It’s something that folks who grew up around here have come to take for granted, in which many have participated since they were kids. Handled responsibly, they reason, there is little danger.
I am talking, of course, of the fact that virtually anyone in Ohio can walk into a store or pawn shop and, if they have the money, without background check or proficiency testing, without even a simple safety course, purchase and leave in possession of a banjo.
No waiting period. No license.
It might disturb some to realize that anyone at all may walk down the street, any street in the state, with a banjo (though very loose-fitting clothes are required for concealed carry).
Banjo owners — I am among them — say things like ,“They’ll take away my banjo when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers,” and it is true: there are some banjo players for whom coldness and deadness would probably not slow down their lightning-fast bluegrass licks. Still others merely look cold and dead. There is a cool to banjo playing.
It’s understandable, part of the tradition of the westward migration. Families, out in the woods, often with no others around for miles, hungry and alone in the midst of winter, would often have to resort to the banjo to see them through. Children grew up around banjos and saw them as no different from, say, tin whistles or harmonicas. Banjo-related offenses, such as the playing of sonatas, were rare and punished severely. Children were taught from an early age that banjos and alcohol don’t mix.
And it is understandable why people in the big metropolitan areas might fear unfettered banjo ownership. You can imagine the civil disruption and disarray that would result if everyone in, say, New York had a banjo. (Just picture it!)
We must admit that it is possible for people, especially the young, to be led astray by the romance and allure of the banjo. There was, for instance, a stunning stage robbery in Nelsonville a couple of Decembers ago. Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers, armed with a five-string Deering banjo, took the stage and stole the show. Imagine the effect this had on any children who witnessed it. They probably left wanting to go out and emulate their new hero, not considering the very real dangers of undisciplined banjo play.
(I have not seen studies, but I think that for many the banjo could be a “gateway instrument,” in some cases leading to guitar and mandolin playing but sometimes tragically spawning flirtations with accordions, bagpipes, or that most common instrument of abuse, the bass, for which most people agree there is no real civilian purpose.)
I do not say all this as an innocent; my hands are not callous-free. I have what the more lurid newspapers would call “a cache of banjos.” It began with a pretty five-string, left-handed Deering that I cannot play to save my life, then an 80-year-old Slingerland May-Bell four-string tenor, which I told myself I was getting “to fix up, for fun,” though the fact was I could not wait to hear it go off. It was followed by numerous Vegas. Not long ago I accidentally winged a neighbor lady from the porch swing; she was pleasant and polite and said it didn’t hurt much, but oh, my — how irresponsible I had allowed myself to become. A banjo is not a toy.
This is important to remember, now that festival season is upon us and banjo players are taking to the fields and venues in droves. Players must keep in mind the responsibility that comes with banjo ownership. Others should learn to listen carefully for the sound of the banjo, lest they wander into the line of play against their will.
There is no question that the banjo has an important place in the fabric of our society, that it is part of our history and in some ways defines us. But we must remember, as our forefathers did, that we must not abuse our right to keep and play banjos. Most banjo owners, I think, would agree with me: There’s seldom a need to carry a banjo to church, or to school; bringing a banjo into a bank or into a liquor store on Saturday night is just inviting trouble. We must be careful to avoid, even in jest, provocative statements like, “don’t make me go get my banjo.” Who knows how many romances died abornin’ when a protective father warned his daughter’s young suitor, “I have a banjo and know how to use it.”
All that having been said, I have been having the time of my life chopping away on my little banjos, my current favorites of which are a one-of-a-kind Vega I made by fitting the neck from a Vega Tube-A-Phone to the pot of a Little Wonder banjolin, and a gorgeous gut-string archtop Favilla, both with calfskin heads I stretched myself.
But I must constantly remind myself that it is up to me to play responsibly.
After all, banjos don’t make music, people with banjos do.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.