Monday, September 19, 2016

Play your banjo well...

The title is from a song written in the sixties. One of the world's great philosophers, Johnny Cash, recorded it in response to all the anti-war songs of the time. The phrase goes (and forgive me if I sing it in the wrong key):  "Let this be a lesson if you want to form a folk group. Don't go mixing politics with the folk songs of our land. Work on harmony and diction, and play your banjo well...and if you have political convictions just keep them to yourself!"

Johnny probably didn't think about it at the time but I am a deep thinker....if everyone would buy a banjo and learn to play there would be no more stress and friction in the world. It is a proven fact that you absolutely can not play a banjo and stay in a bad mood. Now of course, if there are those around you who hate banjo music you can cause them to be in a bad mood. As far as I know though, there is only one person who hates banjo music and I'm married to her so you should be safe to strum away!

If you are now thinking, "Hey, I need to get a banjo but where oh where can I learn to play?" don't fret. Anybody can play the banjo unless maybe you don't have any fingers....and my apologies to anyone out there who might have that condition. Don't think you have to pick and grin like the pros. You can strum chords and have the time of your life. You can bring joy to any room when you enter with your banjo....or if not, you can bring joy to that room when you leave. Either way, you are going to make somebody happy.

Did you know there are three chords that will allow you to strum along with most songs? Well listen to this...if you can learn to fret the C and D chords you will know those three chords. What? Did I miss one? I most certainly did not. As soon as your shiny new banjo comes out of the case it will already be tuned to the G chord. Just pick it up and strum it without touching the fret board. You just played a G! How about you!! Now work on those other two chords and you will be strumming along and singing with the big boys. Make sure the big boys know you don't want to do any breakdowns of any kind. You don't like to show off. When I first started playing I was invited to sit in with a bluegrass group. I was having the time of my life and keeping up with them better than I thought possible. All of a sudden the music stopped and everyone looked at me. My first thought was that someone had tooted and they thought it was me....turns out they were waiting for me to play one of those complicated breakdowns. One of them hollered, "Take it Russ!" to which I responded, "Take what where?" After explaining my error one of the musicians took my banjo and played the appropriate breakdown for me. I had no idea my banjo could sound so good. I went home and practiced, practiced, practiced. I discovered all this practice of the same round over and over was not something Debbie wanted to hear. That leads to what I was going to write about in the first people have a way of getting me off track!

I have always loved guitar and banjo music. I have a grainy black and white photo of me at four years old serenading the girl next door. I was wearing a torn t-shirt, baggy shorts, and my purple and yellow cowboy boots with my Roy Rogers guitar hanging around my neck. I must have swept that little girl right off her feet. When I started junior high school I took a music aptitude test for the band director. He said I scored higher than anyone he had ever tested. He also said as a result I could play any instrument I wanted to play. Since I knew there were no banjos in marching band I chose the drums. He said he already had too many drums and I was going to learn to play the cornet. So much for thing I knew I was trying to learn to play something that looked like a sickly trumpet. Now I did enjoy this because I was playing least that's what I thought. One Saturday afternoon I was working my way through the various chords when my bedroom door swung open. There was my dad with a crazed look on his face. He grabbed a stray sweat sock and shoved it up the bell of that horn. I never built up a lot of confidence on that horn after that.

When I was fifteen my folks bought me a beautiful electric guitar. It is hanging on the wall of my study now. Its still beautiful. When they gave me the guitar they promised they would buy the amplifier for it as soon as I could play. That amplifier never appeared but I enjoyed hours and hours of playing it quietly in my bedroom. A friend of mine played with a band and he borrowed it a few times. He already had an amplifier. That guitar sure looked and sounded good up on stage. I could see it and hear it clearly while standing in the crowd.

After Debbie and I were married she asked me one year what I would most like to have for Christmas. I jokingly told her I would love to have a Gibson acoustic guitar. I knew she couldn't afford it. Sure enough on Christmas morning there was a large odd-shaped package for me under the tree. I was stunned. I couldn't wait to get that box opened so I could see my brand new Wizard guitar which she bought for $19.95 at the local Gibson's Discount Store. Bless her heart. I tried to play it for two years before giving it to one of the neighborhood kids.

I continued to want a banjo. One day a friend of my two sons told me he had a banjo he wanted to sell. He played bluegrass so I knew the banjo was a good one. I bought it right then. He brought it to me and I fell in love immediately. It took me no time at all to learn the basic chords so I could enjoy it. (Note: Refer to earlier comment about anyone with fingers being able to play the banjo). This led to sitting in with the mentioned bluegrass band, which in turn led to my constant practicing, which led to.....well, it's hard to put into words. I was honing in on the Cripple Creek run after weeks of practice. My bedroom door swung open. There was my wife with a crazed look on her face. She looked for a stray sweat sock but couldn't find one. She then told me she hated hearing banjo music....she then corrected herself and told me she only hated hearing my banjo music. She reaffirmed her love for me but said the banjo had to go. I sold it the next week. I really missed it. I plucked around on my newer, and better than Wizard guitar for a couple of years but she could see the loss and hurt in my eyes...and yes, you can in fact play the guitar while in a bad mood.

Debbie's guilt in insisting I sell my beloved banjo got the better of her a few years ago. One Christmas morning I was surprised with the nicest banjo I could ever hope to own. It was fairly old but she had given it to a specialist to overhaul and check out. He told her it was a keeper. Let's hope so. I try to play softly in my study and I never ever play the Cripple Creek breakdown.


  1. I read your post and laughed and still want you to come play for me and you can even play the Cripple Creek breakdown.

  2. I got my best laugh of the day while reading this. I love banjo music. Next Mihills cousin reunion, you will have to play for us all.

  3. I love this story! And I'm so glad you finally got a replacement banjo.

  4. Such a great story, Russ! I have always admired people who play the banjo! Please take a video of you playing...would love it! Banjo music rocks!

  5. I wasn't with Debbie I think when she bought the new banjo!