How Jefferson Heard Banjar (videopoem)

This entry is part 6 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

“The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.” Thomas Jefferson, 1781. It would’ve been hard not to write a poem responding to that quote. It’s one of my personal favorites from the collection.

The clawhammer banjo here is played by my brother Steve, an old modal tune whose name neither of us can remember. I don’t strive for authenticity in these videos, but Jefferson’s “banjar” might’ve been played in a not dissimilar style, though it would’ve been made from a gourd and thus would’ve had a somewhat softer sound. It’s worth remembering that a little later, escaped slaves were told to “follow the drinking gourd” (the big dipper) to find their way north to Canada. A nightjar, of course, is any bird in the goatsucker family, including the whip-poor-Will (which has the delightful Latin name Caprimulgus vociferus).

Additional sounds are from freesound.org user Meffy Ellis, a recording of a swamp in Virginia. The images come from an old, hagiographic educational film in the Prelinger Archives, Jefferson and Monroe, directed by Stan Barnett. I don’t know if non-Americans will immediately recognize Monticello, the plantation house that Thomas Jefferson designed himself, but it’s a fairly iconic building, and shares the white domed roof with Jefferson’s other famous building, the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.

I recorded Steve playing a half-dozen banjo tunes in my living room on Friday evening. My voice-over is stitched together from several different readings. Sometimes I mess up one stanza and sometimes another, but I find if I read a poem four or five times in succession, I can pick and choose the best parts from each.

Update: I made an alternate version of the audio track including the quote from Jefferson (which appears on-screen in the video). It’s on SoundCloud.

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