The Butt of All Jokes!

Written by:

Minnesota bassist Mark Anderson with Monroe Crossing gave me the idea to bring out this piece I wrote some time ago and rehash it a bit. As a bassist, I have to give Mark a lot of credit for advocating so strongly for another instrument. At the Blythe festival last weekend he pulled out a gigantic banjo-bass to thrill the crowd at the band’s final Saturday performance. Afterward I asked him for a quote to put along side the photo we were going to publish on the Prescription Bluegrass Blog. He’d obviously thought about a quote before anyone asked because he quickly uttered: “More Banjos in more places is a good thing.” Hurray for Mark!

When I was very young, the rage seemed to be poking fun at the Polish, which was all fine and good unless you happened to actually be Polish or of Polish descent. Then, when the political climates changed, it seemed that everyone around the world was picking on those with fair hair. Not necessarily everyone with light hair but more specifically those of the female gender who happened to be born blonde or for some reason were still clinging to that old 1960’s advertising campaign designed to sell “blonde in a bottle” that proclaimed, “Blondes Have More Fun!”

I suppose it just happens to be our turn in the bluegrass and old-time music world to face the ridicule in this never-ending cycle of put-down humor. Sooner or later (I’m really hoping for sooner), this too shall pass and those who pick a five-stringed instrument with one string a little shorter than the rest, will breathe a little easier.

Also, I should mention that it is not just the pickers, but the instruments themselves that get blasted over and over again and is that even close to being fair when the instrument can’t defend itself? However, there is a huge difference between banjo jokes and picking on banjo pickers. At least you can’t hurt the banjo’s feelings.

Awhile back we posted a “No Banjo Jokes” photo on our Facebook page and received quite a few favorable comments and “LIKES,” and more importantly, absolutely no negative comments or “Thumbs Down” indications. Then more recently, we posted a status update calling for an “End To All Banjo Jokes” which met with a mixed review of some good and some not so favorable comments.

What seemed to be the remarkable conclusion was that all of the favorable comments or those who agreed that it was time to end Banjo Jokes came from non-banjo pickers (or it could not be determined what instrument they played) and the negative comments or those who thought Banjo Jokes were more than acceptable were mostly from banjo pickers themselves.

While it’s nice to know that, as a whole, banjo pickers are not insulted by the jokes (or the sheer number of jokes) but may actually be relishing the attention it brings, it is a much broader picture that we hope to paint and allow you to view.
There are a lot of behavior coaches around the world who’ve learned that behavior problems in children as well as animals are largely caused by negative attention and once replaced with positive attention, the once-bad behavior greatly improves.

Could it be that banjo pickers are relishing this attention because without it they’d be getting very little or no attention at all? I highly doubt that. To be a banjo player of any measure means a lot of work and time spent perfecting the combinations of skills necessary to attain a level of comfort – both for the picker and the listener. To be a banjo player, like any other instrument, takes a dedication and a passion – both admirable qualities in any person.

I’ve heard it said that, “Humor is the hardest thing to do well and also the easiest thing at which one can fail.”

If that statement is true then it’s no wonder that so many have a hard time telling a joke. It’s no wonder that punch lines get all fouled up and the result is more of a bomb than an explosion of laughter from the audience.

If humor of any kind is hard to do well and easy to do poorly, it stands to reason that a lot of failed attempts will rack up a score higher and quicker than successful ones. And certainly some banjo pickers may suffer injuries because of it. Almost certain, too, is the number of would-be banjo pickers out there who decide to play something other than the five-string so they won’t face the ridicule – especially at a stage when their own picking ability leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t help but wonder just how large those numbers would be if it were possible to look at survey results.

When an arm or a leg is injured or severed from a human body, the remainder of the body suffers and needs to compensate. So too does the bluegrass industry, the body of our genre, suffer and need to compensate from the insults and injuries just one element of the body is forced to endure. How many non-bluegrass oriented people conjure up adverse notions, thoughts and opinions of this music based upon the limited exposure they may be getting from nothing but banjo jokes?

Could it be that the bluegrass industry could produce hundreds of Earl Scruggs, Bela Flecks and Jonny Mizzones (Sleepy Man Banjo Boys) if we started providing a more positive look at the instrument and its’ champions? Are there would-be-pickers out there who won’t even try due to the impact of a generation of poking fun at the five-string?

Why is it that in this time we seem to find it necessary to use banjo pickers as the butt of all jokes? Is it because we lack any other quality humor in Bluegrass? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any old footage or heard any audio recordings of Bill Monroe putting down Earl with a banjo joke. I don’t think Red Smiley or Bill Harrell ever slapped one on Don Reno. Grandpa Jones was full of jokes and the folks all around him – likewise, but I can’t remember ever hearing a banjo joke on Hee-Haw! So why is it that we gravitate toward this poor, slip-on-a-banana-peel humor in Bluegrass today? Is it that we need to get back to good humor – the kind that Homer and Jethro were so good at, the kind that Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers use to steal the show away from Hot Rize at every single performance?

What is probably more certain than anything else is that banjo jokes will continue to flourish until something else comes along to replace them. I hope it happens soon – before banjo players are found on the National Endangered Species list.

Have a great week in the Bluegrass World and if you get a chance – hug a banjo picker,
Brian McNeal
Prescription Bluegrass Radio Host and Blog Editor

Read about: