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'Ed, The Banjo Man' Has Been Serenading Lincoln Park For 40 Years

By Mina Bloom | August 25, 2016 7:06am
 Former lawyer Edward Berger, 76, has become a neighborhood staple for his banjo playing.
Edward Berger
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LINCOLN PARK — It's early evening at Oz Park's bustling playground. 

Under an orange-tinted sky, some kids jump on the seesaw and tumble down the slide while others breathlessly run around, forcing their parents to chase after them. 

Edward Berger, 76, is perched on one of the wooden platforms with his 1960s-era banjo slung over his shoulder. As he begins to play an old folk song, several kids stop what they're doing and run over to him, their wide eyes fixated on the strings.

Berger hands one of the little boys a pick and lets him pluck the strings.

"Do you know what this is called ... what the name of this is? Anybody?" Berger asks the inquisitive crowd of kids, pointing to the banjo.

"Banjo!" he says excitedly.

Then Berger plays another song. This time, it's the "Itsy Bitsy Spider," and the kids sing along.

This scene goes on at least a few nights a week during warm months.

Berger has been playing the banjo in the park and from his Orchard Street porch (which is practically across the street from the park) for more than 40 years. He's also in a banjo band, Windy City Jammers, that routinely performs at Chief O'Neill's Pub, 3471 N. Elston Ave.

Some neighbors call him, "Ed, the banjo man," though he prefers to be called Edward. 

"Just working for a living is way overrated," Berger says. "You might as well have regular music in your life. It takes the rough edges off."

Berger has been playing the instrument since age 10, when his father, a mandolin player, bought him his first banjo — made in 1918 — from a pawn shop. He's been hooked ever since. 

"I was always playing the banjo," he says.

"The banjo is so simple to play. It has a nice sound to it. It's a clear sound. There's a customary thought that it's only happy. That's not true at all. There are some very sad songs."

Berger grew up in a small town just outside of Boston and went on to attend Harvard University, which was considered a major accomplishment at the time because no one in Berger's family had ever been to college.

With no money or family connections, Berger moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University's law school on a scholarship, and never left.

For 50 years, Berger got to travel around the world "multiple times" for work as a lawyer at prominent Chicago firms — "every song written about Paris ... it's even better than that," he says.

In between working, he got married, moved into a historic Lincoln Park home in 1973 and had two children, who are now in their 40s. He retired a couple of months ago.

Playing the banjo has remained the one constant in his life.

"There's a satisfaction from making the music even if nobody else but yourself can hear it," Berger says.

Along the way, Berger became a Chicago history buff. Ask him anything about the history of the park or the neighborhood, and he'll have a detailed answer.

When a little boy wearing a Lakeshore Sport & Fitness health club T-shirt comes up to him, he tells his dad a detailed story about how the land used to be home to a prominent factory. Berger also loves to tell tales of Oz Park, like when a gym teacher died and left a significant amount of money to go toward improvements.

Larry Sachs has lived across the street from Berger for 13 years. 

"It's very common that we'll hear the banjo playing and then we'll hear him stop in the middle of the song and we'll know why," Sachs says. "If I were to peek around the corner, people would be stopping to listen to him and they'd be having a conversation. [Berger] is very engaging."

Sachs says Berger adds to the vibrancy of the neighborhood.

"I can't overemphasize how nice it is to have some color, character and flavor added to the neighborhood," Sachs says. 

"You just don't see people hanging out on their front porches and interacting with their neighbors like he does anymore."

When asked how it feels to have kids surround him and neighbors speak fondly of him, Berger says, "That's just the frosting on the cake. The cake is the music."

"I didn't do anything that anybody else couldn't do and hasn't done. This is a great neighborhood. And this is just one neighborhood among many neighborhoods."

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