Banjo Picker Blues

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My name is Mike, and I'm a banjo picker.

In my last column I suggested that I intend to exact a particularly fiendish sort of retribution on my son by teaching my beautiful new granddaughter how to play the banjo, just like her "PopPop" does. This is not an idle threat. To a lot of people (most people), turning their child into a banjo player would be considered just slightly worse than helping her start a skunk ranch in the back yard to raise money toward buying her very own Jolly Junior Seal Team Explosives Kit.

What I'm saying here is that banjos are very possibly not the most beloved of all the world's musical instruments.

For one thing, they are not seen as being particularly sophisticated. Ever since 1972, when the movie Deliverance forever linked bluegrass music with the squealing of pig-like creatures, the distant sound of a banjo echoing down the river has made canoeists everywhere paddle faster.

Banjos are also, admittedly, very loud. In fact, volume is generally considered one of the important attributes of a good instrument. I have a sort of medium-quality "resonator" banjo, meaning that it is only loud enough to deafen a jackhammer operator at 100 yards. A really good Gibson resonator can actually blister paint. I wish I had me one of them there ones...

There are thousands of banjo jokes around:

There's nothing I like better than the sound of a banjo - unless it's the sound of a moose giving birth to a Toyota.

Q: You're locked in a room with a tiger, a rattlesnake and a banjo player. You have a gun, but only two bullets. What do you do?
A: Shoot the banjo player. Twice.

A guy walks into a bar with a 14 foot gator on a chain and asks the bartender, "Do you serve banjo players here?" The bartender says "Yeah, sure mister." The guy says "OK, I'll have a beer. And bring us a couple of banjo players for my gator."

I think these jokes are all cruel and more than a little bit offensive, so I won't dignify them by repeating them. Except, of course for the ones I just did repeat. And these:

Q: What are the seven toughest years in a banjo players life?
A: Second grade.

The Sheriff pulls a banjo player over, walks up to his car window and asks him, "Got any ID?" Banjo player says, "'Bout what?"

A banjo is a lot better than a harmonica. It's just too hard to beat a banjo player with a harmonica.

You know how serious musicians define perfect pitch? It’s the sound a banjo makes when it’s tossed into a dumpster, bounces off of an accordion and smashes a mandolin.

You get the idea. Of course, that last one takes a pretty good swipe at accordions and mandolins - which we also feature in the band, Dr. Mike & The Sea Monkeys, from time to time.

My wife is so anti-banjo that I am not allowed to play it when she is in the same house. In fact, I'm smart if I lay off whenever she's in the same county. The only thing she says if I get the banjo out when she is around is, "Why don't you play out In the shed."

If anyone knows the lyrics and chords to "Out In The Shed," email them to me and I'll learn it for her.

What really brought all this to mind is that not too long ago an eighty-eight year-old man named Earl Scruggs passed away. For those of you who side with the guy in the bar with the gator, and so might not be all that well-schooled in banjo lore, Earl is generally considered the patron saint of the bluegrass banjo, having virtually invented the most popular style of playing it. There are other fine approaches to banjo picking, but "Scruggs Style" is what most people are familiar with - just think the Theme from the Beverly Hillbillies.

Most of us who pick banjos have mixed feelings about Mr. Scruggs. On one hand, hearing him play almost certainly explains why we play in the first place. I had the opportunity to see him in person, maybe 25 years ago, and I'm still trying to catch my breath.

On the other hand, people who play for money, especially those of us who don't play the banjo as a primary instrument, usually make a lot of compromises - like rewriting songs to skip chords we don't know how to play. When you do that, you can count on a parlor player who has spent years getting Foggy Mountain Breakdown down note-for-note coming up to you with helpful advice like, "That ain't the way Earl done it."

But I guess that's not Earl's fault. In fact, based on everything I've heard and read about the amazing Earl Scruggs, I feel pretty confident that he would be likely to say something more like, "Well now son, that was interesting. Why don't you try..."

So overall, while the toughest seven years of my life were indeed second grade, the banjo is just plain fun. And I guess I'm proud of my picking, such as it is, so I ain't likely to stop any time soon. Caely Honey, does PopPop ever have a treat for you!

Copyright © 2012, Michael Ball