I broke the mold a bit with this one — the first videopoem I’ve made in the slideshow or kinestasis style, which I’ve generally avoided in part because I don’t have the software tools to make it look like anything more than the low-rent copy and paste job that it is. But I’m excited about it anyway, because the text gave me an excuse to explore the rich visual legacy of a chapter in American women’s history I’ve just been learning about: the elevation of banjos into a symbol of (white) women’s social, political and sexual liberation beginning in the late 19th century. I’m indebted to the Penn State Press exhibition catalogue Picturing the Banjo, edited by Leo G. Matzow — especially the essay by Sarah Burns, “Whiteface: Art, Women, and the Banjo in Late-Nineteenth Century America” — for cluing me in about this. Some of the images that were most instrumental in creating this new market for banjos are in the video, including Mary Cassatt’s painting The Banjo Lesson and Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photograph of the Washington DC socialite Miss Apperson playing banjo beside a statue of Flora (a more traditionally Victorian representation of femininity). I had nary an inkling of all this when I wrote the poem back in 2010, so I’m pleased that it managed to evoke an interesting old meme despite the author’s appalling ignorance of it at the time of composition: “luck” indeed! Thanks to Steve Sherrill for loaning me the book.
This is the first I’ve actually used images of banjos or banjoists in this videopoetry series. I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I’ve been avoiding it just because it seemed like the obvious thing to do. (Not that including banjo music in the soundtrack is any less obvious.) In this case, it seemed worthwhile to use such images to suggest a historical dimension that otherwise didn’t make it into the poem, except possibly for the line about looking in the rear-view mirror. At some point, in other videos, I imagine I’ll have to deal with the more stereotypical, racist and classist images of banjo players as well. There’s really no avoiding them; they’re part of our cultural legacy whether we like it or not.
The soundtrack this time comes from my cousin Tony Bonta and his Towson, Maryland-based Bald Mountain Band. He extracted the vocal track from a short number they do called “Jenny Got Naked at a Party in 1989” and gave me carte blanche to use the instrumental version however I wanted. You can listen to the original version, which also happens to be spoken-word, on the band’s page at Reverbnation. Also, audiophile listeners may notice a dramatic improvement over the three previous videos in the quality of my reading here. That’s due to the fact that I got my old Zoom H2 microphone working again, thanks to persistent encouragement from Rachel, who used to work in radio and is sensitive to such differences. Eventually I suppose I’ll redo the other three videos with new voice recordings, but for now it’s more fun to work on new videopoems, which I guess I’ll keep doing until I run out of steam or out of banjo poems, whichever comes first.