Open-Backed Banjo

This entry is part 18 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


I am untroubled by serpents
or the marinated feet of pigs.
I bear no antipathy toward bears
or the bees they bedevil,
& the devil never tempts me
to any evil I can’t invent on my own
(forgive me if I don’t delve into the details).
What makes me break down is a banjo,
lonesome as our only god the clock
but with two hands, both of them fast.
Looking in its open back
can be disconcerting: What makes it go?
There’s nothing but a bare rod
& the smell of rain.
Where’s the balance wheel?
The escapement?
The gear train?
It calls to me, the ghost in its machine.
Play it, son!
Make it ring like a hammer on steel
& rattle like a Gatling gun
until it smokes.

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.

Roots of the banjo on YouTube

What better place to start than with Bela Fleck, arguably the greatest banjo virtuoso of all time?

Notice the shorter drone string — just like the fifth string on a banjo — and the drop-thumbing clawhammer style. Even the singing — nasal, high-pitched — is reminisicent of what we think of as old-time Appalachian style; the singer’s speaking voice is an octave lower, as heard in the talking-blues-style spoken interludes.

Another Sana Ndiaye piece. Ndiaye is from the Jolo people of southern Senegal. There’s more of his music at his MySpace page, where his bio stresses a peace- and justice-oriented approach to music in general and the ekonting in particular.

An ancient and extremely rare three-stringed gourd instrument, the ekonting (which looks like a large banjo) is virtually extinct in Senegal. Played using a technique similar to plucking a guitar, its sound is so soothing that historically it was used to bring peace to the villagers in times of unrest.

This clip is from Mark Burda’s 1992 MA Thesis for Governor’s State University. It was shot at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s “Making of the 5-String Banjo” exhibit in 1989.

The great musicologist (and very good musician) Mike Seeger on the gourd banjo.

When they started making banjo heads out of snare drums instead of gourds in the early 19th century, the louder, janglier sound was much better at drawing a crowd. What once might’ve been prized for instilling peacefulness was now used to draw a crowd and whip up American consumer appetites instead. A banjo player had to be a showman, a comic, and a pitchman as well as a musician.

On the white side, Uncle Dave Macon was the last famous banjo player in the minstrel/medicine show tradition, and played a founding role in the development of what we now call country and western — surely the most crassly commercial genre of popular music.

A tune called “Ethiopian Cracovienne,” from oldcremona.

Briggs Banjo Instructor, published in 1855, is the earliest example of the style of banjo playing popular in the antebellum era. As such, it forms the basis of what we know about exactly how people were playing the instrument at that time.

A Cracovienne is a dance, and “Ethiopian” refers to the blackface style of performance that banjo players used. This song probably would have accompanied a dance number in an early minstrel show.

For more from the Briggs Banjo Instructor, check out this page of audio and video.

Uncle John Scruggs acts out the usual racist stereotype engraved in the American imagination by more than a century of minstrel shows with black and blackface performers. Painful to watch. Is it any wonder that African Americans turned their backs on the banjo when guitar blues and barrelhouse became popular?

Dock Boggs learned directly from an African American teacher around the turn of the century. I couldn’t find a video of Boggs’ playing, but this animated short was fun.

Roscoe Holcomb had a unique style, and seemed to have been as influenced by blues records as by string band music — his recorded repertoire includes covers of blues standards.

Another giant of mountain music, Clarence Ashley, reminisces about medicine shows and the early recording industry.

Taj Mahal is usually classed as a blues musician, but his repertoire includes styles and instruments from across the African diaspora, including the five-stringed banjo played frailing/clawhammer style.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are almost single-handedly trying to revive the once-flourishing black string band tradition, but as the last video shows, they’re not confining themselves to the traditional repertoire.

(A cover of this song.)

Medicine Show (1)

This entry is part 13 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


“The banjo is a well of souls.”
—Scott Didlake, gourd banjo maker

The first mate goes round
unlocking the ankles of 20 at a time,
a wet cloth tied over his face against the stench.

