How Jefferson Heard Banjar

This entry is part 14 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

Banjar, he wrote, because he found it jarring
to his cultured ears.

Because he was thinking of nightjar, &
how the whip-poor-will
disturbed his slumber with its
monotonous omens.

Because the singing was in
a nearly incomprensible jargon.

Because its roundness & depth
seemed sufficient for the keeping
of treasured things, as in a jar.

Because of its striking resemblance
to that drinking vessel in the sky,
which also empties itself
every night.

Because of the way it summons one
to the cut-out or Virginia jig, & that door
in the slave quarters
left ajar.

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7 Replies to “How Jefferson Heard Banjar”

  1. Three poems linked thematically. Is this a series? Individually they work beautifully, though together they gather momentum and drop me into another world. I love going on rides to unexpected places with you Dave.

    1. Thanks. It is starting to look a bit like an on-going series, insh’allah. Here’s what I just wrote in answer to comment on Facebook from a banjo-playing cousin, who wondered if my new-found interest meant that I was picking up the banjo myself: This is what I do in lieu of making real banjo music. But I’ve always loved the banjo, especially clawhammer, and I’ve always been fascinated by the weird old America where African and folk European (and also Native American, though not so much with the banjo) mixed in unexpected ways. I need to do some more actual research on the history of the banjo, but sometimes too much knowledge can get in the way of the imagination, so I’ll limit myself to internet sources for a little while.

    1. Glad you like them, Dick. Interesting suggestion. If only I had the banjo-playing skills to adapt them (maybe a talking blues-style rhythmic reading over a simple tune?).

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