Theremin Quest: The God Knows We Tried String Band

When I was a teenager, my parents went to the French Creek Dulcimer Retreat without me. I think I had to work. Anyway, at the open mic my father, surrounded by a motley crew of dulcimer aficionados, introduced the pickup band that had gathered around him for the open mic as The God Knows We Tried String Band.

As band names go, this was a good one.

Thereafter, my father and I started performing together under that grand moniker. The two of us start gracing and disgracing stages up and down the East Coast.

The God Knows We Tried String Band in 1993

Making music with my dad saved my life. This is not an exaggeration.

Not being able to hear cuts you off from people that is hard to put into words. That loneliness became amplified when I developed epilepsy after a car accident. I was angry, in pain and a trained martial artist. My relationship with my family, and the rest of the world, was not good.

Then I took up the banjo to win a bet with my dad. Then I found a guitar in the trash. Things got better after that because music gave me both an outlet and a bridge. The fly in the ointment was my hearing. I could come up with ways to maintain rhythm while playing solo, but playing in a group was seemingly impossible.

Then dad became my metronome, my business partner and straight man to my comic foil.

Dad’s banjo.
My dad’s tenor banjo. I painted the head in the early 90s

We practiced together until we could communicate without words. It became so naturalized, so intuitive and instinctive, that we got to know each other. With knowledge came understanding.

A true friendship is where neither individual wants nothing from the other. This is an exceedingly rare situation. It has only happened a few times for me.

Somehow, dad and I became friends.

In the late 90s, after performing on stage, organizing festivals, running a country music theater and a successful run as DJ’s, we decided to stop performing to focus on teaching. We were witnessing the old ways and songs fade away with each new season, so it seemed right to try cultivating a few seedlings.

cassette tapes from the 80s and 90s
I have endless boxes packed with tapes of us performing on stage, at home and on the radio.

So now here we are. A pair of genuine old-timers. I miss making music with my dad. Once teaching music became our job, our jam sessions sort of faded away. The stress of work and the harassment from the Internet distracted us from the very reason we started playing in the first place.

This weekend, after far too many years, my father and I are breaking out the instruments. The God Knows We Tried String Band is coming back.

The difference is me. My hands are a mess. It hurts to get dressed in the morning. With my guitar and banjo skills off the playing field, I must ride my theremin to victory.

I have been working on the old banjo tunes with the Moog Theremini, and it is surprisingly intuitive once you wrap your brain around how the instrument works.

It is going to take time and patience to make everything come together, but the whole point is not the goal, not the end performance, bur rather the simple joy of wasting time with my best friend.

It is going to be strange doing with without a guitar or banjo in my mitts, but the more I work with the theremin the more I enjoy the challenges of the instrument.

If you ever make a friendship strong enough to withstand the forces of time, twists of fate and the shrieking theremins, count yourself a blessed individual.

Without my hearing aids, I am relying on the assistive technology of my Theremini. Once I can actually hear a full range of sound in stereo, I’ll be able to do a lot more — but, as things are now, we can get started. Never wait for the moment to be perfect, jump in and sort things out as you go. There is no way to learn how to walk without falling or to make music without screwing things up. You do what you can, and save stories of your epic fuckups for down the road.

I am excited about diving into old fiddle tunes and Irish folk with my dad. With the warm weather coming, we can set up on the front porch. We have an electric banjo. The two of us should be able to make enough noise to blanket the entire city of Crisfield, Maryland with the dulcet tones of funky banjo and theremin boogie.

Mostly, I am just looking forward to singing with my dad.

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