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Remembering Winnie Winston

posted in: 2005, Banjo Newsletter 0

This article by Pete Wernick originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Banjo Newsletter.

A Remembrance of an Important Musical Personal Influence (1941-2005)

I was very surprised and sad to hear from a friend at the recent Merlefest, that my good friend Winnie Winston (living in New Zealand for the last 10 years) was suffering from cancer. I had had recent contact with him and he hadn’t mentioned it. So I wrote him, and indeed it was true, and not only that, he was writing from a hospice.

Winnie was one of my most important early inspirations, as the premier banjo player in the New York City area where I grew up. He was also a very friendly and generous person, and though he was five years older than I, he treated me as a peer and a friend. It would be hard to count the instances where Winnie inspired and helped me, just by being himself and being a friend.

Though Winnie’s musicianship was highly respected, music was not his career, and there are scarcely any generally available recordings of his playing. Fortunately, there are some on his web site, and they show sure enough he was a HOSS.

Anyone familiar with the New York City bluegrass scene in the 60s and 70s would have to know of Winnie, and the following excerpt from one of my last letters to him, about a month before he died, should bring back some of your own memories. I’m quite pleased that Winnie was touched enough to put some of this memoir on his web site, and led to some further communication that led to another item on his site, called “The Big Stuff”, examining his personal philosophy.

There is no better time than now to tell you how important you’ve been to me, both as a musician and a person — especially as a person. I clearly remember the first time I saw you (F&S w. Baez, January 1961, me still 14 years old). It was the first time I heard someone in person *not on a stage*, and from NY area to boot, that could *really play* Scruggs style. It was one of the main things that stuck in my mind from that day.

One of the next, maybe *the* next time I saw you was when you won the banjo contest at the Country Gentlemen gig in about 1964 in lower Manhattan. I was also in the contest, totally scared, but played Reno’s Banjo Special fairly accurately, and as you signed my banjo later, you also complimented me and let me know you’d be happy to have you come visit you in Yonkers. It was a surprise how close I lived to you, and I gladly took advantage of your offer. I was nervous to come to your house but you were so nice and open, and I still remember how truly privileged I felt to be in your presence, with you treating me as deserving of your time. That was very big stuff for me, and gave me a lot of what I now call “rocket fuel” in my undertakings re the banjo and bluegrass. Later, when you were in Manhattan, you welcomed me to your place, one of which times I got to meet B. Keith, and you guys were nice enough to agree to my naive/stupid request to record EVERYTHING you guys played.

If I’m not mistaken, it was I who introduced you to my schoolmate, Bromberg, and then a while later, I remember being a little jealous when Bromberg started using you and not me for some banjo gigs. It was easier to get over that once I realized that he had every reason to do so, since you were better than me.

Then there was the totally unforgettable trip to Finncastle, 1965. None of us brilliant enough to bring a camera, though I did get some mighty fine tape recordings, both of the stage, and interviews with Reno, the Stanleys, and Jimmy Martin.

Your unique personality, always curious, always inventive, unwilling to deal with various types of BS, was also a standout in my social environment. Your frankness, your willingness to go outside the box to do what needed doing, were all most welcome as an example to me, and part of the underpinnings of what gave me courage at age 28 to jump into a full-time music career from academia, with a rather unconventional but wonderful person at my side. Nondi and I are soon to celebrate 36 years as a couple. I consider myself extremely fortunate.

I’m glad I have had a chance to give you this message. You were and you remain an important person in my life, and I am rooting for you to face this demon the best way you can. Answer if you have time, but mostly know that I and a lot of people who maybe only knew you in the “old days” know that there’s only one Winnie, and we are pulling for you.

Winnie’s web site has a lot of interesting material including remembrances of the NYC “Old Days”.

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