“The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. Gottschalk compared to Sam Pride or Charley Rhoades, is as a Dashaway cocktail to a hot whisky punch. When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, 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!”
Mark Twain, “Enthusiastic Eloquence,” San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, 23 June 1865
That Mark Twain. “Pin-feathered pimples on a picked goose?” Perfect! Like Mr. Twain, I said, “But give me the banjo.” My wife Amelia responded with a banjo birthday gift for me about six years ago. I don’t play the banjo. Not really. And not because I haven’t tried.
About six years ago, I was beginning to embrace my Kentucky roots. For many years prior, admitting I was born in Kentucky was something I avoided. Why? Several reasons. One was obvious…much personal pain was associated with my first six years of life in Kentucky. My father’s alcoholism, my parents’ divorce, my father’s abandonment of us following the divorce–all got associated in my mind with Kentucky. Evil people lived there, or so I imagined. Boggs relatives had their lairs and hideouts there, all of them barefooted with horns and tails. Backwoods demons, those Boggses.
Another reason was my working stereotype of a Kentucky hillbilly. I already was struggling with thinking I was stupid. I didn’t need to throw on a “Born in Kentucky” t-shirt to nail it all down.
As I began to face it all years later, I went back to my home state. It was different than I imagined. Beautiful, actually, and peaceful. As I wandered around the city of my birth, it felt like home. Ashland felt like home, but I tried hard not to speak to anyone. Once words left my lips it was rather obvious I was no longer from around there. Y’all.
After that trip I found myself drawn to Kentucky. Horses. Daniel Boone. Bluegrass.
My family is rather musical. All except me. Feeling left out and factoring in Kentucky, I made the only logical choice…beware the banjo player! I got my Deering Goodtime banjo and started lessons. Learned the basics and a few songs including my favorite, the profound “Lazy John.” You know that one…”I got a girl who lives down the road, eyes are crooked and her legs are bowed. But we sure have lots of fun; you better go away Lazy John.”
Then it happened.
My son Jonathan, a talented songwriter and musician, played a one-man show at the Blue Room Café in Highland, Indiana one evening. The Blue Room was a nice little coffeehouse venue. Jon asked me if I would like to join him on stage for a guitar/banjo duet. Huh? Me? I considered that an incredible honor, especially since I knew he was asking me based on his love for me as his dad, not for any musical contribution I was about to make.
Playing a compilation of all the chords I knew, we threw together the tune, “Boggs Boys Breakdown.” As fun and silly as it was, this little event became a highlight of my life. Jonathan invited me to enter his world. This was an undeserved blessing. A rare privilege. I long for this kind of connection with my kids and grandkids, to give an active blessing by joining with them in their lives, their passions. Jon and I had an encore performance of “Boggs Boys Breakdown” later at my 50th birthday party.
Jonathan, thank you!
I’m not taking banjo lessons now. I haven’t ruled it out though. As comedian and banjo virtuoso Steve Martin said, “The banjo is such a happy instrument–you can’t play a sad song on the banjo – it always comes out so cheerful.” I can always use some cheerfulness.
As John Kavanagh added, “I want another banjo. Sure, I own two banjos already, but the world is a sad place these days and I think extra precautions are needed.” Indeed!
And it may well be in my blood. Meet Dock Boggs, fellow “primeval hillbilly” and possible relative.
“Dock Boggs was just one of the primeval hillbillies to record during the ’20s, forgotten for decades until the folk revival of the ’60s revived his career at the twilight of his life. Still, his dozen recordings from 1927 to 1929 are monuments of folk music, comprised of fatalistic hills ballads and blues like “Danville Girl,” “Pretty Polly,” and “Country Blues.” The revival of interest in early folk music occasioned by a digital reissue of Harry Smith‘s Anthology of American Folk Music finally brought Boggs‘ music back to the shelves. In 1997, John Fahey‘s Revenant label released Complete Early Recordings (1927-1929), and one year later His Folkways Years (1963-1968) appeared.” –allmusic by Rovi
So, just thinking about the banjo has my system suffused, my constitution ramified and my hide breaking out. Perhaps I will follow Mark Twain’s advice and once again “invoke the glory-beaming banjo.”
Note: My duet with Jonathan took place several years ago. It is still as meaningful to me today. I wanted to share it.