Banjo Origins (2): The Fifth String

This entry is part 24 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


It had been a drifter,
getting by on odd jobs:
guy wire for a weathervane,
the main spring in the crouch of a cat,
a corn broom’s binding cord.

It had learned to sing the wind’s several laments,
to play with its prey,
to teem.

It happened by
just when the banjo was holding
auditions for a new first string,
& unexpectedly
the fifth string got the part.
Its square tuning peg was a perfect fit
for that round & bottomless hole.

The banjo now began
to resemble itself,
like a forest that fills
the spaces between the trees
with more trees.

Series Navigation← Banjo ProverbsMedicine Show (4): A Spell to Ward Off Banjos →


  1. I love the list of the banjo’s jobs, its lives. I especially like “a corn broom’s binding chord.” And I like how it begins to resemble itself, its identity rediscovered (at least that’s what I extrapolate from those lines.) I need to catch up on your blog.


    1. Thanks. I know you’ve made a pretty in-depth study of American roots music, so your good opinion here means a lot to me.

      The wire from old brooms was often re-purposed for diddley bows, so that’s where that idea came from. Also, I see the broom as a kind of non-musical first cousin to guitar and banjo.


  2. Yes, the lives of inanimate objects is beautifully summoned in this poem. ‘Diddley bows’! I’ve never heard that expression before, but how evocative it is of what it names.


    1. That’s where Bo Diddley got his name. A one-string folk instrument played with a slider in parts or rural Mississippi; very African. Most of the great Delta blues guitarists started out with one as a kid. A few, like Lonnie Pitchford, continued to play one as an adult for the novelty value:


      1. Here’s more Pitchford:

        Rev. K.M. Williams in 2008, electrified diddley bow:


  3. Gorgeous, especially the first two stanzas.

    Nice series you got here.


  4. “the main spring in the crouch of a cat” — an odd job indeed for a bit of wire!


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