Stevan Michaels, a professional photographer in Ruckersville, Virginia, who plays clawhammer banjo, is the lucky winner of a raffle held March 8 to benefit the IBMA Foundation’s Arnold Shultz Fund, created in 2020 to encourage participation of people of color in bluegrass music. 

“I am still in disbelief that I get to hold this banjo every day,” Michaels said. “The sound is amazing, and I feel the history in the wood. Thank you so much. I am so grateful.”  

In honor of Black History Month, Pisgah Banjo Company is proud to sponsor an annual raffle to benefit the work of the Shultz Fund. During the first raffle in 2021, $26,740 was raised and $32,740 was raised in 2022. Ten thousand dollars is designated as a grant to the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, to help with expenses for a Sacramento-based banjo building workshop for Black musicians this spring.

 The rim and neck of the prize banjo were made from 200-year-old heart pine, originally hewn by enslaved people at Pleasant Retreat, a historical plantation located near Appomattox, Virginia. The fingerboard is persimmon. The plantation where this wood was salvaged is located half a mile from where Joel Walker Sweeney grew up. Sweeney, a banjoist and minstrel performer, is known for popularizing the banjo in white culture in the early to mid-1800s and has credited slaves on a nearby plantation (very likely Pleasant Retreat) for teaching him to play the banjo.

“Pisgah Banjos chose to benefit the Arnold Shultz Fund as a way to help reappropriate the history of the banjo,” said Patrick David Sawyer, company owner and luthier. “We hope the raffle will encourage the banjo community and beyond to discover the early American history of the banjo and folk music born on slave plantations, influenced heavily by early American Black culture. The heart pine was donated by Craig DuBose and was salvaged from the roof structure of the main living quarters at Pleasant Retreat.”

Stevan Michaels, a previous Pisgah Banjo Company customer, purchased one raffle ticket each for the 2021 and 2022 raffles. “I feel honored to be a steward of the rich and tragic history that this banjo symbolizes,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I am overwhelmed by the banjo’s beauty and sound and feel the history in the wood every time I pick it up.”

Michaels’ business, named “Photography Champloo,” offers a variety of photography services to the people of central Virginia. Champloo, also spelled “Champuru,” is an Okinawan word meaning “blend.” Photography uses a blend of technology and artistry in order to capture a unique moment, Stevan explains—”a fraction of a second that tells an entire story recorded by light. Photography Champloo strives to tell stories that communicate emotion and provoke thoughtful discussion.” 

Arnold Shultz (1886–1931) was an African American musician from western Kentucky who had a profound influence on Bill Monroe and the development of bluegrass.

Photo by Photography Champloo

RETURN to the April 2022 issue of The Cornerstone.