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In Praise of the Banjo

The Cuckoo and the Bagpipe, sing lolly-lay

The Banjo Player

The Banjo Player, 1936

Of all the music-makers humankind have developed over the last 20 thousand years, give or take, the ones that put the least hardware between the player and the music—the drum, the banjo, and the Panpipe—pass one test. They are intuitive to play and easy to make. If you are marooned on a desert island with only a jackknife, how to wile away the hours after you had whittled yourself a house, stalked game, and plowed the garden with the ear spoon or buttonhook (assuming you have a Swiss Army knife)? You could pare away at a sapling, splitting a manageable length, hollowing it out, and then making bird calls with your new embouchure flute. It is difficult to accompany your singing with a flute attached. Hence, the development of what is believed to be, after the drum and the whistle, one of the first of the rudimentary musical instruments: the banjo. The banjo has every musical characteristic of the grand cathedral pipe organ—with the possible exceptions of size, volume, timbre, and sustain. On the plus side, the banjo is portable.

There are three ways to acquire a five-string banjo: buy one, steal one, or make one. From this writer’s personal experience banjo players are either drunk, broke, or both, and often honest. This precludes the first two options, so let’s make our own banjo. First shoot a groundhog: this is the time-honored way; you’ll want his hide. If you don’t live in the woods, or are scared of guns, you need not resort to blood sports for your membrane, the vibrating amplifier of your new banjo. The cannonading SUVs of the upwardly mobile will do the job for you. A hunt through the ditches of nearby roadways is sure to provide a newly defunct animal for a drumhead. Nothing beats a thin-skived, salt-cured groundhog hide for that thumping resonance we’re after.

Of course, a fencepost and a matched pair of milk cans: Carnation condensed and Red Rose evaporated. It’s a great world, and you can go to the store for canned milk! Resourceful folk of the early 20th Century capitalized on the quarter-inch mismatch between condensed and evaporated milk cans; it was perfect for sizing and containing a scrap of rawhide. The cans will be a tension regulator for the tiny drum of your new banjo—the music starts here. The fencepost we’ll whittle into a neck.

Strings will be a problem, both in the finding and in the playing. Nylon fishing leader or suture from a local clinic should do. A plywood donut holds the drum and the neck together and, if there’s no plywood on your desert island, perhaps consider moving. Playing the fretless banjo is like doing a crossword puzzle with a blindfold on. You hear better with your eyes closed. And the playing takes more skill, for the stops (called frets on modern instruments) won’t be there, to separate you from your music.

Tom Ashley, Philippe Petit and Emma

A tremulous high tenor sang through the scratches on the Library of Congress archive disc. Tom Ashley was recorded in 1928, a young man with a banjo. In 1964 I sat with him and a pint of gin beside a motel swimming pool in Galax, West Virginia. He sang the song again and told me about the banjo: It can be expensive, factory-made, but for a country boy with wit and ingenuity, it can be built from scratch. He sang as though he had brought his own static and scratches along. He insisted with a twinkle that it was a Carolina grasshopper first heard that song of his, the one about the Coo-coo bird:

“The cuckoo is a pretty bird she sings as she flies
She brings us glad tidings, and she tells us no lies…”

And pretty soon every last grasshopper along the L&N railroad tracks was singing the cuckoo’s song.

Fast forward to 1980. In the summer we were of a Sunday habit of playing in the park. The park in this case being Washington Square. There were no vast cantonments of pluckers and thumpers, the glory days of mass sing-alongs twenty years behind us. We—me, Bill Bannon and Ken Haferman—had the park pretty much to ourselves.

With elfin charm Ken’s ten-year-old daughter Emma attached herself to onlookers by yanking at their pants legs. She held out a busker’s cigar box and hung on tight. Clearly, loose change was the price of freedom. We did well that summer. Some yards off and just past the range of acoustical annoyance, Philippe Petit toe-balanced on a rope pegged to the ground and anchored with a sturdy knot eight feet up in the crotch of a sycamore tree. Philippe wore white mime makeup, juggled and passed the tall silk hat that was his trademark. He tipped the hat to Emma. Emma held her cigar box at arm’s length and took a careful curtsey. Six years before Philippe had danced on a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center.

Ken sang This Land is Your Land, a request from the crowd. “Just like Woody did it,” said a well-kept white-haired woman. She patted Ken on the shoulder and gave him a hug. “Good.” She introduced herself as Margie Guthrie, Woody’s ex, Arlo’s mom. Quite a compliment. We packed it in and headed to the falafel parlor on MacDougal Street. With Emma passing the cigar box we made enough for falafel for five kids and three adults plus the subway fare back to Brooklyn.

Mark Twain

“I like Gottschalk well enough. He probably gets as much out of the piano as there is in it. The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themsleves to skeletons, but give me the banjo. When you want genuine music—music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose—when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!” — San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, 23 June 1865

The bagpipe and the five-string banjo

The bagpipe chanter is a melody pipe, the banjo’s fifth string, a drone, but both share a name with a yellowish wild mushroom, the little singer. The chanterelle, or drone string, of the banjo rides the neck in mid-span and shares the fingerboard, at times grudgingly, with the player.

Explore the 12-tone scale, and a world of nuanced open tunings. Pentatonic music—modal music from the five-tone scales—passes Robert Graves’ test for true poetry: it makes the short hairs at the back of your neck stand on end. Remember Panpipes? They look a little like the bottom of a marimba and are named for Pan, the goat-footed god of empty places. Pan as in panic, the feeling of awe and apprehension at no sound but the thunder of blood rushing through our veins. We are, for a perceptive moment alone, away from civilization and its noise and at the dawn of time with our banjo, flute, or drum.

Our time, human time, starts here. If two cans and a taut wire make for rudimentary telephony, then two cans and a taut hide definitely make for rudimentary music. The transfer of information is basic, the medium simple, albeit the information exchanged is necessarily limited by a narrow content spectrum. A banjo player then attending Juilliard told me it has the range of the baroque flute. Just as my pencil has all the words in it that my word processing program has—and some it never dreamed of. Here’s a playing tip from Hub Nitchie’s Banjo Newsletter: Play While Watching TV. (Most likely not available in your back-of-nowhere DIY paradise) Pulling your attention toward the TV allows your muscle memory to develop in a way that is similar to learning to drive a car. As you become so familiar with a tune that a certain amount of autopilot kicks in, you free your conscious mind to focus on details of musicality and tone. If you are not focused on the string and fret, you can shift your attention to the way individual notes sound and feel.

The Coo-coo Bird

Gonna build me log cabin
On a mountain so high
So I can see Willie
As he goes passing by.

REFRAIN
Oh, the coo-coo, she’s a pretty bird
She wobbles as she flies
She never says coo-coo
Till the fourth day July.

I’ve played cards in England
I’ve played cards in Spain
I’ll bet you ten dollars
I beat you next game.

REFRAIN
Jack-a-Diamonds, Jack-a-Diamonds
I’ve known you from old
You’ve robbed my poor pocket
Of my silver and my gold.

My horses ain’t hungry
They won’t eat your hay
I’ll drive on a little further
I’ll feed ‘em on my way.

RESOURCES:

Download the MP3 from the Internet Archive—www.archive.org
You can discover more music from Clarence Ashley at the Internet Archive. There is a dandy bio here.
The Cuckoo Bird is featured in the E.L. Doctorow book, The March. A soldier suffering from a metal spike stuck in his head sings verses from the song.
The Ergonomic Subtleties of Playing the Banjo (Deering Banjo blog)

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