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Meet Tom Banjo, whose sidewalk folk tunes add some twang to Montpelier

Note: This story contains music, and is meant for the ear. We recommend listening if you can.

The gentle twang of a banjo and the soft strum of a guitar fill the air on State Street in Montpelier on a Thursday afternoon.

The banjo player is wearing jeans, cowboy boots, a tattered red shirt and a green trucker hat.

He goes by the name Tom Banjo.

"Back in the early '50s, there wasn't hardly any banjo players up north," he explains. "And I used to show up and play the banjo and then disappear, and different people would put me up. Sort of like a vagabond. And people wondered, 'Who's this guy in old clothes, shows up and then he disappears, [then a] month later he turns up!'"

So people just started calling him Tom Banjo, and the name stuck.

"It’s not 'cause I'm a great banjo player, it’s 'cause they didn’t know my last name," Tom laughs.

His real last name is Azarian. He lives in Calais. His son Ethan, a musician and visual artist based in Austin, Texas, is accompanying him on guitar today.

Tom closes his eyes while he sings. Some tunes make you want to tap your foot, others are so haunting they make you freeze.

He sings songs about moonshine, songs about cowboys, songs he says he learned when he was growing up. He’s 86 years old.

"A lot of 'em were from Appalachia, and some I just remember as a kid, some of the hobo songs," Tom says.

Tom Banjo has the air of someone who might be more at home in another time, or another place — and yet while he’s playing, it feels like nothing could exist beyond this very moment, in the afternoon sun on the sidewalk on State Street.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

Anna is a reporter and co-hosts Vermont Public's daily news podcast, The Frequency, with Henry Epp.
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