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Banjo finds its way home

August 22, 2006

CUMBERLAND, Va. (AP) _ Jim Connor’s banjo once was lost, but now is found, thanks to eBay and a sharp-eyed friend.

The Vega Vox Deluxe, made especially for Connor, was stolen 35 years ago during a New Kingston Trio tour, when Connor was a member of the group.

Last year, the banjo turned up on the auction Web site, where a former music student of Connor’s spotted its distinctive decoration and stopped the sale.

With the cooperation of the seller, the prayers of the congregation at Browns Presbyterian Church _ where Connor now serves as supply pastor _ and $5,000, the musician and his banjo are making music together again.

This time, the stage is often the pulpit.

It’s hard to say just where the banjo was all those years. While it was missing, Connor, perhaps best known for his hit country song “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” got tired of a musician’s life on the road and settled in Goochland County, where he lives now with his wife, Cynthia. He has five children, three grown and two teens.

Since 2001, he has been studying for the ministry, spending the past year as temporary pastor at the church in Cumberland County.

Connor, 68, lost the banjo one night in 1971, when the New Kingston Trio was too exhausted to unpack their van after a performance in New York City. The group left the van parked in the hotel garage with all their instruments and equipment inside. In the morning the van was empty.

Connor particularly liked the Vega banjo. He had designed it, asking the Vega banjo builders for a carved heel and special neck decoration.

He told them exactly what kind of tone-ring he wanted in the banjo’s resonator, which is enameled in a geometric design with flowers.

“It was a one-time banjo. The company even called it the ‘Jim Connor custom banjo,”’ Connor said.

Connor, who joined the New Kingston Trio in 1968, drew his favorite curlicue decoration on the head of the banjo. He’d had it only a year when it was stolen.

Connor, who was born in Alabama and graduated from Harvard University in 1960, stayed with the New Kingston Trio until 1973, then went his own way. He played with John Denver and laughingly wonders if his experiences on the road with Denver led to a career in the ministry.

Hundreds of people moved by Denver’s songs wanted to go backstage and ask his advice, Connor said. The fans weren’t allowed to see Denver, but they often saw Connor, who said he gave them the best advice he could.

“Some man would say he was having trouble with his wife, wondering if she was having an affair, wanting to know what he should do, and I’d say, ‘Go home, be so good to your wife she wouldn’t ever want to have an affair,”’ he remembered.

Denver and other musicians recorded Connor’s song, “Grandma’s Feather Bed.”

“Worldwide, it’s been on 50 million albums. You wonder why I’m not a millionaire,” Connor said. He continues to get small but steady royalty payments from a number of other countries.

“It helped me get out of being on the road and get into church work, which as you know, doesn’t pay a lot,” Connor said.

He got over the loss of the Vega banjo, but he never forgot it. Then one day last year, his friend and former banjo student Austin Rogers saw the instrument on eBay.

“I said, ‘Austin, how could you know it? You weren’t even born then,’ and he said, ‘It’s got your doodles on it,”’ Connor said.

EBay stopped the sale of the instrument. With the help of the Goochland County Sheriff’s Office, Connor contacted New York City police.

The seller, who said that a relative had bought the banjo in a used-furniture store in Harlem, called Connor.

“He said, ‘If the instrument is really stolen, I want to cooperate,”’ Connor said. Connor proved with pictures and affidavits that the instrument was his.

Connor considered how much he would have to spend for a lawyer and for trips to New York, where the original police report had been filed. He decided to pay the seller for the banjo, although less than the seller had wanted at auction. The two men agreed to meet.

Connor and the seller met at a coffee shop in College Park, Md., and Connor traded a cashier’s check and cash totaling $5,000 for his banjo. The two men had a good talk.

“I had gotten over the disappointment of having it stolen. I didn’t feel like saying anything ugly,” Connor said.

The banjo was either well-cared for or never used, Connor said. He’s still surprised that he got it back.

“I think I have a kind of spiritual feeling,” Connor said, “like ‘Thank you, Lord, but it sure took a long time!”’

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2 comments

  1. I love that song! See, Shari… country’s got God on its side. 🙂

    That’s a great story. Like Benji finding his way home, except now it’s Banjo. I’m a total geek sometimes. Thanks for not charging me a lot so I can call you my friend.


  2. Thumbs up on the web site! Sing and play one for me today.

    OldJohn on the Big Horn



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