Catskin Banjo

This entry is part 15 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


The shack was hers,
every plank & plunk of it.
In heat when they treed her,
bleary with need, she had let
the dog get between her
& the door.
She went up the tallest
walnut she could find,
but the man struck
the bark with the flat of his axe
& listened—
she felt its long deep shiver
as if it were her own.
We’ll take ’em both,
he told the slobbering hound,
& began to chop.
With each blow
her claws dug farther in
& her sex pressed down
like a third & spellbound ear.
She rode it to the ground
where the dog & the axe were waiting.
A lifetime later
her hide still held fast
to the walnut wood.
The shack was hers,
every plank & plunk of it.
Five strands of gut
thin as claw marks
stretched from top to bottom
of the only door.


I am indebted to Foxfire 3 for information on making catskin (and other) banjos. Their older informants were recalling practices from their youth in the southern Appalachians around the beginning of the 20th century.

Series Navigation← How Jefferson Heard BanjarThe Dueling Banjo →

7 Replies to “Catskin Banjo”

  1. Wow! This is great stuff, Dave! I am so glad that the holiday hysteria is over and I can settle down to read your banjo series and the others at some leisure.

    This is something we don’t often think about. Wearing pigskin and cowhide, (if we can afford it) we are largely desensitized to ‘who’ went into the products. I’m with this cat all the way up the tree and on the ride down.

    I wonder if cat gut is still used in the medical profession. If so, I’m doubly grateful and apologetic to kitty.

    1. Hi Joan – Glad you liked this. It was by far the most trouble to write of any in this series so far. In reading up for this post, I discovered that “catgut” is not actually made from cats, but from the intestines of cattle (hence, perhaps, the name) and other livestock. A lot of the old-time banjo makers did favor cat skins for the heads — they were supposedly very durable and had a good tone — though other animal skins were also used, including groundhog, squirrel, deer, and calf. I was also fascinated to learn that luthiers can tell if wood will have a good tone by pounding on the tree.

    1. Housecat. As one of the Foxfire informants said, people didn’t used to be so particular about cats back then (and they didn’t spay them, either).

  2. Post Op

    Have always felt so bad about
    The use of catgut thread.
    Although it’s used to close most wounds
    I felt a little dread

    Whenever this stuff was employed.
    I pictured how poor kitty
    Had suffered in the process
    And the image was not pretty.

    I found that I was misinformed.
    That ‘cat’ refers to ‘cattle’
    The thread is made from cattle guts
    Thus ends my conscience’s battle.

    Cause this is used for stuffing links
    Of sausages and wienies
    And I have no compunctions about
    Eating franks and beanies.

    Can’t claim a bond with Pita now
    Cause I’m just feeling perky
    That my stitches are not cat gut
    But much more like old beef jerky.

    Yet I really have to wonder
    If the rumor could be true
    Where before I’d fear of purring
    Will I soon begin to moo?

  3. Very good indeed Dave. That riding the tree made my own guts lurch. I like also that

    ‘A lifetime later
    her hide still held fast’

    because it ties the present to the past so economically, like the catgut itself.

    This banjo seam is a rich one!

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