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Meet Granddad Banjo

The Honor Project is a living history of stories and images—portraits of older adults we admire.

man with gray hair playing banjo

For “Pete” Peterson and his wife Kellie Allen who live in Oxford, Pennsylvania, home is more than a place to live—it’s a place to gather with friends and family and play old-time music. Pete, a retired research chemist with a PhD. and four patents to his name, and Kellie, a lawyer who works from home, share a real passion for old-time music. We caught up with Pete (AKA Granddad Banjo) while he and Kellie were visiting Pete’s daughter and her family in Northern California. Lucky for us, Pete never leaves home without his banjo.

How did you get into old-time music?
I took the same path an awful lot of people my age do. You listen to the Kingston Trio, then you start listening to The Weavers, then to Pete Seeger records, then Pete Seeger’s younger brother, Mike Seeger who was a member of The New Lost City Ramblers. They were re-enactors of old-time music, doing it exactly the same way the old-timers played. And then the Highwoods String Band came along in the early 70s and made old-time music fun. That was a real eye-opener for a lot of people. Suddenly, more people were playing old-time music. To bring it full circle, now Kellie and I are in a band with one of the guys who founded Highwoods.

What do you love about playing the banjo?
“I’ve never asked myself that question. I just do. I just do. I enjoy playing solo, but it’s even more fun to play with other people, to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. To listen to the music the other people are making and shape what you’re doing to make a better sound.”

banjo on chair

How old are you on the inside?
I once asked my mother that question. She was about 75 at the time. She said, early 50s. So I just thought of her, who I miss every day. I have to give the same answer: early 50s. Professionally, those were some of the most rewarding years I ever had. I’m playing music, I’m missing the girls terribly after the divorce, but I’m really, really working hard professionally. You know that definition of happiness? “Happiness is the privilege of working very hard on something that you consider important.” That’s where I was at that time.

Tell me a little about your home?
We bought more home than we needed because we love to share it with other people. We bought this, I’m not kidding, six-bedroom house in Pennsylvania. We’ve been there now for ten years—we hope to spend the rest of our lives in our house. It’s actually three-stories, so going up and down those stairs keeps us fit. But that is the constraint we will have to deal with some day. There are two staircases, one of them could come out, and we could put in an elevator between the first and second floor. We are thinking forward and realistically about what we’ll need as we get older. Do we downsize? No. Then we couldn’t have the parties!

Do you have a favorite room in your house?
Rooms have purposes. I don’t have a favorite. My office is in one corner of the kitchen, which is huge. That is where I spend most of the waking part of the day. When we’re playing music at home, if it’s a small party, let’s say 10 or 15 people, the party concentrates in one room with great acoustics. I call it the red-rug room. It’s right off the kitchen. I don’t know what makes the acoustics better in that room, it just sounds good. Ten or so people in that room, almost knee to knee, sitting around a center object where you can put your drinks, making music together is very wonderful thing.

man with gray hair playing banjo

What are you looking forward to?
Short range, I’m looking forward to seeing the other four grand kids. Oh, yes, and their parents. (He laughs.) Then, when we get home, we’re hosting a weekend-long music party. We’ll have 75-100 people I bet. Playing old-time music, eating, drinking. Lots of people staying over. Some of the young people will be sleeping on couches, on mattress pads, finding a quiet corner as the music dies down. Some friends from out of town will stay in motels. Sometimes people ask how we can entertain so many guests.

We don’t entertain them. People bring their instruments and we all entertain each other.

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