First things first, I love the new Bruce Springsteen album, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions." There wasn't a huge doubt that I would find it at least moderately entertaining, but it was quite the revelation to hear Bruce hip-deep in hootenanny. Even so, when the second track "Jesse James" started up, I couldn't help but feel just a little wistful. There's a lot of banjo on that track. There's a lot of banjo on the album. Most of the time I agree with Steve Martin's assertion: "The banjo is such a happy instrument--you can't play a sad song on the banjo - it always comes out so cheerful. "
To prove his point, he starts to play a little riff and sings "Oh death, and grief, and sorrow and murder..." It's funny. The part of the banjo experience that tweaks my wistful button is the fact that my father longed to play it. After he died, we loaded a banjo in its case out of the mountain cabin where my father lived. Like so many things that eluded him, he just never had the chance or didn't make time or kept putting off learning how to play the banjo. It's just a little more sad because he would have been great at it - it would have been a perfect complement to his corny songs and stories. He took a lesson or two, but he never gave himself the chance to become a banjo player.
I had a guitar once. I had a notion that I would learn how to play window-rattling electric one day, but the right way to do it was to learn on an acoustic. My parents bought me this amazing steel string Martin and a beginner's book with chord diagrams. I learned a few chords and most of the song "My Beautiful Brown-Eyed Girl" and then I shoved it under my bed. I dragged it around with me through college - always with the idea that I would eventually pick it up and commence to strumming just like David Gilmour, or Bob Mothersbaugh, or maybe Bruce Springsteen. I took some solace in the fact that other guitar players I met looked at my fingers and shook their heads. "How can you play with big ol' fingers like that?" I was physically limited by the fleshiness of my digits.
My friend and frequent room mate Darren discovered my guitar at the beginning of our sophomore year, and he taught himself the first two chords of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." At parties he would pull out the guitar and strum away - for just a couple bars, and then set it down, appearing far too shy and humble to play any more. We all knew that he didn't know any more, but the girls who showed up at our apartment didn't. It was one of the most calculated things I've ever seen.
The guitar went away after I graduated. My father kept his banjo, propped in a corner with his beginner's book curled around the neck inside the case. Maybe he was keeping it in case he got real sad one day. Pete Seeger had this to say about the banjo: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." Oh alright - I surrender.