Catskin Banjo (videopoem)

This entry is part 1 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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A semi-narrative videopoem using footage and music from the documentary And So They Live (1940) by John Ferno and Julian Roffman and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. I first tried to make a banjo videopoem with footage from this documentary three years ago, but chose the wrong poem (“Banjo Proverbs”) — it didn’t work. Even for this one, I felt compelled to minimize the amount of screen time devoted to the banjo player, Richard Berry, in part because the banjo he’s playing is not the kind of homemade catskin banjo described in the text. But I wanted to use the film somehow for at least one of the Breakdown videos. Its subjects deserve better than the treatment they got with the original narration, which stresses their supposedly extreme ignorance, poverty, malnutrition and disease. One suspects the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, named after the founder of General Motors, of ulterior motives in seeking to cast subsistence economies not dependent upon the automobile as the essence of deprivation. It does, however, show that the use of the banjo as a marker for hillbilly backwardness long predates the 1972 movie Deliverance.

I am indebted to the graphic artist and collector of American roots music R. Crumb for identifying the banjoist in the film. Also, it’s worth noting that my friend Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, independently discovered And So They Live in the Prelinger Archives, and has used snippets of it in two of his videopoems: Odds and Ends, featuring a text by Joseph Harker, and The Pioneer Wife Speaks in Tongues, featuring a text by the wonderful Donna Vorreyer. As Marc put it, the documentary contains “some great looking shots but a typical and very patronizing narration.”

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3 Comments


  1. God bless R. Crumb. He has so many lesser-known abilities. We discovered a whole bunch of music through his “scholarship,” mostly novelty tunes from the 20s & 30s, some earlier, lots featuring uke and banjo.

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  2. Thanks. Yeah, I’ve never met him, but he’s good buddies with a folklore professor at Penn State, Jerry Zolten, who has a comparably immense collection of 78s. In fact, they did a compilation together called Chimpin’ the Blues.

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