Feb 212012
Authors: Morgan Mayo

There is no single instrument I love more than the banjo. The twang twisting beneath my fingers sounds just like echoing mountain hollers, tastes like whiskey sipped from Mason jars, feels as rough as a weathered front porch beneath bare feet and as soft as morning light through lace curtains.

It’s twilight music — the kind whose smoky melodies go best with purple skies and deep shadows. Girls running through woods in white dresses, kissing summertime boys to the dusky tunes their grandmothers grew old to.

It’s a raw instrument — a distinctly southern instrument.

It’s one of those instruments that has always resisted a curriculum and sadly finds itself frequently overlooked by high-school and college music programs, as well as organizations like VH1’s Save the Music Foundation.

The banjo doesn’t like to march in a band and waxes uncouth in a 3-string quartet, so it’s quickly forgotten.

As a result, learning the banjo is uniquely different to learning any other type of instrument. You adhere to the age-old, back-porch tradition. As in to say, all your pickin’ is learned on your grandpa’s back porch instead of in a classroom.

The best banjo players always seem to descend from other banjo players. Where I come from, mountain music flows thick as blood.

A banjo’s whine and raspy drawl is a kind of old, southern oral tradition — all the patch-work quilts, dead loves and heartaches of people long gone. A melody of memories from a community who wanted to tell us all about songbirds in dogwood trees, river laurel in spring, the sound of June rain pounding tin roofs, but just didn’t have the words.

I first started picking when I was in high school, after I saw “Deliverance” for the first time. There’s really nothing like an inbred to spark a girl’s creativity.

I started learning from this shaggy-haired boy who liked to sit in a lawn chair and play love ballads, sad and low, all afternoon. The only time he ever paused was to take off his shoes or roll a cigarette.

He was the first one that taught me how to get the banjo to give up its ghost — how to coax with square rolls and hammer-ons, forward rolls and slides until you can hear that melodic sigh escape. After that, every time you play, you’ll be able to hear the prayers of little girls, men laughing around a still and a black-haired woman humming in a garden.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned the banjo all over the place: in hammocks, with my feet in a river, under the covers, in a tent. There’s absolutely nothing else in the world like sitting around on somebody’s porch steps, passing around a bottle of Jim Beam and playing songs about killing Sally’s lover and feuding backwoods families.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the banjo is an outdoor kind of instrument.

Daniel Roth once said, “Nothing says dropping out of society like learning to play the banjo.” And for a long time, the banjo has been viewed as a fringe-of-society kind of instrument — a genre of a music restricted to Appalachia — and something that only hicks, old people and backwoodsmen know how to play.

Kids are given guitars for Christmas or taught how to play the piano. Marching band teaches students to play oboes and trumpets. Teenagers get cool and take up the bass guitar or drums in high school so they can start their own garage band.

With each generation that passes, it seems like less and less banjo players exist. And if the banjo fades out, so do all of the memories and mountain culture it represents.

So save the music. Listen to bluegrass. Force banjos into schools. Learn to pick. Join the ranks of the young mountain poets — the men with mossy beards and dark brows, the women running bare-legged and wild through creeks.

Remember the hidden caves and secret meadows, the bloody feuds and the starlit kisses. Remember the ghosts whispering across the misty barbarous tunes and the chords that fling sunlight over the forgotten hillside graves.

Save the banjo, and save the culture.

Awkward times are ahead my friends. But until we meet again….

Morgan Mayo is a junior creative writing major. Her column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. She cane be reached at letters@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 1:26 pm

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