I can play the banjo, some. Playing the banjo “some” is like playing the bagpipes a little: you need a wide-open space and patient, forgiving neigbhors if you’re gonna practice, since a banjo does not emit quiet noises. And it’s spectacularly unforgiving of mistakes, that is, if you care about mistakes. Part of the freewheeling attitude that the banjo is meant to inculcate, I think, is an open-minded attitude towards near misses, in life and on the fretboard.
In high school, when I showed some interest, banjo-playing uncles had bought me a starter banjo and showed me the rudiments of Appalachian clawhammer. At college in Indiana, I found a woman who had grown up that chiming, rhythmic folk style. She gave me lessons (for free — teaching clawhammer is like passing on a dying language) I learned to say “app-a-LATCH-an”, and made some progress, learning to hammer out “Old Joe Clark” and “Shady Grove” and even some Irish reels that would tie my right hand up in knots. Once I played “Cripple Creek” through for them at high volume, my uncles chipped in and bought me a venerable banjo, an honorable instrument made for clawhammer (it has no resonator, the back-plate that turns a banjo into a lethal weapon; that kind of banjo is for three-finger picking.)
The banjo is a Star, about a hundred years old, and made before the advent of geared pegs, so tuning it is a black art requiring a firm, deft hand, and the open-minded attitude mentioned above. It’s been living under various beds of mine for about ten years, and has been a source of guilt. Various banjo-playing luminaries in my life have gruffly asked me if I’m keeping my hand in, and I’ve had to reluctantly admit that I havent’ been doing my part to carry the torch. When does it ever seem like a good time to haul the hundred-year-old banjo out from under your bed, spend an hours straning over the pegs, all to spend five minutes making an unholy clatter and yowling at the top of your lungs: “Bile them cabbage down, boys, bile them cabbage down! Turn them hoecakes round, boys, bile them cabbage down!”?
I’ll tell you when that seems like a good time: when you’ve got a one-year old baby, that’s when. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to about being a dad is the magical time when all self-consciousness about loud, imprecise singing evaporates. Lo and behold, that shining time has arrived, and Lydia thinks that the banjo is a Pretty Damn Good Instrument.
So the basement has disgorged all the various folk-song books, chord charts, mostly-working capos, and other odds and sods that I’ve collected from the Baldwin side of my family. I’m trying to cram all the words to “Clementine” into my memory (“Herring boxes \Were her soxxes?” That’s not right.) and enjoying a blessed vacation from self-consciousness about all the whanging wrong notes I’m playing.
Though I think I will pick up a digital tuner; I’m not able to make my embrace of the freewheeling banjo ethos extend that far.
Here’s a brief movie of LBY bouncing along to Cripple Creek (at least, until she sees something more interesting in the case.)