Pop’s Banjo Beginnings

My grandfather, Frederick James Merry, was a banjo player. That being said, I think it’s funny that, during all those years that I spent weekends with my grandparents in the early 1970’s, I never once heard Pop practice his banjo. In fact, I don’t ever remember seeing his banjo while in his home.

But, once a year, without fail, Pop’s banjo would make an appearance.

As a child, our family’s Christmas tradition was the same every year that I can remember. On Christmas Eve, Mom, Dad and all the kids (eventually six of us), would drive to my grandparents house in East Greenbush, NY, where we’d have a feast prepared by Nana that included the most delicious “Suet Pudding with Rum Sauce” that I’ve ever had. (OK, I’ll admit that I’ve never had another suet pudding, but, believe me, it was truly yummy!)

The next day, after we kids had opened our presents and eaten breakfast, Nana and Pop and the banjo would make the trip from East Greenbush to our home in Hoags Corners, NY, to spend the afternoon and enjoy another feast – this one prepared by my mother, Jane Alice Merry Belles.

After dinner, the whole family was treated to the annual Christmas concert. The featured musicians for the show were Pop on his banjo, accompanied by my sister, Kate, on the clarinet. Now, I’m not so sure that these two instruments were ever meant to be played side-by-side. I’ve not heard the combination since, but, to be fair, I would certainly not seek it out! So, maybe it’s a thing that happens.

I recall the concerts included maybe four or five songs. There was sheet music that the two would share between them. Pop would be plucking his banjo and Kate would be tooting along on her clarinet. I remember there being lots of stops and starts, and giggling, as the two struggled to make something resembling music together. Over the years, I believe that Kate got better at her instrument, while Pop seemed to stay about this same with his. Of course, he was an old man by this time. It had been decades since he’d played with any regularity.

The F. K. Briggs’ Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Club, circa 1925. Fred Merry (Pop) is in back row, furthest left. (Photo from my personal collection.)

As it turns out, Pop had been quite an accomplished banjo player when he was a young man. I’m not certain when his musical instruction began, but by 1925, 18-year-old Frederick James Merry was an advanced student with the F. K. Briggs’ Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Clubs in Utica, NY. Briggs was a renowned music teacher and instrument dealer. His Clubs were featured in venues all over New York State.

I wish I’d heard my grandfather play like he could “back in the day”. I bet he would have given Kate a run for her money at the annual Christmas concert!

Publicity photo for F. K. Briggs, Season 1925-26. Pop is standing in the middle of the back row. (Photo from my personal collection)
May 30, 1925 Utica Daily Press featuring “Local Musicians to Appear at the Gaiety” – a theater in Utica, New York. Includes the same press picture that has been in our family album for decades.
1926 Rome Daily Sentinel
1925 Utica Daily Press
Advertisement for The Vega Company, manufacturers of fine Banjos, Mandolins, Lutes and Guitars. (From 1922 Crescendo Magazine). Ad features “Famous Players” – The F. K. Briggs’ Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Club. This picture does not include Fred Merry. It was taken in 1922, likely a little before Fred started with his instruction.

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