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EP338: The Banjo's Trip Through History, “He Was Closer To Death Than We Knew” and The Man In The Glass Coffin

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 6, 2022 3:05 am

EP338: The Banjo's Trip Through History, “He Was Closer To Death Than We Knew” and The Man In The Glass Coffin

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 6, 2022 3:05 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Johnny Baier, Executive Director of the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, takes us through the history of the Banjo starting from the beginning until today. Regular Contributor Stephen Rusiniak tells the story of his brother’s close encounter with death. Chris Siriano tells us about an American man in a glass coffin along the shores of Lake Michigan.

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Time Codes:

00:00 - The Banjo's Trip Through History

25:00 - “He Was Closer To Death Than We Knew”

37:00 - The Man In The Glass Coffin

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

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Call your local State Farm agent for a quote today. This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show, including your story. Send them to OurAmericanStories.com. They're some of our favorites. One of the things we love to do is take you around the country and pursue Americans' hobbies, Americans' quirks, and also museums of all kind, from presidential museums down to the arcane and the fun, which brings us to Johnny Byer, who's the executive director of the Banjo Museum in Oklahoma, sharing with us some banjo history. The museum was born out of a jazz banjo festival in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

This festival eventually came to be a museum which opened in 1998. In 2009, they moved from Guthrie to Oklahoma City, where they have close to 400 banjos on exhibit. Here's Johnny with the story of the banjo.

The most popular part of the museum visitors' experience tends to relate to things that they can relate to immediately. Most of our visitors are not banjo players, so when we can do something that ties the banjo directly to something that they have an already soft spot in their heart for, we've hit a home run. Some of our exhibits included Steve Martin, of course. Steve Martin everyone loves as a comic and an actor and a playwright and all these things. He's a wonderful superstar, but he's also a great banjo player. Right now, we have one of the instruments that Steve had donated to our museum, and when people see Steve Martin's picture and the banjo that he gave to our museum, all of a sudden they say, hey, I know that guy and he's cool, so the banjo must be cool too.

I mean, that's the kind of thought process we want to get through people's heads. We just closed an exhibit not too long ago about Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets. Now, if you're a Muppet fan, you would have remembered Kermit the Frog playing the banjo in the Muppet movie, and anybody of a certain age has almost without fail an affection for Kermit the Frog. So, when we did this, how should I say, the exhibit about Jim Henson, my goal was to get Kermit the Frog here to the banjo museum, and with the help of the Jim Henson company and Jim Henson's family, they allowed us to have Kermit here for almost two years strumming his banjo, and when people see that, they immediately put, I love Kermit, I really like the banjo, I forgot that connection.

Those are the things that really hit home with people. The banjo, while we call it America's instrument because it's so associated with so many types of American music, it actually has its roots in Africa. When the slave trade came through the Indies and brought enslaved Africans to American soil back in the 1600s, they brought with them knowledge of what we would call early folk banjos, basically tree trunks that might have been hollowed out and covered with an animal's skin, and that little body of the banjo, kind of like a drum, had a handle attached to it that they put strings on, and our assumption at that point in time is that the strings were more like percussive sounding things, like on the back of a snare drum rather than melodic notes, but as time went on, apparently it became obvious that that rhythmic sound of kind of scratching across the strings on a banjo could be turned into musical notes rather than you'd hear by the, let's call it the late 1700s and into the 1800s. White culture embraced the banjo and made it its own, or thought of it as its own, starting basically in the late 1800s.

It was a time that minstrel shows, minstrelsy we call it, were an accepted and popular form of entertainment. Obviously not the case today, we don't promote minstrelsy, but we can't tell the story of the banjo without touching on the minstrel era because the banjo was so associated with that very, very popular form of entertainment at that point in time. The banjo has been evolving since its earliest forms constantly. The next style of popular banjo playing, we call it the classic era. That came out from basically the late 1800s into the early 1900s. Now in that point in time, the banjo was no longer generally a handmade folk instrument.