Now come the crackers,
now come the leather-tongued snakes.
Welts rise like anthills on calves & shoulders.

Get up! shout the pink-faced men
as they drive their rapidly declining stock up on deck.
You’ll die if you don’t start moving. Dance!

Those with chained feet make music
for those with chained hands.
And half-atrophied as they are

the muscles remember
what the human being wills itself to forget,
claw finger, hammer thumb,

the firmness of a taut-skinned earth
trembling under the organized tromp of feet.
The calabash carries

the burden the singers croak:
going, going, gone.
Legs like flames on the savanna flare & die.

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.

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.

The Banjo Apocalypse

This entry is part 12 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


Revelation 8

And I saw the seven angels
which stood before God:
& to them were given
seven banjos.

Their necks were nickel-
fretted mahogany,
& they were strung
with steel.

Heads like almost-perfect moons
had one clear patch, one sea
where the frailer’s fingers hit,
regular as oars.

Thumbscrews gleamed
on the rims of resonators,
those round holds that once
were ocean-going gourds.

A vine climbed the neck:
inlaid mother-of-pearl
leaf & tendril to distract
any potential Jonah.

And the seven angels
which had the seven banjos
prepared themselves
to sound.

Fred Waring and other Pennsylvanians

The first four photos in this post were taken with the kind permission of the curator of the Fred Waring collection at Penn State, Fred Waring’s America, which I visited on a sudden whim yesterday morning. Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians “taught America how to sing,” they say; I can’t begin to imagine what that means. All I know is that this golfing buddy of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, this once-renowned purveyor of bland, inoffensive, beautifully choreographed arrangements of big band music grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, the only genuine celebrity my home town has ever produced. I went to grade school in the former high school that had been built on the site of Waring’s childhood home.

But it seems Fred Waring had his wild and crazy side, too. He devoured the comics, and his archives include hundreds of original graphic artworks drawn for or about him by the cartoonists he befriended. He was apparently also fond of wearing “distinctive and original, sometimes ‘wild-looking’, jackets,” as one display put it.

I grew up listening to the five-string banjo. My older brother started learning the melodic clawhammer style when he was ten, after a few lessons from my banjo-playing uncle, who was part of the New York City folk revival in the 60s and 70s. I love the sound of this most African and most stigmatized of American instruments.

The music Waring got his start with wasn’t Appalachian string band music, however, but the kind of post-minstrel proto-jazz then popular among the hipper white folks. It makes perfect sense that Waring would go on to become the Pat Boone of the swing era. Someone had to do it, and who better than a genial, slightly funky, nice-looking white boy from smack in the middle of a state which was synonymous, then as now, with middle America?

It must be said that Pennsylvanians come in all stripes, however. Later in the day I attended a function at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center — also part of Penn State — and took the opportunity to visit the birds at the raptor center.

The birds on display are permanent residents, too badly injured to survive in the wild — less shadows of their former selves than living ghosts, some of them. They may never again rise on thermals over farm fields or ride the wind currents along a Pennsylvania ridge, but they and their handlers regularly tour the state, visiting classrooms, county fairs, and the like. I’ve seen them in action, and I think it’s fair to say that these birds, however diminished, are celebrities everywhere they go.

I can’t help wondering whether some such diminishment might not be a prerequisite for achieving celebrity status, in fact. We crave an encounter with wildness, with what we dimly sense to be a more authentic reality than our own, but without the danger and disorientation full contact might entail.

Shaver’s Creek also includes several miles of trails, a boardwalk over a wetland, and a beautiful little herb garden with a lily pond. Yesterday, the water lilies were in full bloom, and when I bent down to snap a photo of one of them, I realized that a green frog (Rana clamitans melonota) was sitting in meditation right next to it, like a Buddha that had just decamped from his lotus. I circled the pond, snapping photos. He never moved.