Linus to Charlie Brown: “I feel sorry for little babies…When a little baby is born in this cold world, he’s confused! He’s frightened! He needs something to cheer him up…
The way I see it, as soon as a baby is born, he should be issued a banjo!
It was, as Lord Lytton wrote, a dark and stormy night. I sat in the Emery House chapel and listened to the rain beat upon the windows and the wind blow through the trees. I was beginning a weekend retreat, run by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, called “Blowing Zen: Meditating with the Shakuhachi.” I didn’t know much about the shakuhachi except that it was a kind of flute. I was there because one of the facilitators of the retreat was Robert Jonas, who’d written a book about his daughter’s death, Rebecca: A Father’s Journey from Grief to Gratitude. A year or so earlier, I’d written Jonas, as he prefers to be called, a letter saying how his book had helped me after my own daughter’s death. He’d written back, we’d carried on a correspondence, and I wanted to meet him.
That first evening, Jonas and Martin Smith, Brother Superior at SSJE, both of whom played the shakuhachi, passed around several of the instruments and gave us a brief history lesson. Dating from the eighth century, the shakuhachi, or Zen flute, is made from bamboo root—hard as rock—and served as a weapon as well as a musical instrument for mendicant monks who wandered the countryside seeking enlightenment. These komoso, or “straw mat monks,” considered the instrument a religious tool, and gave primary attention to each breath-sound rather than to musical elements like melody. Their aim was to become, in the words of our handout, “a Buddha in one sound.”
We ended the first evening in meditation, while Jonas played a song called “Crossing Over,” which he said he’d had played at Rebecca’s funeral. I sat on my Zen pillow, eyes closed, listening to the mournful tones of the flute (If you want to hear a shakuhachi, go to You Tube), mingled with the sounds of the wind and the rain and the wind chimes. I focused on my breathing, missed my daughter Laurie, wondered what I would do with my life now that I was retiring from public school teaching, and missed Laurie some more. Then, suddenly, as Marlon Brando says in the movie Apocalypse Now, “…I realized…like I was shot…like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead…”:
I wanted to learn to play the banjo.
I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.
A month later, I’m walking into a music store in a rundown strip mall in Portland, Maine. Two guys in ripped black tee-shirts are behind the counter and some kid with hair down to his ass is beating on an electric guitar. When I say I’m here for a banjo lesson, one of the guys behind the counter pinches some snuff from a round can, puts it under his lower lip, and points down a narrow aisle between racks of sheet music and guitar, mandolin, and banjo straps, picks, capos, and tuners. At the end of the aisle, I almost step on what looks for all the world like a pile of dog shit, and it is. A rubber pile of dog shit.
My first teacher is from West Virginia. Let’s call him Gid. He smells of pot and body odor and he says things like, “Hey, Man! What’s happenin’?” His three-month old daughter (“Man, was she a surprise!”) sleeps in a guitar case beside us. Gid starts me on what’s called claw-hammer style banjo, where my right hand is supposed to come down on the strings and hit the head of the banjo, almost as if I were knocking on a door. He is not so much concerned with hitting the right notes as he is establishing a rhythm. “Bounce, bounce!” he shouts, “Keep that rhythm going!”
I love it. Later, I will realize it’s because of being totally focused, completely in the moment.
I’m goin’ to a better world where everything is right…
where you never have to work at all or need to change your socks…
(American Folk Song)
Several years after I began playing the banjo, I went to “Banjo Camp North,” in Massachusetts. While the weekend was set up in much in the same way as the spiritual retreats and writers’ workshops I’d been going to—classes during the day, performances in the evening, informal get-togethers afterwards—instead of the silence of the spiritual retreat or the intense, cerebral focus of the writing workshop, just about everyone at Banjo Camp was loose and laughing. It was impossible to tell the instructors, even some of the nationally known musicians, from the students. None of them sat at separate tables during meals. Like the rest of us, they talked about their kids and their bills and their clogged toilets.
The second afternoon, I attended a workshop called “Singing with the Banjo.” I’ve always liked folk songs and figured we’d gather round and sing “Kumbya,” together. What I didn’t expect was that we were all supposed to solo. The closer it got to my turn, the more first my hands and then my entire body trembled. I tried to pass, but Peggy Seeger, one of the famous Seegers of folk music, give me this pep talk about how she’d learned early in her career that she didn’t have anything to prove, only something to share. So I shared my stage fright by stumbling my way through a hobo song (see above lyrics), forgetting some of the words, and butchering the chords. Still, I did get through it.
We kept going on around the room until a woman—her voice quaking in fear—began her song. About halfway through, she stopped, started to cry, and ran from the building. I sought her out the next day to commiserate. Turned out, she was a journalist, and we agreed that writers—at least writers like us—were observers, not participants.
What a long strange trip it’s been…
(Who, before he was a member of the Grateful Dead, played banjo for such groups as the Sleepy Hollow Stompers and the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers.)
Which, in a perverse sort of way, is why I’ve kept playing the banjo now for almost twenty years, performed with some local groups, even sung on occasion. For someone who spends the bulk of his time alone in front of a computer screen, who often goes on silent retreats, sits in silence gazing at his navel (although I prefer the term omphaloskepsis), and still daily misses his daughter, the instrument is a great antidote.
It’s also a great instrument for pilgrimage. First made from an animal skin tacked over a hollowed half of a gourd, with three or four strings stretched over a planed stick, the “banza” or “banjar” came to this country from Africa with the slaves, who played it in the same style that Gid taught me, and which I’ve stayed with. The banjo traveled across country with settlers and around the world on whaling ships (The banjo travels more easily than a guitar, as a matter of fact).
The banjo also brings a little humor to the journey. It was a comic prop in minstrel shows, and banjo players remain the butt of any number of jokes. To wit:
Q: What’s the difference between playing a banjo and jumping on a trampoline? A: You don’t have to take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.
Q: What do you call a banjo player who’s just broken up with his girlfriend? A: Homeless.
Like humor, like most of my favorite kinds of music (including the shakuhachi, the instrument of homeless, impoverished monks and at least one grieving parent, Robert Jonas) the banjo has its roots in sadness and loss, yet blossoms in spontaneity and joy. In fact, I don’t think I ever knew what joy was until I began whaling away on the banjo, knew that, unlike simple happiness or contentment or pleasure, joy contains the element of sadness, of longing.
The Christian writer C.S. Lewis defined joy as “an unsatisfied desire, which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.” I think what he’s describing is similar to being on a pilgrimage: the desire is to reach a destination, but the joy comes from the journey.
Do you suppose C.S. Lewis ever played a banjo?