In Defense of the Banjo

Categories: Essay This

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Christina Mendenhall
See, the Avett Brothers are doing it.

Probably because of the movie Deliverance (or maybe old Bugs Bunny cartoons), the banjo is still seen today as the instrument of the slack jawed yokel. A stringed tool that can be mastered by anyone no matter how closely related their parents might be, nor how many jars of moonshine the picker might have imbibed.

The second most mocked subculture (after hillbillies) has also lately taken up for the banjo. With the actors Steve Martin and Zooey Deschanel having picked up the instrument, the banjo has developed cache among hipsters along with other old-timey novelties like handlebar mustaches and unicycles. But the banjo has a certain dignity with a long history.

See also: Les Claypool on Duo de Twang: "Expect Two Guys Hanging Around a Campfire, Cracking Jokes and Bullshitting"


The banjo's origins go back hundreds of years to Africa where an animal skin was attached to a hollowed out half gourd with strings stretched out on a stick. Slaves brought to the New World built their own banjos.

Then the white son of a plantation owner named Joel Walker Sweeney learned about the instrument and popularized it as he toured up and down the East Coast in the 1830s. The banjo then became a crucial part of minstrel shows where white people dressed in blackface to entertain the masses. This dark, cruel part of the banjo's past didn't help its reputation as a respected cousin of the guitar.

But over the years, the banjo with its unique, unmistakable twang has redeemed itself with crucial placements in beautiful and important songs. Its place in bluegrass music and the new folk movement of Mumford & Sons and the competing families of the Avett Brothers and the Punch Brothers is well documented. It also serves a distinctive factor in the Irish punk music of the Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, and the Pogues. Neil Young's partial to the instrument most notably in the song "Old Man."

For the 21st century banjo-playing, my personal preference is Modest Mouse. The addition of a plucked banjo brings out even more of the eerie oddness to singer Isaac Brock's voice, especially in their 2004 album Good News for People Who Love Bad News. But a pivotal introduction to the instrument for many in my generation is at the opening sequence of 1979's The Muppet Movie. If you can get through Kermit the Frog playing the banjo while singing "The Rainbow Connection" with a dry eye, you're a tougher man than I.

So while hillbillies, hipsters, and white guys with shoe polish on their face might give the banjo a bad name, it is a worthy instrument for both the sensitive and the vicious. As Les Claypool's Duo de Twang comes to town (a project that evolved on a camping trip when Claypool's son brought along a banjo), I will cross my fingers that Claypool's legendary bassjo (which is exactly what its name suggests a bass banjo) might make an appearance.

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