Banjo on the Russian front?

With so much sad and depressing news on Bluegrass Today this week, the time seems ripe for something a bit more fun, and the May 2010 issue of Banjo NewsLetter has just the thing.

The cover story is an interview with banjo playing funny man Steve Martin, conducted by Tony Trischka. But this is a serious piece, focusing on Steve the banjo player.

There is also a fascinating piece by Josh Turknett, MD about the physiology of learning, Lessons in Neuroplasticity – Lesson One: Baby Steps. However, this is also a serious article and not the one that caught my eye.

What made me sit up and take notice was a story about west coast clawhammer banjo player Howard Caine, who took first place in 29 old time banjo and fiddle competitions, and played professionally from 1970 until his death in 1993. BNL published an interview with Caine’s son Lyle who describes his dad’s approach to banjo and old time music, and Howard’s one other claim to fame.

Caine was the actor who portrayed Maj. Wolfgang Hochstetter on Hogan’s Heroes, the popular CBS comedy that ran from 1965 to 1971. Readers “of a certain age” will recall that the show was quite popular during the ’60s, and younger folks may have seen the shows in syndication, which have run almost since original episodes went off the air.

The show had it’s critics, of course, protesting its comedic, lighthearted premise of a WWII German prisoner of war camp where American POWs ran circles around the inept Nazis, operating an intelligence and guerilla warfare unit from within the camp. But it was all in good fun, and the program has been quite popular in DVD in recent years.

Hogan’s Heroes produced a number of memorable characters, and was a star-maker for Bob Crane who played the lead character. The bumbling Colonel Klink and Sargeant Shultz were highlights, as were prisoners played by Richard Dawkins of quiz show fame and several others.

Major Hochstetter was a recurring character as a Gestapo officer, the nemesis of camp commander Klink whose classic line “What is this man doing here?!” was a staple whenever he found Hogan in conference with Klink. Caine appeared in 39 episodes of Hogan’s Heroes and had many character roles on other television shows including Get Smart, The R.A.T. Patrol, Fantasy Island and My Favorite Martian.

He was a master of dialects, and found himself doing voice work in the later years of his life, including several characters for the Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo show and The Challenge of the GoBots in the early ’80s.

But the Banjo Newsletter article focuses on Howard as a banjo player, and it is great fun to learn of the musical side of an actor I had seen for so long on TV. Old time banjoists will be especially interested in this piece.

BNL does not have magazine content online, but subscriptions rates are quite low ($26/year to a US address) and single issues can be purchased for $5.00 by mail. You can reach Banjo NewsLetter by phone (800-759-7425) or email.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.