Friday, April 25, 2008

Why I Love My Banjo

You take a story in your hand when you pick up a banjo - all too often an ugly story except that it always ends in music. With its curved wood, bolts, steel rims, and stretched skin, it looks like a piece of 19th century machinery. But in those elements you can see that the banjo began as an african gourd instrument that blended with english instruments on British slave ships. While giving slaves the chance to dance in the open air, banjo music toned their bodies for sale. Some primary foundations of American music and American racial attitudes were laid this exchange. It became a cherished item in middle class white homes and was a predominate instrument of slaves and freed blacks. It might have died away but for Sears and Roebuck's and the perversity of minstrel shows. There were banjo orchestras- imaging the steely ruckus -playing wealthy garden parties, but It was always been looked upon as an instrument of the rural poor, regardless of color. Race, class, history and commerce run down its neck and across the fret board. No wonder 19th century reviewers were repulsed and propelled to dance by "that half barbaric twang."

If the banjo is played right, you love and weep for Sally Goodins, Shady Grove, and Pretty Polly; you get a fast free ride on the
Wabash Cannonball and the Orange Blossom special, bound for glory through hills and cotton fields; you fly with the wobbling cuckoo bird and fall with sad Jim Crow. When the banjo gets going you can see dollars, blood, whips and chains, clutching hands, dancing feet, joyful voices, lonely voices, and old old lives come all spinning out from sharp, dark, skipping music.

Now if I can only learn to play the Goddamn thing!