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Plucking heartstrings

Why I’m proud to play the banjo

14 April 2012

6:00 PM

14 April 2012

6:00 PM

Why I’m proud to play the banjo

The death last week of legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs was marked by generous obituaries. He fashioned a style of playing now copied worldwide. In 2004, his instrumental ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ — theme music for the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde — was chosen by the US Library of Congress for the National Recording Registry. He died at 88. So, a good innings. No doubt he’s now playing elsewhere. As they say in Nashville, ‘The good Lord likes a little pickin’ too.’

A friend wonders how I ‘defend’ playing — or, more accurately trying to play — the banjo. As if it’s a type of discriminatory behaviour now forbidden. I say that, like the violin, I find it’s an instrument capable of producing sounds both joyous and sad. Sometimes both at the same time.

No instrument plucks at my heartstrings so reliably. For me, the most affecting scene in the Oscar-laden 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke — ’67 was clearly a vintage film year — involves a banjo. Luke, played by Paul Newman, beaten half to death by guards at a nightmarishly violent Deep South prison farm, is informed that his dying mother has gone. He retires dejectedly to his bunk, watched by apprehensive fellow inmates.

There he begins to strum his banjo and sing a tawdry ditty, ‘Plastic Jesus’, which praises the religious symbols carried by many US motorists:
Goin’ 90, I ain’t wary ’cause I’ve got the Virgin Mary Assurin’ me that I won’t go to hell.

The scene could be pure bathos in the hands of anyone but Newman, who doesn’t play the banjo well and sings out of tune. His co-star, George Kennedy, said years later in an interview: ‘Paul knew as much about playing a banjo as I know about making cakes, but he wanted to play his own accompaniment. The director, Stuart Rosenberg, said you can’t learn to play banjo that easily. But Paul said, “No, I’m going to try.’’

‘And in the scene you see Paul make an error. He wasn’t doing it the way he wanted and became madder and madder… although you can only tell by the increase of the pace of his picking the banjo.

‘When it was over, Rosenberg said, “Print.” Paul said, “I could do it better.” Rosenberg said, “Nobody can do it better.” ’

He’s right. Check it out on YouTube under Paul Newman — Plastic Jesus.
Banjos — essentially drums with strings over them — are mentioned in the 1620 diaries of the explorer Richard Jobson who found in Africa an instrument ‘made of a great gourd and a neck, thereunto was fastened strings.’ Thomas Jefferson said of it in 1781: ‘The instrument proper to them (the slaves) is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.’

Whenever I feel down about America, I am cheered to think of the banjo. It expresses for me the optimism and gaiety as well as the native fragility and sadness. Isn’t it curious, too, and redemptive, how this instrument invented by slaves became so central to the Deep South musical culture?

Another big American film, Deliverance, in 1972, popularised the banjo. A group of city types on an adventure to the mountains encounter a backwoods family which includes a seemingly retarded boy carrying a banjo. When one of the adventurers plucks a chord on his guitar the boy hits the same one on his banjo. They build, chord by chord, riff by riff, to the joyous ‘Duelling Banjos’, composed in 1955 as ‘Feuding Banjos’. (The ‘boy’, actor Billy Redden, didn’t play the banjo. Clever camera angles concealed that it was being played by a local musician.)

Even cleverer camera angles would be required for me to play the banjo publicly. Bought for me by a generous girlfriend, I have not applied myself sufficiently to its demands. Having found an excellent tutor, Dick Smith, who teaches the Scruggs style and lived off Clapham Common, I couldn’t face travelling to Walthamstow, in east London, when he moved. Were the great banjoists of history so easily deterred?

Now I pluck away on my own, sometimes rising to the starter level of Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Last year I took a ‘banjo cruise’ from Miami to the Caribbean, practising two hours a day, below decks, in a room without portholes, with a dozen or so fellow enthusiasts on a liner carrying over 4,000 souls.

‘Worried Man Blues’ is going well. As is ‘Red River Valley’. ‘Tom Dooley’ was essayed before my mainly American fellow cruisers, who expressed what I took to be grudging admiration. I can get through ‘Cripple Creek’, but not at the required speed. My current plan is to concentrate on ‘John Hardy’, who was hanged after shooting a man ‘on the West Virginia line’ (check out on YouTube Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson’s rousing version).

Many banjo works seem to involve murder and mayhem, usually viewed without rancour. Fatalism is strong in bluegrass lyrics, as it is in the folk songs of my native Scotland. Perhaps that explains the fascination. So, onwards! Best I can hope for, probably, is the level of proficiency required to sustain a pitch outside High Street Kensington tube station, but we’ll see.

Peter McKay writes for the Daily Mail.

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