Great Escapes

04.23.14

Everybody’s Welcome at the Pittsburgh Banjo Club

A strange scene can be found on Wednesdays at the Elks Lodge: tattooed and pierced youngsters join with their nursing home elders for drinks, merriment, and some damn good banjo music.

Shortly before 8 p.m. on a recent Wednesday night, the Elks Lodge 339 in Pittsburgh’s North Side underwent its weekly rebirth. Hordes of silver-haired retirement home residents began flooding through the doors, taking their seats at a series of long folding tables set up in rows. Before long, crowds of twentysomethings, tattooed and pierced, sporting hipster fashions and guzzling $2 beers, packed the long rectangular bar in the back until it was standing room only. The crowd was as diverse as it was eclectic—all of them here to see the same Roaring 1920s-style banjo band—and it wasn’t long before the generations merged together over drinks and a song.

Every week, the Pittsburgh Banjo Club holds its rehearsals at the Elks Lodge, performing classics like You Are My Sunshine and Yes, I Have No Bananas, drawing hundreds of onlookers, from World War II veterans to college students. The club consists of some 80 banjo players spanning four generations, although about 30 come together on any given night to rehearse for this crowd of lively spectators. Their goal is to revive the 4-string banjo (as opposed to the bluegrass 5-string) and turn younger generations on to the instrument. In the process, they are becoming a “must see” for anyone visiting Pittsburgh, a city that has stayed true to its Rust Belt roots despite a push to modernize in recent years. 

“Places like this are not only nostalgic but they are emblematic of cultural institutions in our city,” said Jonathan Livingston, 36, a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh and a regular at the Elks Lodge banjo night. “It’s one of those environments where young and very old have fun, and as the night progresses, everybody comes together.”

Norman Azinger, musical director of the Pittsburgh Banjo Club, says it was 1954 when he heard the song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and got “bit by the banjo bug.” “As soon as I heard it, something happened,” the retired telephone installation technician said in between sets. Besides the weekly rehearsals at the Elks Lodge, Azinger jams with men and women at the local retirement home. 

“I always tell them to come down here and sit with the kids that have the tattoos and the piercings in their nose, and you get to find out they’re nice kids. It’s really a fun evening for anyone of any age.”

Pittsburgh is a city with nine lives, having experienced more than one rebirth over the past century. The Rust Belt city underwent its industrial boom during the Civil War when its steel mills helped produce weapons. Steel production made way for the demand for coal, expanding Pittsburgh’s offerings through World War I. However, as the market for steel declined during the 1970s and 1980s, the city witnessed an exodus, with nearly half of its residents migrating elsewhere in search of better opportunities. The Steel City was forced to seek alternatives and steer away from its reliance on big industry in order to survive. In doing so, it not only embraced the concept of urban revival, but also created a buffer to help protect against economic decline.

“Pittsburgh, for the last 60 years, has been reinventing itself in light of the decline of the steel industry,” said John Hepp, a historian and professor at Wilkes University. “In many ways, it’s a city that encompasses the American story.”

Today, Pittsburgh has become a hub for some of America’s newer “smart” industries, luring in dozens of technology, finance, and medical companies in recent years. The major mills that once lined the city’s riverbanks and clouded its skyline have been replaced by glitzy high-rises and state-of-the-art baseball and football stadiums, but its native residents proudly tout their roots as a hard-working, blue-collar city.

Beyond catching the Banjo Club performance on any given Wednesday night, visitors to Pittsburgh have dozens of activities to choose from. A number of museums, including the Fort Pitt Museum and Heinz Museum, are a stroll down memory lane, while attractions like the century-old Duquesne Incline cable cars offer breathtaking views of the city’s golden triangle, surrounded by three rivers. Nicknamed the City of Bridges, Pittsburgh is also home to nearly 450 bridges—made mostly from locally manufactured steel—beating out any other city in the country (Allegheny County is said to have as many as 2,000 bridges and overpasses.) 

For visitors looking to take in a game while in town, there’s plenty to choose from. The city boasts of itself as a sports fan’s paradise, offering visitors a range of choices, from professional baseball to high school football—a cherished pastime in these parts. (The locals are impassioned Steelers fans, and anyone who says otherwise will get a talking to!)

“Pittsburgh has all the advantage of a big city,” added Hepp. “There are a lot of things that reflect where we came from and where we’re going.”

In many ways, the Banjo Club and its enthusiastic fans are the perfect metaphor for Pittsburgh’s past and present. Buried on stage, in between the silver-haired banjo players, are the Chiodi brothers—Nico, 14, and Enzo, 13—who joined the band when they were just 3 and 4 years old. They sing and dance for spectators at first, but eventually go on to play duets of banjo songs written nearly a century before they were born. “About 10 years ago we were looking for family-friendly entertainment in the city to take our kids to so they could see live music,” the boys’ father, JT Chiodi, 48, said. “So we came down as audience members. These guys had so much fun that I started taking lessons the following week, and we’ve been coming here ever since.”

“I kind of always knew that I would play the banjo,” said the elder Chiodi brother, who likened his fellow club members to grandmothers and grandfathers. “It’s really a lot of fun.”