A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo

Jan 13, 2017

The trouble with teaching is sometimes your students force you to learn things you never wanted to learn.  For some, this can mean new forms of exercise – like piloxing – for others, mastering technical terms in foreign languages. For me, the unsettling territory into which I have been thrust this month is… the banjo.

I have always had a prejudice against the banjo.  Growing up, it was everything my English friends said about Americans – loud, uncomplicated, and impossible to ignore.  We told jokes, asking each other: What's the difference between a parrot and a banjo? One is obnoxious and loud, we would say; the other is a bird.

I have carried this attitude into adulthood.  It has infected my teaching.  For years I have gamely taught guitar, mandolin, even ukulele.  Praised them all to my students.  Yet I have stayed steadfastly away from the banjo.  This anti-banjosim has became a point of principle.  Like so many other prejudices, I can’t even tell you why I feel this way any more.  It’s just what I do,

But with the dawning of a new year, a crack has appeared in my armor.  It’s all the fault of a kid.  One of my guitar students, no less.  In November, his mother took me aside and informed me in hushed tones that her child wanted a banjo for Christmas.  He loves banjo music, she said.  It helps him go to sleep at night.  It’s all he wants.  My heart sank.

Warily, I congratulated her, suggested a few reputable student banjos they might consider, and volunteered the names of several fine local banjo teachers.  Oh no, she said  – he doesn’t want another teacher; he wants YOU to teach him the banjo!  Checkmate to the ten year old.

Sure enough – on Christmas Day, just to rub it in, I received a text message with a picture of this young man holding his new banjo and beaming from ear to ear.  He’s ready for lessons! 

Oh, very well!  Unable to let down a mop top with a weapon of mass musical destruction, I gave in and went banjo shopping.  And here’s where the story turns.  Because I was converted.  In a single day.  Lo, in a fleeting heartbeat – I found the perfect instrument.  A used GoldTone Cripple Creek Banjo.  What a beauty!  Its polished maple neck, topped with a rosewood fretboard, edges smooth to the touch. The gleaming brass rim of the wooden body, sprouting its elegant arm rest.  And across the body of the banjo, a matte-white drum head, stretched taut, alive to the touch.  This is the kind of instrument that can speak to you, can sing to you.  Picking it up, it balanced perfectly in my hands.  Every string chimed like a bell.  I was in love.  Checkmate to the banjo.

Bringing baby home, I got right to work.  I had already purchased a book on Amazon for one cent.  You Can Teach Yourself Banjo, it proclaimed over a cartoon picture of a stable full of cowboy folk doing a hoe-down.  Not even that image could put me off my task  I got to work, sinking myself in the familiar routine of practicing chords and picking patterns.  After a few days, my family allowed me to practice when they were in the house.  Progress!

Playing led to listening, which led to reading.  And reading the history of the banjo quickly taught me that the banjo is indeed no joke.  It’s an instrument with a rich history stretching back hundreds of years in Africa.  It’s a musical gift that has sustained slaves in captivity, settlers and refugees in hard times across the USA, an unyielding musical engine which has accompanied the voice of social campaigners and fervent activists throughout the decades.  Famously, Pete Seeger’s banjo head was inscribed with the words:  This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.  Now there’s some musical power!

It seems as I prepare to teach my young student, he has made me a student too.  Learning to use a machine that surrounds hate and forces it to surrender?  Maybe not such a bad hobby to take up at the start of this new year.  Wish me luck.