It started to become a manufactured product. So the banjo, because of its association with minstrelsy, kind of had a reputation of being a rough and tumble kind of folky, not a very musical instrument, not a serious musical instrument anyway. When the classic era came around, the banjo was played in a very refined manner. It was played with bare fingers.

The strings were made of animal intestine. And the refined manner of playing during the classic era is what it sets it apart from any other period of banjo evolution. During that classic period, banjo players were expected to read on site actual notation of musical scores. The real golden era, the mainstream popularity of the banjo came after that classic era. During the late 1910s and teens, popular music in America started to incorporate early ragtime.

And the dance music that was from the late 1800s, that Victorian kind of proper European influenced dance music, was really giving way to America's own music. Now that all led to early jazz. So what happened was the banjo started to take on, back to its roots, to take on a role as a rhythm instrument. And rather than playing single note lines of melody or harmony or things like that, the banjo was looked upon during the jazz age to be the rhythmic pulse of the band. It's an absolutely perfect description of the banjo in the jazz age. And that went on beautifully and very, very commercially successfully until the stock market crash. And you've been listening to Johnny Beyer, and he's the executive director of the Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

When we come back, more of the story of the banjo here on our American stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Purchase all free clear mega packs today and conquer any laundry load for all fabric types. And we continue here with our American stories. We've been listening to executive director Johnny Beyer from the Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City. We left off with Johnny talking about the effect of the stock market crash on, of all things, music. When the stock market crashed in 1929, musical tastes changed quite dramatically. You got to keep in mind during the 1920s, it was an era, we called it the roaring 20s, but it had a lot of other nicknames, names like the lawless decade and such. Prohibition was in place for all that time. So what you had following World War I was this huge influx of ex doughboys or veterans coming home, young men coming home, having suffered a terrific ordeal through this incredible war that they'd been through, they got home and they couldn't have a drink.

And they were looking to have some fun. So prohibition being in place, jazz coming out of the woodwork, literally, and speakeasies, you know, these illegal bars where liquor was sold and jazz was king as far as the soundtrack were becoming very, very, very popular. So the jazz music and the banjo's association with it kind of was part of that subculture or that, you know, underground culture of the speakeasy. But it all came crashing down when everyone thought that the economic boom of the post World War I era would go on forever. The stock market crashed and no one wanted to dance the Charleston anymore.

We were facing the Great Depression. People, you know, who were stars, you know, the banjo stars of the 1920s, they were basically kind of shuffled off into the shadows at that point in time. Dance music became very subdued, slower, banjos and dance bands were replaced by guitars. And the banjo, for all intents and purposes, was dead by, you know, the end of the 1930s.

It was just gone. After World War II, the banjo did come back to a degree of popularity. But then, in a new identity, it was back in September of 1945, I believe, when Bill Monroe, who had been working on a new string band sound, he came from Kentucky, so he called his band the Bluegrass Boys.

But it wasn't really until Earl Scruggs brought his banjo and this new style of playing the banjo that most people had never heard before, because it was confined to the rural areas of the Appalachians or Kentucky, it was a style back to that old classic style of playing with bare fingers, but it was updated with those banjos that had steel strings and picks. As fate would have it, nostalgia kicked in. So after World War II, there was this kind of longing for a simpler time. You've got to keep in mind, after World War II, you had a lot of political upheaval, a lot of social unrest here in the United States, and people were looking to gravitate towards a simpler time, what they considered to be a simpler time. They considered it to be a simpler time before World War II.

So what happened was, after World War II, there was a phenomenon. We call them banjo parlors. There were nightclubs in major cities that were starting to feature music of the 1920s and 30s.

Now, where did it go from there? Well, there hasn't been a lot of new style of music being created by the banjo. Now, there are some great musicians out there playing the banjo who are always experimenting, trying to take the banjo in new and different places. But some of the most active banjo identities over the most recent years are, again, going back to banjo roots. There's been a huge amount of interest in the African roots of the banjo among young black musicians who are reclaiming the African roots of the banjo and taking it full circle.

