On a Friday morning in 1967, Borgy Borgerson headed into the woods of Vancouver Island with a chainsaw over his shoulder as he had done for two decades. On the Monday, he was carrying a banjo as he entered the grounds of Expo 67 in Montreal for the first time.
A six-month gig at the world’s fair launched him on a half-century musical career leading to his induction into the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame last year in a class including the late Jim Henson of the Muppets and the multiple Grammy Award-winning Bela Fleck.
Mr. Borgerson, who has died at 93, displayed his virtuosity on the four-string tenor banjo at a faux stockade fort at Expo 67, at nightclubs across Canada, at hotel lounges decorated to look like Klondike saloons, and even at British Columbia vineyards and such tourist attractions as Butchart Gardens, outside Victoria, where he had retired.
He played with the intense, gleeful exuberance demanded by the folk instrument, performing minstrel music, ragtime and Dixieland. The work of a musician billed either as Mr. Banjo or Mr. Banjoman appeared on a handful of albums released in the early 1970s. His playing can also be heard on later compact discs.
In an era when Dixieland bands were offered as entertainment for those not enamoured of rock ’n’ roll, Mr. Borgerson appeared on television on such Canadian variety programs as The Tommy Hunter Show and The Ronnie Prophet Show.
His career was all the more remarkable for his never having a formal lesson in his life.
Alfred Rudolph Borgerson was born on Boxing Day, 1925, to the former Muriel Rae Morgan and Alfred Paul Borgerson, the Dakota-born son of Norwegian immigrants. His birthplace was near the Saskatchewan hamlet of Joeville, soon after renamed Lisieux, about 200 kilometres southwest of Regina near the international border. A drought forced the farmers off the land and they resettled 600 km north on a homestead near Snowden on the edge of bush country.
The family lived in a dirt-floor home. Though too poor to afford a battery radio, a battered piano had come into their possession.
“My mother could play it and she could read [music],” Mr. Borgerson told Gregor Craigie of CBC Radio last year. “She taught my older sister to play, so I had somebody I could back up with a ukulele from about the time I was 6.”
His father played fiddle, earning a few extra cents by playing local Friday night dances. Young Fred, as he was known, first joined him on stage at the age of 9.
“We couldn’t afford a banjo, so I got some real cheapy $5 thing that sounded so awful it almost turned me off,” he said.
At 18, Mr. Borgerson went to work on a small grain farm north of Belleville, Ont. A year later, he joined his family in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, getting a job as a mill worker for B.C. Forest Products. He worked in the mill in Youbou, a community that took its name from the original lumber company’s executives, named Yount and Bouten. His father worked as a carpenter and the family continued to perform at weekend dances.
In 1949, Mr. Borgerson married Eunice Scott, a friend’s sister, who took a job at the company store. The couple celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this August. He leaves her, as well as a sister, Rae Leask. He also leaves three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Mr. Borgerson died on Nov. 4 in the Victoria suburb of Saanich. He was predeceased by a daughter, Diane Graves, who died of breast cancer at 52 in 2007, and a son, Larry Borgerson, who died of multiple myeloma in January at 66.
Mr. Borgerson took a more lucrative but dangerous job as a faller based at a logging camp at Nitinat. In 1958, he suffered a skull fracture when struck by a limb. His hard hat, a “wedge taken out of it like a piece of pie,” according to his widow, was put on display and he was inducted into the company’s Turtle Club for having survived.
Out of the forest and away from the stage, Mr. Borgerson served on the executive of the Lake Cowichan Boating Club, winning a prize for his tricks at the Western Canadian Open waterskiing championships at the age of 38.
In 1966, Mr. Borgerson was recruited by impresario and entertainer Fran Dowie to tour the province to mark British Columbia’s centenary of colonial unification. He put down the chainsaw and picked up the banjo for good when Mr. Dowie’s troupe of actors and musicians was hired to perform at the Golden Garter Saloon at a replica of Fort Edmonton adjacent to the La Ronde amusement park at Expo 67. The musicians wore sleeveless vests, arm bands, bow ties and straw boaters.
He decided to stay in Montreal at the end of the world’s fair, playing a room at the Skyline Hotel decorated with sawdust on the floor and wagon-wheel chandeliers overhead to resemble a Gold Rush drinking hall.
The saloon show was transferred to stage and television as The Diamond Lil Show. A performance at the annual Central Canada Exhibition in Ottawa was panned by the Ottawa Journal (“mediocre and insulting to its audience”), although the reviewer had praise for the Diamond Cutters, the Dixieland band for which Mr. Borgerson played banjo. The same performers, led by singer Vanda King, also appeared on a late-night CTV variety program in 1970.
After moving to Toronto, Mr. Borgerson spent a year at the downtown Nickelodeon Club before reprising the saloon show at the Skyline Hotel, near the airport. He also had an engagement at the Mark Twain Showboat docked on the Mississauga waterfront.
Over the years, Mr. Borgerson performed with the Alf Carter Showboat Five, Borgy Borgerson’s Banjo Revue, Toronto Banjo Band, Dixieland Express and the South Island Traditional Jazz Quartet.
He retired to Vancouver Island to be closer to his adult children, though he maintained a regular schedule of performance well into his 80s.
While he had a low profile outside Dixieland circles in his native land, Mr. Borgerson was a fixture at conventions in the United States, where other entertainers had high regard for his loose, happy-go-lucky performances. He was regularly featured in fan and trade publications.
He was unable to attend the induction ceremony at the banjo hall of fame last year in Oklahoma City, Okla.
His banjo-playing career nearly ended before it started, he once told the Lake Cowichan Gazette newspaper.
“In the winter of 1951, after playing for a dance at Unity Hall, Lake Cowichan, I discovered my car doors were frozen shut,” he said. “I returned to the hall for a kettle of hot water, leaving my instruments on the ground beside the car. I returned to see Oscar Branting was backing his car over my banjo!”
The men had words, although in the end Mr. Borgerson agreed with the assertion he should not have left his instruments on the ground.
The musician had mixed feelings about losing the banjo.
“This had always been a horrible-sounding instrument, which had not inspired my practice habits,” he said.
After six years of performing on guitar or string bass, he at last purchased a replacement banjo, opting for a first-class Gibson, an instrument with which he would leave the British Columbia woods to entertain generations of banjo fans.