Spend a few minutes in the Northampton home of Bruce Kriviskey and it quickly becomes apparent that the he’s got a lot of talent in his hands. Just to the left of the entryway is an intricate and wonderfully detailed ship in a bottle that the one-time architect and preservation planner painstakingly put together. Wander toward the kitchen and another floats into view, flanked by a couple of nicely executed watercolors. “Every architect tries watercolors,” says Kriviskey.
But it’s up on the second floor that the real passion of “Mr. K.” reveals itself. There, surrounding a small, well-lit workbench at the end of a long room, a visitor will find the bulk of Kriviskey’s considerable banjo and ukulele collection. What must be dozens of instruments—banjos and ukes, but also a few of the less complex stringed instruments that preceded them, some fashioned from gourds—line the walls and sit on stands, with a few in various stages of dismantlement, being worked on. The sun streams in, and the room smells warmly of wood oil.
It’s at that bench and a larger workshop nearby that the retired Kriviskey tunes up a wide variety of instruments both to help support his own collecting habit and to help the wider string music community get access to quality instruments at a decent price. For local musicians, he’s a great resource not only for banjos and ukes but also sheet music and general musical lore—the collector’s bug runs deep. When I mentioned online that I was working on this story, two banjo-playing friends got in touch to offer their own fond memories of Kriviskey; they knew it could only be about him.
The Advocate caught up with Kriviskey as he prepared for a First Night performance with A-E-I-O-Ukes, a ukulele orchestra headed up by Downtown Sounds music store owner Joe Blumenthal.
Valley Advocate: Thanks for taking the time to talk; you must be busy.
Bruce Kriviskey: Yeah, I’ve gotten more active with them [Blumenthal’s group]. But as far as banjo playing… I don’t consider myself that much of a player so much as a banjo mechanic and a collector. This is sort of where I fiddle around with things. And then in the garage I’ve got some basic tools: a bandsaw, things like that. Very unsophisticated, really.
But it certainly seems like you help make a lot of other people better by doing that. When you first starting fixing them up, was that born of necessity?
Well, I got my first banjo in 1958, and I paid 25 bucks for it. Of course, in the early ’60s and late ’50s, everyone was into the folk scene—The Kingston Trio, all of that. So we had a group in the fraternity house. We’d listen to the records and do that type of stuff.
Now, what I try to do with a lot of the banjos is I’ll find something on eBay, fix it up, sell it. And usually it’s what I consider student-quality type stuff, but over time I’ve sold other things, and moved up into higher quality things. I picked up a couple of other instruments over the years—we were in the part-time antique business in northern Virginia—
You and your wife?
Yes, Alison. So we picked up a few banjos, banjo ukes, fixed them up. Things like that. And I just got into the fixing up and all. And when I actually retired, in ’03, I said, “I want to take banjo lessons.”
I started in Northern Virginia, with a bluegrass player, until we moved up here. And then I started working with Diane Sanabria—I don’t know if you know Diane [but] she’s probably the best old-time banjo player in the Valley, if not Western Massachusetts. Now I’m in the Ukulele Choir [at the Northampton Music Center]. I usually play banjo uke there, or one of the other antique ones.
There’s something about ukulele—for so many people it seems like such an inexpensive way to get into music. It’s democratic.
Yeah, for under 50 dollars you can get a starter ukulele. Learn two or three chords a week, and suddenly you have nine chords, and you can play anything.
I think that’s the thing. It’s so easy to move from starting out to actually playing a song.
Well, it’s minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master. Even with the banjo—you can pick it up and, you know, it doesn’t take you too long to start strumming something. But then to really become a Bela Fleck or an Earl Scruggs or someone like that, you’ve gotta have it inside you. But at the turn of the century, banjo clubs in colleges and universities were huge—Smith College had a banjo club, Mount Holyoke did. There are photos of them in their big white dresses, big white hats, all holding their banjos. About 1890s through pre-World War I, that was huge in the colleges.
Turn of the century—what kind of music were they playing?
They would play classical music, parlor music, which would be fun sort of dance music. Not quite into the ragtime yet. Certainly classical music. All of the Ivy League had banjo societies. It was a big thing.
Banjos seem more tinker-friendly than a lot of instruments.
Well, there is a lot of technical know-how, but it is primarily a bolt-together [as opposed to a guitar’s glued construction] …and so I find that fairly easy to work with. And also having been in the antique business for so long, I can do a lot of the woodworking. A lot of the stuff I get requires a little bit of work, and that way I can get them at a fairly low price.
And yes, with a guitar that’s glued together it’s hard to make little adjustments, whereas with a banjo you can twist this, tweak that, you can change this or that. But it’s something that keeps me busy and out of trouble, and it subsidizes my own bad habits by letting me buy and sell some of these things.•
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.