And then, of course, the Mumford and Sons type of phenomenon also. It's part of this ongoing evolution that we cover the entire story of it here at the American Banjo Museum. My favorite part about the banjo is it becomes an extension of who I am musically.

I hear music all the time. The banjo is the one that I can get who I am out, who I can speak to an audience with the tenor banjo. Now, the tenor banjo is an out-of-date instrument.

It hasn't really had, as I say, outside of Celtic music, it hasn't had any mainstream relevance for decades. I'm just going to play a little, a strum a little bit and give you kind of an overview here of the instrument. When you think of banjos these days, you generally don't think of hearing all the notes at one time, making up a chord like a guitar player plays.

You would normally think of picking out individual notes. This tenor banjo that I'm playing, it has four strings on it, four strings that go the equal length of the neck. That makes it different than most banjos today.

Most banjos today have an additional tuning peg that sticks out of the upper part of the neck, the side of the neck, and it tunes a, what we call a droning string. And that droning string is a string that part of that picking pattern I talked about, it doesn't change its pitch. So the droning string in this case would be this note here, and you'll hear this note played over and over and over again.

You're hearing that droning pattern. Now, the fact is, what I'm showing you is kind of an imitation of how a bluegrass player would play. Play a couple notes and hit the droning string. But you have to do it fast, and that's where it starts to sound like bluegrass.

Sounds like... It was a long introduction to play the banjo the way you recognize it. And it's my experience that if you play the banjo in a manner that your audience recognizes, they will let you do anything else on the banjo.

Okay? And that's when I go into any number of different styles of banjos. You know, as I say, when you're playing the songs of the 19th century... So if I were playing in a dance band, that's how I'd be playing. While the trumpeters were going... And so again, you're basically an accompaniment instrument. But as I mentioned in the 1920s, some of the banjo players had that single string facility under their fingers to be able to play melodic passages. It could be sweet and simple like... Something like that. You can do a lot of things with a banjo.

It just depends on where your musical head is at and how much you're willing to commit musically to it. So I'm going to do a song written by Woody Guthrie here. This land was made for you and me This land is your land This land is my land From California To the New York island From the redwood forest To the Gulf stream waters This land was made for you and me This land was made for you and me This land was made for you and me And a special thanks to Johnny Byer for everything, including that final performance. A story of the banjo, the story of American music, and so much more. This is our American Stories.

Thank you for joining us, and we'll see you in the next one. State Farm is in your corner and on it. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

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Here's Steven. I had this momentary flashback and I remembered how I used to feel back in the day, dispatched to a life-threatening emergency, lights and sirens, a code three response, and not knowing what I might find. I felt anxious, worried, and wondering what circumstances awaited my arrival, all the while aware that my life could be in danger. But still, I continued. It was my job. After all, I was a police officer. It was like that this time too, except I was no longer on the force.

There were no lights and sirens, but still, I was probably driving too fast and not knowing what I might find. I felt anxious, worried, and wondering what circumstances awaited my arrival, all the while aware that my life could be in danger. But still, I continued. It was my job.

After all, I was his brother. I can't begin to imagine how he must have felt, but if the comparison is accurate, then I kind of have an idea. I remember the fever and chills, the coughing and congestion, the runny nose and fatigue, and of just wanting to crawl under the covers, pass out, and not wake up again until my flu had finally subsided. It had been reported that many of the symptoms for COVID-19 were similar to the flu, and only a test could determine one's positivity. Now, this was early on, during the first few months into the pandemic. Pre-vaccine, when everything closed down and a fear of the unknown was prevalent, when masks and plastic gloves, hand sanitizers, disinfectants, paper towels could no longer be found in our stores, and when we wiped down every piece of mail delivered to our homes, the groceries that we bought, and the shopping carts we used to gather our purchases, we sanitized everything as best we could. You see, much about this new virus was still unknown, and the numbers of those dying daily as a result, well, it was just staggering. Suddenly, it seemed as if the sum of all fears as described in the book Andromeda Strain was happening, except now it was happening for real. And so, I can't begin to wonder how much I can remember about this new virus, and how I can begin to imagine how it must have felt for so many who were suffering from such severe-like symptoms, who now had to leave their beds, get into their cars, and drive to a COVID testing location only to have to wait in line for hours, all the while feeling perhaps worse than they had ever felt before.

