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Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Open Letter to My Banjo

Dear Goodtime Open-Backed Five-String,

Why are you so hard to play?

I mean, I really like you a lot, but I'm not very good at you. I don't know how long it takes one to become proficient at the banjo-- I guess a lot of it has to do with aptitude and the amount of time you're willing to put into practicing-- but I'm far from proficient.

I've had you since just after Thanksgiving of last year, and I can still only play six chords, including G, which doesn't require any ability whatsoever, being an open chord. So I'm not sure if G even really counts.

Don't get me wrong-- I like you. I really like you. I like the way your round part sits on my right leg and I like the way you feel when I bring you close to my chest. I even like the way your strings make lines across the fleshy tips of the fingers on my left hand. Does that make me an S&M guy? Maybe I should get you a black, leather banjo bag with studs, seeing as how I'm your bitch and all.

It's funny, Goodtime, here I am, blogging about how I can't play you, and you're sitting not four feet away from me, leaning against the Friedrich air-conditioner. If I wasn't blogging, if I wasn't writing you this pointless open letter, I could walk right over to you, unzip your bag, tune you, and practice. Maybe I like blogging more than I like banjoing. Funny how similar those two words look when put right together. Banjoing. Blogging. Weird.

I even sought out a banjo instructor, someone who could teach me what to do with you. I left him a voicemail in late July. I don't think he's going to call back. It's just as well, really, I don't have the time for banjo lessons-- I'm far too busy for that. You know, with blogging and stuff.

I can play "All Used Up" by U. Utah Phillips on you. The same song I've played on you since I first learned it, probably in January. I can play other songs on you, but only "All Used Up" actually sounds like the real song, and that's because it only uses three chords. I was able to figure out the chord transposition from guitar to banjo all in my head, without any sheet music, just by listening, and I suppose that's because my brain is pretty musical, in spite of the significant dearth of formal training. I guess it's no accident that this is the same brain that has enabled me to fake my way through singing principal roles in the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas "Patience," "H.M.S. Pinafore," "Ruddigore," and "The Pirates of Penzance" with rickety, self-taught sight-reading skills. Ah, my brain. Sometimes it gets me into more trouble than it gets me out of.

And I'll do the same thing when the next one rolls around.

But, getting back to you, my dear, round banjo, I can't really fake my way through you. I've reached the plateau of where I can go with you and my "Idiot's Guide to the Banjo," a gift from my well-intentioned mother-in-law. The problem is, I'm not an idiot. If I were, I could probably play the banjo by now, because I would follow the book step-by-painful-step, religiously, as if it were the pages of King James or the Song of Songs itself. Unfortunately, I'm no idiot. I over-think and over-intellectualize. I analyze. I mire myself in doubt and pity, and I do not give you the attention you deserve. I'm like a little boy who lets his father walk the puppy he begged for incessantly.

Throughout my life, I haven't been really, truly great at much-- certainly I've never been any good at any job I've ever held. I'm reasonably confident of my acting abilities, but not much else. Writing? I don't know. Maybe, but, truth be told, I could build a summer home out of the sheaf of rejection-letters I've received since age 15. And so I never really had any delusions that I would be really great with you, banjo, but I at least wanted to be okay. Fair. Someone who could maybe show up at an Open Mic Night, bang out an Ola Belle Reed ditty or a Stan Rogers maritime song and be at least thought to possess normal intelligence.

But maybe that's not in the cards.

I don't come from a musical family, so I suppose it's not much of a surprise that I founder and fumble when I hold you against me. My great-grandfather, Sam, was that incongruous yet charming combination of Jewish tailor and folk-song balladeer, back in the dusty, sepia days when such things as that were possible. He recorded a song called, "Sammy Made the Pants Too Long," and, apparently, it was a hit, at least in South Philadelphia. When he wasn't selling three-piece suits or wool slacks in his shop, he could sometimes be spotted under a tree in a small park, playing his banjo or his mandolin effortlessly, perhaps with his tie loosened and his shirt-sleeves rolled up, maybe a derby or a straw hat beside him on the grass.

How I wish I could have gotten to know Sam. The man who made the pants too long. The man who strummed and hummed under the trees of the past.

How I wish I could get to know you, too, my dear banjo.

Maybe I get all nervous and weird when I hold you because I love you.

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