“We really wanted to cast a guy who plays the banjo. You don’t play the banjo, do you?”
“Sure, I can.”
I didn’t play the banjo. I’d never touched a banjo. After 10 days of sitting in silence in Cambodia I should have learned not to lie, but this one jumped out of my mouth.
I was music director for a production of As You Like It and I hadn’t anticipated any banjo playing. It was set in Hooverville, a shanty town built during the great depression, and the director wanted some banjo. I don’t know why I lied. Maybe I thought it would be easy after 15 years of guitar (it’s not), or that I could at least fake it onstage (I couldn’t). After kicking myself, I called my brother and when we met the next week for my cousin’s wedding, he brought along an old one.
I remember when I first strummed my fingers across it in the back of my mom’s SUV. I carefully undid it’s straps, let my fingers run over it’s body. Mmmmmmmmmm. I looked around to see if anyone was watching, banjo and I both trying hard not to be too loud. What was this short string running across the top? Was that the drone string? My friends told me it existed but I hadn’t been able to find it on my previous instruments. Drone string indeed. It’s not that I was over guitar, but 15 years is a long time. Banjo was something new, something foreign, something exciting. The sound was so different, so much… I don’t know, brighter maybe. So I practiced for three hours a day, for 90 days straight, until As You Like It went up. Then the show went down, and I got drunk and confessed the truth to the producers. And yet the next day I picked it up again, and the day after that, and I’ve picked it up every day since.
It was those youtube playlists that hooked me. You know, one song finishes on your phone and the next one comes up. I was walking down the street listening to some tunes to help get the rhythm for the show when Dock Boggs’s “Sugar Baby” randomly came on my headphones. “I hate this,” I said to myself. But I also kind of loved it. It wasn’t the bluegrass that usually drove most banjo tunes – this was something different, something weirder, something older. Just a man and his banjo, slowly picking and singing about how he’s got no use for his red rocking chair, he’s got no sugar baby now. He gave her every dime he made, what more could a poor boy do?
What the hell was this sound? I started to dig. I went to old record stores and bought throwaway CD’s of 19th century Appalachian music. I went back; back to West Africa where the Senegalese pulled animal hide over a gourd and made a drum, then strung three strings – two long and one short – over the top and out to a neck. This instrument, the Akonting, ended up in Haiti through the slave trade and then up into the Americas where it mixed with with European fiddle and morphed into what we now call the 5-string banjo. I was hooked. I wanted more.
What’s a single bartender to do when he wants to study old time banjo? Why, he goes to the source, of course. He goes deep into the mountains. But along the way, why not stop off at a folk musician’s retreat for three days?
Off to Maryland I drove and pulled up to a big cottage overlooking a lake. The scenery was breathtaking.
I could be wrong, but I think I was the only guy there under 55. Most people were retired, there were a few couples who played music in their spare time, and many were beginners who followed our group on Facebook. They came from all over the country, and a few from Canada.
There wasn’t a specific schedule so we would hang out with our banjos, guitars, dulcimers, fiddles, and jam out all day. We played in the lobby of the main cabin, out around the fire pit, any bench we could find. Anywhere. I’d been studying in Brooklyn with a banjoist called Hilary Hawke and found that I was one of the more advanced players there. There were two rules. We only played in G and every song had to be a sing-along.
Dinner was served buffet style in the cafeteria and afterwards I walked outside and sat by the fire pit. I played some instrumental tunes and before I knew it there were 20 people sitting around me playing along. The sun went down and we played old gospel tunes deep into the night.
The next day I was in a room teaching a few people some drop thumbing techniques when a guy named Rick came in. He had white hair pulled back in a pony tail, a short beard and a great energy about him. He listened attentively and then tried to play, very patiently. We joked back and forth. He told me that I was a great teacher. It was one of those immediate bonds only forged when you have a common interest and you’re surrounded by strangers. I found out that Rick was a retired pastor; He now dedicated his life to helping people find religion again after having traumatic experiences in the church. When he retired his wife said that he needed a new hobby so she bought him a banjo and told him that he was going to a folk musicians retreat in a few months. So here he was, playing along with me.
He was very shy about it, I think this was his first instrument. Eventually I convinced him to play at the open mic later that night. His hands were shaking a bit beforehand but he played a great rendition of “Charlie on the MTA”. I played two songs, “Hobo’s Lament” by Boxcar Willie, and then a banjo version of the civil war tune “The Dying Californian”.
Afterwards a bunch of us met up and played for hours. One of the people there was Peter, a tall, completely bald man who, sometimes during song breaks, would stand up and ask if anyone wanted to hear a joke. Then he’d read a joke for a good five minutes. A wordsmith – you know the type. He was a really nice guy, always with a smile on his face. His wife and I had spent a good amount of time trading tunes back and forth the previous day; she had a book of lyrics and we always went back to playing “I’ll Fly Away.” During the open mic, the two of them got up and sang “Our son is queer, and he is here”, a song about looking to God’s grace to learn to love their gay son. It was an interesting choice for their crowd of old religious white men.
Peter joined our jam and around 10pm the subject of religion came up. He went into a long tirade about the virtues of Christianity and something about the only path toward light. Rick sat there looking at him and nodding along. The music stopped. It didn’t start up again. The enormous Texan next to me (a former NFL linebacker) nodded along. His wife said Amen a few times. I fiddled around uncomfortably on the banjo. An older couple sitting to my right who I’m POSITIVE had wine in their coffee cups (alcohol wasn’t allowed on the premises) got up to leave. I followed suit. I patted Rick on the shoulder and said it was my bed time. He put his hand on mine and nodded, didn’t look back.
I didn’t sleep well because my 74 year old roommate used the toilet 40 times throughout the night and got up at a peachy 5am, so I acted like I was asleep and then slept well past breakfast at 8. When I finally made it down to the cafeteria most people had left, but a few remained, including Rick. He came over and asked if I could spare five minutes to talk after I was finished. Sure, Rick, I’m just going to house two plates of bacon before my nine hour drive to Kentucky and then I’ll find you. Man was that bacon delicious, but the pending sermon was weighing on me. I dropped off my plates, saw that Rick was waiting, and we went over to some couches in the lobby.
“I just wanted to say that I really appreciate you taking the time to play music with me yesterday, and teaching me ‘Lonesome Road Blues,'” he said.
“Sure, Rick, anytime. You’re a good player.”
“But also, something happened last night that I wanted to talk to you about. Something that I’m not comfortable with.”
“Yesterday, when Peter started bringing up religion, I knew that it wasn’t right.” At this he put his head into to his hands and leaned over. “But I couldn’t stop him. I just couldn’t stop him.”
“Oh, it’s totally fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“No, no, it’s not fine.” He looked down. “This is the exact thing that I’m trying to fight against, pushing people when they don’t want to be pushed. And the last group that I worked with, they were done with religion and I tried to show them the good but it didn’t work. They didn’t want anything to do with it.”
This was not what I expected. He looked in pain. “I really appreciate you saying all this to me,” I said “But it’s not your fault. I think we all have a complex past with this stuff.”
He nodded. “But the worst part of it . . . was that the music stopped. It stopped and it didn’t start up again for the rest of the night. And this whole weekend was about the music. I felt terrible so I wanted to apologize.”
We shook hands, semi-hugged, and he thanked me again for my time.