Waiting until someone in a sterile hazmat suit could record all of the pertinent data before inserting the business end of a couple of cotton swab sticks up their congested noses. But this is exactly what happened to hundreds of thousands of our friends, our neighbors, and our family members who believed that they might have contracted this new and absolutely frightening virus, including my brother Jimmy. He too had driven himself to a testing location at a local college parking lot, feeling as though he were dying, which, as it turned out, he was closer to doing at the time than any of us knew. Waiting hours until finally administered his test. He was found to be positive for COVID-19, and I told him, whatever he needed, he could call on me for help.

And a few days later, he did just that. I didn't recognize the voice at first, but my caller ID pretty much told me all that I needed to know. Jimmy was in trouble. Understanding him was a challenge, but not so with the two words that stood out above all others, doctor and hospital. Jimmy was stubborn, like our mom and dad had been when they too were dealing with their own medical issues, and for him to admit that he needed hospitalization, well, I have to tell you, that really scared me, because aside from the sound of his voice, Jimmy was in trouble, because aside from the sound of his voice, his admission revealed volumes regarding his failing health. His house was only 10 minutes from mine, but the ride and the distance between us seemed to be both too long, while at the same time, too short. But minutes mattered, and so speed was essential, while conversely, a quick arrival would inevitably expose me to potential contamination sooner than later.

And admittedly, oh, this frightened me a lot. But just then, as I neared his home, I remembered a story from long ago that gently reminded me of what really mattered. In 1918, a boy with polio was abandoned by his mother at Father Flanagan's home for boys. Walking was an almost impossible struggle, and so others living at the home would often carry him. Father Flanagan, upon seeing one boy doing just that, asked if it were difficult for him to do so.

And the boy replied, he ain't heavy, father. He's my brother. I got my brother to the hospital. And afterwards, back home, I immediately disrobed on our enclosed porch, eventually depositing my clothing directly into the washing machine. A shower followed, and so too did my uneasiness. Did my blue throwaway surgical mask do as I had intended?

How about my sanitizer? Had I exposed myself to the virus while helping Jimmy to and from my vehicle or during our ride to the hospital? Later that night, content for the moment that I was still healthy and that Jimmy was now receiving the best possible care, I began to realize that my possible exposure and contamination mattered far less than Jimmy's hospitalization and ultimate well-being. While the virus was raging outside and around the world, my thoughts were neither global nor out of doors. Instead, they remained within the quiet comfort and safety found within my home and in the not-so-far-away hospital room where the doctors and nurses were doing all they could to keep Jimmy from dying. Before going to sleep that night, I offered a short prayer, the final words, so fitting and now so familiar. He ain't heavy, father. He's my brother. And a beautiful job on the production by our own faith and a special thanks to Steve Rociniak for sharing that story about brotherly love and about sacrificial love and worrying about someone else's needs and cares more than your own.

Steven Rociniak, his story, his brother's story, here on Our American Stories. For those eligible, Medicare Annual Enrollment runs from October 15th through December 7th. If you're working past age 65, you might be able to delay Medicare enrollment depending on your employer coverage.

