In 1962, the Beverly Hillbillies theme song, this one, changed my dad’s life forever.
He was just twelve, a crew-cut kid, cross-legged in front of a black-and-white television set. It was the first time he’d ever heard the banjo.
In that sense, my father and I had very different childhoods. All my life I’ve heard the banjo. Dinner parties, Christmas eves, vacations, weekend afternoons in the winter, weekday nights after a glass of wine. My dad doesn’t need much of an excuse to flip the gold hinges and exhume the five-string. “Play us a song, Brit — !”
“Oh, alright, if I must!”
Often people stop him in the airport to ask if that thermometer-shaped case holds a banjo. It does, yes. And does he play? He does, yes. Started with the Beverly Hillbillies, 1962, and soon he was lifting Kingston Trio LP’s to the family turntable, then it was a banjo for Christmas, lessons, practicing in his room every evening. The right place and the right time and there he was: adolescent during the 60s folk revival, astute student of five strings, a hillbilly hidden in the Chicago suburbs.
Of course, not much later, Dylan went electric. Rock & roll was everywhere, the hinges flipped open less often, and years passed. Still, the banjo dutifully relocated alongside — always there, under beds in dorm rooms.
Then, 1971, the University of Virginia: an important moment. He was just passing time, coasting through his last undergrad year, banjo-noodling in his room, when two guys — bluegrass guitarists in search of a banjoist — heard it from afar and followed the sound to his door. They knocked. “Hello?” Does he play? He does, yes, a little. Good enough.
Country and bluegrass records pushed Beatles LPs from the shelves. My dad immersed himself in banjo, he was in a band, my life was changed forever.
So, why do I play the banjo? The short answer is as you might guess: “Oh, my dad plays banjo, so I grew up hearing it.”
An underhanded thing to say. A subtle implication — as you might expect of a true banjoist — that it’s a family tradition, that probably my dad’s dad played, and his father before him. The truth is that my dad’s family has been living in Chicago since the mid-19th century. Scots-Irish, sure, but not hollow-born.
To be fair, four banjo picking generations would be quite a remarkable thing, especially for a white family. Up until about 1950, before bluegrass music fed into mainstream culture and revealed an enclave of white banjo pickers in the Appalachian mountains, the popular notion was that the banjo was a black man’s instrument, a slave instrument. And it was. West African in genealogy, the banjo we know today is a cousin to the xalam and akonting and jeli ngoni — all instruments of today’s West Africa, all played in a way hauntingly close to my own clawhammer banjo style (well really it’s the other way around).
Banjo-like instruments made the Middle Passage as memories. Gourds and fence wire and time somehow streamlined those memories into one thing — something that minstrel shows brought to 19th century white America. The industrial revolution gave the banjo its drum-like shape (plenty of round boxes lying around once cheese wheel production had industrialized), and a xenophobic moment determined that no other instrument was as American, and briefly the banjo was elevated and adorned. Virtuosos concerto’d in concert halls; fingers moved quickly on mother-of-pearl inlays.1 Boston ladies relaxed in drawing rooms with 3/4-sized instruments. Banjo-only orchestras indulged hit tunes. (Hard to really fathom life before amplifi-cation.) Early jazz featured it, then electric jazz guitars obsolesced it, briefly. Television and radio and folk threaded it through the 20th century into the 21st: The Beverly Hillbillies for my father’s generation, O Brother Where Are Thou? for mine.
More American than most American things, I’d say. Certainly tells more of America’s racial history than apple pie or baseball.
So, why do I play banjo?
Because my father plays. Probably the long answer as well as the short. For most nights of my childhood, I could hear my father, downstairs, playing banjo in his red leather chair. As a teenager, I used to think: how pathetic. The same songs over and over and over, nothing new, just the same ones, a handful at most.
And yet, in my senior year of college, I couldn’t help but learn the banjo. A friend had one lying around, and I was listening to a lot of folk music. “The Longest Day” brought my nostalgia to a boil. Could I borrow your banjo for a week? “Yeah, totally. Doesn’t your dad play?” He does, yeah.
YouTube taught me the essentials. In class I would practice the right-hand motion (the “bum-ditty”) over and over and over on my knee. Bum-di-ty, bum-di-ty. I nabbed a few tips from my father over Thanksgiving break (the importance of the “drop thumb”). Then daily practice for the last five yearsears.
So here I am, how pathetic, very little makes me happier than that simple loping gate, constrained technique and claustrophobic repertoire. I mean, I probably know fewer than 20 tunes, and even the ones I know I play in an exponential way — 100 “Solider’s Joy”s to every 10 “Old Molly Hare”s to every 1 “Hail Against the Barndoor.”
The kind of hobby that consumes 20 minutes in a moment, and is great at dinner parties, and starts great conversations in airports. “Is that a banjo?” It is yes! “How did you pick it up?”
“Oh, my dad plays.”•