Friday, March 15, 2013

A Love Letter To The Banjo

(I warned that I would be writing about banjos too much in this blog, so I figure I might as well get a little bit of this out my system for my first music-related post.)

Dear Five-String Banjo,

We have spent a lot of time together. Despite your sometimes aloof, wooden demeanor, I must say you’ve always been there to help me express my happiness and exorcise my grievances. You’ve calmed my nerves when needed, entertained me when I’ve been bored, taught me the rewards of commitment, and so much more. While this may be a bit embarrassing for both of us, I really want to express how much this relationship means to me, including the difficult parts as well as the joys. You need not respond, as I know you express yourself through your confident stoicism as much as your wonderfully quirky voice.

Imbued with the American Character

You, modern five string banjo, are an American creation. However, like so many great American artistic creations, you spawn from the collision of differing, often opposing cultures. As has become more widely known thanks to documentaries by Bela Fleck (Throw Down Your Heart) and Marc Fields (Give Me the Banjo), your roots stem from African folk instruments.  Those African origins give your voice its most distinctive sound in my opinion, especially as embodied in that the bizarre little short string atop your neck, that repeated drone string. Also, the unmistakable interweaving of your slim, light melodic strings with the loud, percussive qualities of your stretched drum head are undeniably African in origin and are also responsible for your unmistakable voice. These distinguishing characteristics are much more indebted to traditional African folk forms than they are to the Anglo European traditions in which you were absorbed. Your ability to gracefully adapt, absorb, and thrive as life changes around you is inspiring, if not sometimes difficult, I’m sure.

Your intermingling of African and Western forms, combined with the rugged sensibility of the Appalachian mountains where your myths were nourished, are inherent to your unique tone. While your other admirers might disagree or even find this idea uncomfortable (if not insulting), I also believe the dark stain of slavery and racial tensions echo within your syncopated, blues-influenced sounds.  Yours is the sound of struggle and an attempt to apply harmony to the disharmony of reality. There is a beauty and aspirational quality to your sound, but it is a beauty formed by shadow as much as light.  Your sound is naturally associated with authenticity and the struggles of hard-scrabble living, religious yearning, and, yes, the strains of painful race relations.  These are the struggles of America - a country founded on genocide and slavery while paradoxically giving birth to the idea that individual freedom and liberty are entitled to all. You ring alive with the unvarnished history of America, and I admire that you have the integrity to embody this story as it truly was rather than how we wish it might have been. You realize that beauty lies more in honesty than any other virtue.

A Simple Machine

I also love you, banjo,  because you are a resourceful soul, embracing change as needed without sacrificing your essential self. I sometimes think about Woody Guthrie’s scrawling of “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his flat top guitar. I love the ironic playfulness of Guthrie referring to his guitar as a machine, toying with the relationship between fascism and industrialism.  But, you, five string resonator banjo... You really do  have an elegantly solid, machine-like aesthetic with your polished metal moving parts framed by dark woods and ivory embellishments.  You wear your history with earnest pride; you are the result of an agrarian culture moving into the industrial age and, much like your emotional history with race, you accept these tensions as well, realizing they’ve made you who you are.

Sound Meditation

As if this letter isn’t embarrassing enough, I’m going to further embarrass you, banjo, by posting this letter publicly on my blog. This is because I’m trying to use my blog to reinforce a more simple, fulfilling life, and you have played no small part in moving me towards that direction.  Pete Seeger once referred to the pluck of your strings as “little pin-pricks of sound.”  There is something oddly soothing about this strange voice of yours. It lacks resonance but communicates instead through an emphatic earnestness. I can’t help but use metaphors of water to describe you.  Those little pin-prick notes, like drops from a waterfall, combine and coalesce to make a rolling symphony of moving currents, both dissonant and melodic at the same time. I find it easy, almost unavoidable, to get lost in the moment as I pluck your strings, slide my hand across your frets, and enjoy how you sing along with your ringing voice.  What’s more, you ask nothing in return apart from the occasional set of strings when the oil and dirt from my hands have dulled yours too much.  You cost me no money beyond that.  You are a willing traveler and adventurer  as at home deep in the dark, damp woods as you are in a home full of luxuries. Your needs are simple and humble, and spending time with you allows me to embrace the same.  

While I call this a love letter, what I really want to express is my gratitude, banjo. Despite your round belly, skinny neck, and odd voice, I love who you are and am grateful for your influence.


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