It can seem confusing, but it doesn't have to be. Visit UHCMedicareHealthPlans.com to learn more. UnitedHealthcare, helping people live healthier lives. I know everything there is to know about running a coffee shop, but for small business insurance, I need my State Farm agent. They make sure my business stays piping hot and I stay cool and confident. See, they're small business owners, too, so they know how to help you best. State Farm is in your corner and on it. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

Call your local State Farm agent for a quote today. Doing household chores can already be time consuming and tedious, and there's nothing more daunting than facing piles and piles of laundry that need to be done. I mean, that can be overwhelming for anyone. So if you want to get those larger laundry loads done right and get back to your life, try All-Free Clear Mega Packs. All-Free Clear Mega Packs are bigger packs with two times the cleaning ingredients compared to a regular pack so that you can tackle any laundry load without the worry. All-Free Clear Mega Packs are also 100% free of perfumes and dyes and they're gentle on skin, which is great for any family's sensitive skin needs, which my family, we definitely have sensitive skin. So the next time the whole family gets home from long vacation or you get the kids back from summer camp or whatever the situation is that's caused this big pile of dirty clothes, just know that All-Free Clear Mega Packs, they have your back.

Purchase All-Free Clear Mega Packs today and conquer any laundry load for all fabric types. This is Our American Stories, and up next, a story you won't forget. In 1924, when Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin died, the Soviets preserved his body by placing him in a hermetically sealed glass coffin. Lesser known, though, is that around the same time in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a religious colony called the House of David did the same for their leader. Here's our own Monty Montgomery with the story of a robbery, a glass coffin, and a local legend. The year is 1927. The place?

Benton Harbor, Michigan. Home of the House of David, a religious colony led by Benjamin Purnell who preached that if you followed his message and gave all your worldly possessions to him, you would never die. Unfortunately for Ben, though, he contracted tuberculosis, which he died from. Here's Chris Seriano with what happened next.

He didn't teach ever that he was going to die. So here he died, and it was pandemonium. It was mass chaos at the House of David. So Benjamin, they kept wrapped in damp, warm towels for eight days, thinking that he was going to rise again.

Finally, the Berrien County Coroner said, listen, it's been eight days. You either bury the guy or we're going to bury him. But luckily for the House of David, they had the Soviets to look towards for inspiration. Well, during that process of having him wrapped like that, they found out the process that Lenin in Russia had been used to embalm and put his body in a hermetically sealed glass coffin.

That's what they did. And there Ben Purnell sat for the next 60-some years in his hermetically sealed glass coffin, while his massive mansion decayed around him as the House of David dwindled in numbers due to their belief in celibacy. But in 1988, twice, the House of David Diamond House got broke into. But the first time, they ran quickly.

The second time was not a good day. These kids, these four kids, had studied the movement of the House of David people. They had sat out in the woods. They were locals. They were in their backyard, basically. They figured out when the House of David people moved back and forth around the Diamond House. They came back on a particular day that they knew that there wasn't much movement.

Some one of the weekend days. They cut a hole in the roof of the Diamond House mansion where they dropped down and they spent the entire day stealing things. So vases, urns, statues, oil paintings from all over the world. These things came from the richest of rich people that joined. Those things disappeared. Well, one of the worst things that happened was they weren't satisfied with just items that were in the rest of the mansion.

They wanted to see Ben because that's a big, big, big part of our local history is him and his body being in there. They found out that he was in his parlor. There's a stone wall that separates the catwalk from the Diamond House annex into his area. It's got a big steel bank vault door on it. So there's no way you're getting to that door. There's electric wires, like shock wires, from the door. So even if you touch the door, you're probably going to go to heaven real quick or somewhere.

Right? So they went back. One of them was a contractor. They went back to his house, got a big ramming bar, and they rammed a hole through this stone wall. And they made it big enough where they could pull the rest of the rocks out and they could get their bodies through the hole. And they got into his parlor where his tomb is at.

