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The banjo that went to war.

Posted by revellfa on Wednesday, February 1, 2023

My father enlisted in the Navy in 1955.  By the time the Viet Nam war was in full swing I’m convinced his superiors had recognized his courage, leadership, and physical strength.  At this time, he could bench press nearly 400 lbs and his peers had nicknamed him “Hercules.”  

My father was chosen to be a part of the elite VAL-4 unit, the only one like it in the Navy.  The “Black Ponies” as they were named maintained the OV-10 A “Bronco” which provided close air to ground support along the Mekong Delta for the River Boat Patrol Forces.  My father was a Plankowner in this group and was promoted to AMHC 1 (Chief) before being reassigned.  

Initially shipping out from San Diego in March of 1969, the action was so hot in the middle of the Tet Offensive that he could not reach his base for several months.  

He had been playing the banjo since the early 1960s and initially purchased an early 60s Gibson RB-250 but shortly thereafter traded it along with $350 for pre-war Gibson style 3 tenor banjo conversion (#271-16) from famed West Virginia luthier, Andy Boarman.  Not wanting to risk transporting such a nice banjo to the jungle in the middle of a war that he didn’t know if he was coming home from, he decided to purchase another to take with him.  

About this same time, the Kay musical instrument company was experiencing difficult times.  Sold in 1965 and again in 1967, the company finally dissolved in 1968 sending their remaining inventory anywhere that would sell it.  It has been well noted that many Kay banjos showed up both new and used in pawn and jewelry shops up and down the west coast in the late 1960s through the early 70s.  

It was in one of these shops in San Diego in March of 1969 that my father purchased this 1967-68 Kay Artist K-90 banjo.  This is banjo that went to war with my father.  He noted its purchase in a letter to my grandfather dated June 1969.  He also noted that “other than having our aircraft shot to hell we’ve been pretty lucky as we’ve only lost one pilot.” 

Outside of the oddball “Silva” models of the 1950s this banjo is a top of the line American made Kay featuring a hand polished neck and rim.  The rock maple neck feels electric guitar-ish in the hands.  It features hand cut block pearl inlays and sports a really cool set of vintage D-tuners.  The heavy polished one piece flange almost provides the “ping” of a tone ring.  It retains its original case, as well as some picks and other memorabilia.  

The sound, you ask?  This banjo backs down to nobody, it survived a war.  In all seriousness, it is a formidable banjo and suited for stage, jam, or studio.  

Dad kept this banjo until he sold it hastily one evening when a persistent friend interrupted an intimate evening with his new bride, my mother, in 1977.  

This is the banjo that I should have learned on as a child but alas for the sum of $30 the slogan became reality, “every kiss begins with Kay!”

After being out of the family for 45 years I acquired this banjo in January 2023 from the gentleman’s son who bought it that evening.




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