MARLA PISCIOTTA ∙ For The State Journal
SPRINGFIELD — Surrounded by the tools and equipment of his trade, Jim Morris takes a break and plays a tune on his cookie-tin banjo-ukulele.
He plays an introduction into a song and begins to sing, "Five-foot-two, eyes of blue ... has anybody seen my gal?"
His enthusiasm and enjoyment of the music is obvious. He looks down at the neck of the instrument, while his fingers pick away and his foot stomps on the floor keeping up with the rhythm of the song. He continues to sing, "Turned-up nose, turned-down hose, flapper yes sir one of those, has anybody seen my gal?"
"I especially like this clear top uke," said Morris.
In its other life, the "uke" was a container for Christmas cookies. It still has the calorie intake sticker and price tag on the bottom.
"There was 190 calories in that last song," Morris said.
Morris has made many instruments from a lot of different things. He uses gourds, all shapes and sizes of cookie tins, and even a cigar box to make ukuleles.
Each of his instruments is guaranteed to be unique and easy to learn to play.
"The hardest things to buy are the turning pegs. I use a lot of pegs that come off of discarded instruments," said Morris.
He buys his cookie tins from thrift stores or salvages them from yard sales. He even salvaged one old uke out of a dumpster. A large cookie tin that housed Royal Danish cookies was made into a bass instrument. He cut out one side of the tin and inserted wood. He made the neck out of an old pine bed rail and the strings out of weed-wacker string.
"I bought various sizes of weed-wacker string. The low E string is .105 string, A string is .095, D string is .080 and G string is made from .065 weed-wacker string," said Morris. "A couple hundred yards of weed-wacker string for bass instruments goes a long way."
Morris said a regular bass instrument costs $1,000. His cost maybe $20 to make.
Each instrument is made from local woods, such as the walnut he recently purchased at an auction in Springfield.
Traditionally the fingerboard is made of harder wood that isn't grown in West Virginia, according to Morris.
"My quest is to try and find out what a banjo sounded like before the Civil War," Morris said. "Before Sears and Montgomery Ward came into rural areas selling musical instruments."
Raised in a family of classical musicians, Morris said his parents hoped he would play the flute in a band. His father was a tenor soloist in the U.S. Navy Band. But Morris found his niche as a teenager in rock 'n roll due to the influence of the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
"I was in a band called the Reivers in southern Maryland," Morris said.
Morris said he "escaped" the Washington, D.C., area and moved to West Virginia. It was in the Mountain State that he found his real calling and his passion for old-fashioned music and instruments.
"About five years ago, I went to the Hampshire County Fair. For the first time I heard a different kind of music. It was coming from the front of the FFA building," said Morris. "A resident of the county, Paul Roomsburg and a bunch of guys were playing music. Once I heard it, I was smitten."
Morris said he didn't know how to play the banjo and no one "teaches" it.
The group invited him to a music jam.
"You sit down and they play a song five or six times. By the end of the sixth time you begin to learn how to play it," said Morris. "That's the way tunes have been handed down from generation to generation."
A former furniture maker, Morris decided that making instruments would become his hobby.
The infatuation of the "old time music" and his first banjo led Morris to do research on how it came about.
"You can hear echoes of Irish and Scottish as well as African inspiration," said Morris. "When Africans were brought to this country they were stacked in boats and didn't bring instruments with them. They brought the ideas and implemented them in the south. They made gourd banjos covered with animal skins."
Morris said he is trying to find out how these handmade instruments sounded in the early 1800s. In his research he found a photo of a Civil War soldier outside a tent playing an instrument made from a Figaros cigar box. Another book he found shows how to make a banjo. He also has learned banjo and banjo-ukuleles didn't have frets on them before the Civil War.
Morris made a fretless banjo that he said took some time to figure out how to play because he had to determine where to put his fingers.
And he can testify that real skin on a banjo with cat skin strings sounds completely different than a plastic drumhead with metal strings.
"I heard a story that there was a shortage of cats in the West Virginia mountains because the skins were used to cover the drum head of the banjos and ukes," said Morris. "I heard that cats weren't safe here in the mountains. I don't know how true that story is."
Getting back to his "classical" roots, Morris said he does play a couple of flutes he has made.
One is made from discarded PVC pipe, while another comes from three-quarter-inch copper plumbing pipe.
"The fipple mouth part is the hardest to make. And they both play," said Morris as he picked up both flutes and played a tune.
Morris said one of the banjos he made is his favorite and he takes that particular one to jam sessions.
"I added an old fashioned bottle opener on the top of the fingerboard. You never know when you'll need to open a bottle," said Morris.