And I interviewed those people. They told me, Chris, when we got in there, it was like a pharaoh's tomb. So around Ben's glass-sealed coffin, which was up at an angle, were piles and piles of rings and diamonds and rubies and necklaces and vases. And it was like, what happened to the stuff when people came there, the beautiful things that they came there with? They couldn't have those anymore, right? They didn't know.

They just had to give them away. They were saved. The majority of them were saved in the diamond house. So when he was buried, he was buried like a pharaoh and like an emperor.

So they took some things off of that. But the sad thing was Ben had a 22-carat diamond ring on his finger and a big, huge diamond-filled and ruby-filled white gold custom-made necklace from House of David Jewelers. They wanted those things bad, and they took the pry bar, the ramming bar, and pried the glass dome off of his coffin, which is hermetically sealed.

It can't be sealed again. So they broke the ring off of his finger, broke his finger in the meantime, and ripped the medallion off of his neck. And the 22-carat diamond on his finger was one of the biggest in the world at the time. So they got away.

They got away with that break-in, and it was advertised all over, everywhere, all over the country. It was a big deal. Finally, I interviewed the state police officer at my museum one day, and he said, Chris, I'm the one that made the arrest. And I said, tell me about it. And he said, we had pictures. The House of David people had pictures of all these things that were in the diamond house. And he said, me and my partner are driving through Benton Heights, which is a rough part of Dodge in this area, and we look over, and in front of this trailer is this little nickel-plated parlor stove with flowers growing out of it. That was it, right? So they walked up to the door, knocked on the door, and a lady answered and said, ma'am, we love that stove that you have out there.

Can you tell us where we can get something like that? And she said, well, my ex gave it to me for some gift, but he doesn't live here anymore, but here's his name and phone number. Bam! He gets busted. He's got loose lips.

They all go down, right? So come to find out, and both the people that did the job, did the stealing, and the police officer told me that what happened was, because there was such a massive amount of things, because it was so written about in the media, they were afraid to sell everything. So they took everything and divided it equally amongst them, and then they would take it and hide it. One hid it like in the upstairs of his barn. The other guy hid it in a storage area in his basement.

The lady, Klassen lady, hid it underneath her wrap around her mobile home. None of them sold anything. So they got all that stuff back, except the 22-carat diamond ring, which McCoy Brothers appraised at like $2.5 million, and the giant medallion, which was appraised at over half a million dollars. They found out that those kids took those to the south side of Chicago and sold them to a jewelry dealer there, like a swap guy, for $12,000 cash. And then he, back then, you didn't have to have anybody's driver's license. You didn't have to ask questions. You just bought stuff and sold stuff. So he had taken the diamond out and sold it to a diamond-buying place in London for like $60,000.

Supposedly they chopped it up and sold it off differently so it wouldn't be detected, but that's all gone now. The scariest thing was the girl that told me the story. She came in my museum twice, two days in a row, spent hours, without saying one word, and finally I went up to her. My mom and I were there, and I said, You seem really fascinated by this story.

Can you tell me why? And she said, Do you want to know? And I said, Yeah, I do want to know. And she said, I'm the one that broke in the diamond house. And I was like, Oh my gosh.

I mean, this is all my stuff is right here in front of her. And she was capable of getting into this place. So she went on to tell me the whole story, all the details. It was so good. I filmed her, but she was a mammoth girl. She kind of killed me. But in the end, she said, Chris, you know what? I would do it again right now. She says, The best high I ever had in my life.

I'm thinking, I can't buy a good enough security system at this point. And it's a big country, my mom used to always tell me as a kid, explaining the unexplainable to me and the fun and the weird. And my goodness, this is both fun and weird. And my goodness, a guy that tries to basically entomb himself and surround himself with jewelry.

I always think of the great poem by Shelley Ozymandias. And as hard as these guys and this one sort of cult leader tried to talk about his eternal life and everyone else's well, a little something happened. He died. And everybody else was going to die too. The story of a strange, almost little cult in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The House of David, here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-16 10:09:07 / 2023-02-16 10:24:17 / 15

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