The Banjo Project

My cousin Tony just passed on the link to this video, the trailer for a soon-to-be-released two-hour documentary called The Banjo Project: The Story of America’s Instrument.

If any musical instrument can be said to be quintessentially American, it is the banjo. Even in its construction, it tells a story of cultural exchange: the banjo is a drum with strings, a symbolic blending of African and European musical identities. Brought to the New World in the memories and traditions of enslaved Africans, repeatedly re-invented by African- and European-Americans, the banjo has shaped most American musical forms: the minstrel show (the dominant popular entertainment in the US in the 19th century), ragtime and early jazz, old-time folk and the folk revival, as well as blues, bluegrass, country, and new hybrids yet to be labeled.

I liked some of the quotes in the trailer, too. Here’s Pete Ross:

The banjo has always symbolized something other than just music in our culture. It’s completely saturated with cultural associations. It’s always an icon; it’s never just music. Every time you pick up a banjo, it’s gonna symbolize wild, rural, simple, and even clownish.

And Rhianna Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops says something I’d always thought:

Old-time music is, for me, the original integration. ‘Cause you had whites and blacks who in the normal space of things didn’t really interact all that much, but when it came to the music, it was like, they were there! It didn’t matter if you were a black banjo player or a white banjo player, it mattered if you were a good banjo player.

And finally, there’s this great quote from Mark Twain’s Early Tales and Sketches, Vol 2 (1864-65):

The piano may do for lovesick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles, and slate pencils. But give me the banjo… When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whiskey… ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!

(Damn. I think there’s more poetry in that quote than in any of my banjo poems so far! Twain was a master of the well-turned phrase, no doubt about it.)

Medicine Show (3)

This entry is part 22 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


The banjo knows
what it’s like to be sky,
how high pressure brings
the clearest sound.
I read about a woman
without a vaginal opening
who still conceived
& gave birth through a Caesarian.
This is more or less
how a banjo makes music,
is it not? She had lovers,
oh yes. And one of them,
jealous, had stabbed her
in the stomach,
permitting his rival’s semen,
which she had taken orally,
to find & fertilize
her unsuspected egg.
Maybe this is
an urban legend but
it sounds like something
that ought to happen
in a world with banjos in it.
Who needs root-workers?
The streetcorner pusher,
the New Age huckster,
the Big Pharma barker
all prescribe the same
white bomb
for everything,
expanding like a cloud
in a clear sky.

Groundhog vs. groundhog

In honor of Imbolc and its buck-toothed seer, I uploaded a sharper copy of some footage I shot two years ago. Groundhogs are among the most solitary of marmots, and I think what we’re seeing here is a territorial dispute over some valuable real estate — the crawlspace under my house.

And as long as we’re watching videos, here’s another one I just uploaded, from the three-banjo jam session. There were other songs they performed more flawlessly, but this is the only one where the video is also half-decent (emphasis on “half”). And yes, it is entirely possible that they interrupted the sleep of the groundhog(s) below the floor.

Woodrat Podcast 4: Banjo Jam!

Three banjo players

Terry McBride, Steve Bonta, and Tony Bonta play banjos and talk about banjo playing

Here’s what they play:

  • Blackberry Blossom
  • Come Together
  • Salt River (with Steve playing clawhammer style)
  • Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms
  • Foggy Mountain Breakdown
  • Spiderman theme song
  • Salty Dog

And here are a few links:

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

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