Bad Rive Banjo branded dowel stick

The Bad River mark

Before I finished building my first banjo, I realized I would need to design a permanent mark to represent my brand. This was no small task, as I wanted to capture an aesthetic that was both timeless and timely. And I had to be okay with looking at it for a very long time!

I set about searching through pages and pages of vintage wood type specimen catalogues from the 1800s. I landed on a combination of elements that would eventually become the mark that I’ve used ever since.

The finished design is definitely “of a period” without feeling specifically victorian or western (which I wanted to avoid). The tapered bounding shape and additional typefaces in the expanded mark capture the energy of many vintage handmade signs.

The dowel stick of every Bad River banjo is branded with this maker’s mark, in keeping with the tradition of many old-time builders from the past. It’s a simple decorative addition that my clients have come to cherish.

Bad River Banjo branded dowel stick

In addition to banjos, the Bad River mark has found a home on a series of other objects — most notably a collection of hand-dyed shop rags. I make sure to include one of these inside the case of every new Bad River banjo that ships out of my shop. I have also been looking into some small batch runs of t-shirts and caps. Stay tuned!

Bad River Banjo vintage coal scrip

The truth about scrip

If you’ve looked at the banjos I’ve made, you’ve probably noticed the coins that are embedded into many of them. They are all remnants of a very old form of currency called coal scrip.

The use of coal scrip dates back to the late 1800s, when many coal companies looked for ways to keep miners in a never ending cycle of work, repayment and debt. Rather than receiving compensation in US currency, many miners received payment entirely in scrip, which could be used only at the company store. This eliminated any hope for workers and their families to break free or to acquire any form of wealth.

Merle Travis captured the sentiment of the common laborer of these times in the song Sixteen Tons with the chorus, “another day older and deeper in debt,” and the line, “I owe my soul to the company store.”

These coal mines took root in the same regions where folk music thrived. Places like North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia. And the people who worked in those mines were the same people who would have picked up and played simple folk instruments like fiddle and banjo.

By adding coal scrip to my banjos, I am embedding a small portion of these peoples’ stories — knowing that these coins passed through many different hands through the years. For me, it’s a meaningful way to keep their memory alive.