My dad got me started on the banjo. It took about 30 years. A standard-issue surly teen, I’d taken up the guitar to be Jimmy Page but I’d ended up more Jimmy Driftwood. I’d memorized all the folkie records my folks had lying around. But listening to the man’s records didn’t mean I had to relate to him. We agreed on nothing, spoke only when passing in the hall. It was tense.
Meanwhile my somewhat better-behaved brother was being forced to play in the school orchestra. He had what the music teachers call a “violin-shaped object” – a plank with some strings. He would wearily get the thing out and wail at it for the minimum required time. He wasn’t without talent, but nobody was having any fun with that.
So there was my dad with a couple of problems: one kid with a crappy attitude and another with a crappy instrument.
Around then we started noticing my dad sitting there picking tentatively at his banjo some evenings. When my brother and I started circling closer, he’d put it away. I started leaving my bedroom door open so I could hear when the banjo started up. He didn’t have a lot of aptitude, but he was diligent, and it was, after all, a banjo.
Pretty soon the three of us were picking together after dinner every week or so. We found common ground in the handful of songs that Flatt & Scruggs and Doc Watson did at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, on a record that we literally wore out. For too long a time, that was the only direct communication I had with my dad.
Things got better, as they do, and 25 years later my dad brought that same old banjo out of his basement. He was downsizing. It went from his basement to mine.
That same year, my own kid (not very surly, thankfully) was issued a violin for middle school orchestra. I knew exactly what to do. “That’s not a violin, that’s a fiddle,” I told her. We called around and found an excellent fiddle teacher named Annie Staninec, you may have heard of her.
Of course you can’t have a fiddle without a banjo. I pulled Dad’s out of the garage and gave it some new strings. There is some evidence on Youtube of how nasty I sounded; I’m not giving you a link. I reported our progress to my dad. “Well, I guess that investment paid off,” he said. What investment?
I’d always figured that the banjo had been around forever. Dads just play banjos, don’t they? Dad confessed: he’d ordered it from the Sears catalog the year I’d started high school. Not knowing what to do, needing some way to connect with this unreasonable adolescent, he’d thrown a Hail Mary.
It worked better than he planned. Today my own kids are avid musicians, I get to pick with them, and my dad is back on the banjo too. We both have decent instruments to play now, but the old Sears banjo isn’t going away. I owe it too much.