bring his banjo to entertain other students at a local event.
It was there that his future wife caught his act.
Soon after, May met Ginny through mutual friends.
“That was her first impression of me. I think I played okay,” May said with a laugh. “We’ve only been married 37 years, so I think I struck a chord.”
While May enjoys playing a variety of music, there’s one genre that feels the most natural to him.
“I’m partial to the jazz age music of the 1920s and 1930s, and the big band era,” he said.
May has also performed with The North Oakland Dixieland Band for the past several years. The Lake Orion-based group specializes in both traditional jazz and swing music from 1900-60. The group often plays for venues such as library concerts, festivals and senior centers.
May is an active member of the North American International Banjo Convention (NAIBC).
The NAIBC has held 27 conventions annually, drawing more than 300 musicians from throughout Michigan.
May is also a member of All Frets, an international organization that promotes all-acoustic fretted instruments.
A passion for music is definitely part of May’s family tree, but there’s more to it than just the banjo.
His grandmother worked for the Baldwin Piano Company in Cincinnati and played in silent movies.
His uncle was a drummer and a xylophone player for the Clyde Trask and Russ Morgan Orchestras.
His great-aunt was also an accomplished organist.
Please call me 248-770-3006. I am looking for a banjo group to play at an event and I am hoping you can help me.