On the Bright Side: PBS documentary to feature Franklin banjo craftsman


On the Bright Side: PBS  documentary to feature Franklin banjo craftsman
By Jessica Reynolds
November 18, 2015

The banjos James Hartel handcrafts in Delaware County are used in performances across the world. And thanks to a PBS documentary scheduled to air Friday, Hartel may soon become a celebrity in his own right.

The village of Franklin luthier — and owner of Hartel Banjos — will have about five minutes of screen time during the hour-long “Craft In America: Music” episode, which will air locally on WSKG-TV at 10 p.m. But it took much longer than five minutes to film the segment, Hartel said Wednesday.

A PBS television production crew spent an entire day at his Walley Road home in April, he said.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” Hartel laughed. “They were here from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. They had the place all lit up and had all this equipment, even camera trolleys. There was even someone whose job was to go get lunch. They filmed in my dining room, the basement and in my shop. It was quite a production.”

Hartel has been making and playing the instrument on and off since 1973, he said. He became interested in the banjo and southern Appalachian banjo music while taking an American folk music class at Buffalo State College.

“Growing up, everybody wanted to play the guitar,” Hartel recalled. “I always wanted to play a musical instrument. I tried the accordion and the piano and they didn’t work out.”

After deciding to try his hand at the banjo, Hartel bought two things: a book by folk singer Pete Seeger called “How to Play the 5-string Banjo” and, mistakenly, a four-string tenor banjo, he said.

To remedy the situation, Hartel set out to build a five-string neck for the instrument. He soon began making and repairing banjos whenever he could, he said.

Working as a museum administrator at the time, Hartel quickly became interested in the history of the banjo, which became popular after slaves brought a version of the instrument to America from Africa, he said.

He began crafting replicas of 19th century minstrel banjos and never looked back, he said. He makes his own metal brackets, hooks and nuts because they are no longer available today, he said, and buys his lumber in Sidney.

Banjos from the 19th century do not have frets, according to Hartel, so they are much like cellos or violins. They’re bigger and lighter than modern banjos and have skin-covered heads rather than plastic-covered ones, he said.

“They’re kind of like historical artifacts,” Hartel said.

Hartel turns out about 10 to 12 banjos a year to sell, he said. He once made one for a Nobel Prize winner and made another for Rhiannon Giddens, founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Grammy-winning country, blues and old-time music band.

Friday’s “Craft In America” episode will look at how handmade instruments are crafted, featuring remarks and performances from Giddens, Joan Baez, trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, banjo master Tony Ellis, timpanist Joseph Pereira and ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, according to the PBS website.

The episode features one shot of a creek and bridge that Franklin residents might recognize, according to Hartel. Shots were taken in the downtown area, but that footage didn’t make the cut, he said.

For many years, Hartel worked as Franklin Central School’s art teacher, he said. He retired about five years ago.

“I used to play the banjo in school for the students,” Hartel said. “Now I’m featured in this documentary alongside the likes of Martin Guitars. It’s quite an honor. But, really, I do it for fun. I just really like it.”