The Dueling Banjo

Don’t be fooled:
this whitefaced smile,
these nickel-plated teeth,
this laughter can fuck you up.
Just ask the sadistic master
whose slave put the banjo on him
composed a devastating satire
with a rolicking tune.

Men was a-singing it while cutting
trees out in the woods.
Women singing it in the fields.
Even the little children
played games to that song.
Pretty soon folks was singing it
all up & down the river.
Master Robert couldn’t go
nowhere among the slaves
without hearing something of it,
maybe just the tune without the words,
like they was humming it

so Richard Creeks remembered
decades later.

Why laughter? Because tears
were expensive, love meant staking
your happiness on a master’s good will,
but laughter was free.
The banjo doesn’t ask which star
turned a blind eye on your birth.
It doesn’t lullaby or sweet-talk
like some guitar.
And because its father was a goat
& its mother was a gourd vine,
all the while you’re shaking,
head tilted back, it’s climbing
& stripping your tree.

*

Italicized lines condensed and lightly edited from “Richard Creeks on Songmaking,” in A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore by Harold Courlander (Southmark, 1996), pp. 376-377.

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6 Comments


  1. Maybe so, but it is a well thought out piece with these terrific lines:

    ‘Why laughter? Because tears
    were expensive, love meant staking
    your happiness on a master’s good will,
    but laughter was free.’

    Reply

    1. Thanks. I had some help from @porousborders on Twitter, who yesterday happened to write: “Why laughter? Because while you’re laughing something might slip past your soul’s guards.” It got me thinking.

      Reply

  2. Great interweaving of history and imagination, Dave. Lots of heartfelt, poignant images.

    Reply

    1. Thanks, Christine — I’m glad you like it. (As luck would have it, I was just looking at your blog in Google Reader, marvelling at the sight of snow in Atlanta!)

      Reply

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