by Cheryl Cline
A true story: Early this year, banjo-player and bluegrass promoter Nathan Torkington brought Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka to New Zealand on a short tour. He also arranged for them do some tourist activities while they were there, including a jetboat ride on a large man-made lake near Whakatane with a rather daredevil driver. "The tour started out with us putting on life jackets," Torkington wrote, "Who wants to go down in history as the guy that drowned the two best banjo players?" To which a fellow bluegrass musician replied, "Well, you have to start somewhere."
The banjo, more than any other instrument, finds itself as the butt of humor among country and bluegrass musicians, many of whom play "the infernal instrument." Some of the jokes, it's true, are made in a spirit of friendly rivalry by folks who play fiddle, or bass. These tend to be directed, not just toward the banjo itself, but towards the hapless banjo player. This in turn has given rise to a body of jokes about fiddles and basses.
But the banjo is most often and most cruelly maligned by the people who play them. Recently, Frank Godbey, a normally temperate man, flew off the handle when somebody casually mentioned playing the banjo "for enjoyment."
"Enjoyment? Banjos are cranky, loud, obnoxious, hard to get in tune, impossible to keep in tune, hateful beasts. Yeah, I play; used to do it pretty well, too. I'd describe the experience, when it's right, as transcending mere enjoyment; and when it's wrong -- pure agony, but it's still something I have to do, must do, am compelled to do, driven by unseen (evil?) spirits. Who says the fiddle is the devils only box? Banjo playing is not for the faint-hearted...nor is banjo listening."
Fellow Sufferer Chris Stuart offered the following program, newly developed, as a cure.
Ashamed of your affliction? Tired of hiding banjo tabs under your bed? Afraid you'll suddenly say "gum stump" at a socially inopportune moment? For a very low fee I will fly to your hometown and rid you of your compulsion to play banjo. See breakdown of costs below.
|Lodging at Finest Hotel in Area (2 nights)||--||$300|
|Limousine to your house||--||$125|
|Scientific demonstration of why the banjo can't be tuned||--||$67|
|Extraction of old strings||--||$223.45|
|Ceremonial bending of the finger picks||--||$220|
|Frank Sinatra tapes||--||$230|
|Course book: Women Who Hate Men Who Love the Banjo||--||$39.95|
|Special mantra which turns the syllable "Earl" into meaning "oatmeal"||--||$19|
|Follow up phone calls||--||$200|
A banjo player reading this opined the program was "cheap at twice the price."
Darrell Reich, who has been fondly (and with not a little dread) called "De Banjo Joke Mon," collects banjo jokes into an ever-expanding "Canonical List of Banjo Jokes." Below is a small sample:
An old man was on his death bed and called his whole family together so that he could bid them farewell and make his peace with the world. After he said what he wanted to each in turn and he knew he was coming very close to death he called for all to gather together.
"I have one thing I would like to confess before I go," he said. They all drew closer. "It was me," cough, wheeze, "I was the one," he said as they leaned down as close as they could to hear what he could barely get out in a whisper.
Gasp, cough, "I was the one," cough, wheeze, "in the kitchen with Dinah..."
Phillip Mann has a copy of The Canonical List of Banjo Jokes at his Banjo Tab Collection and Bluegrass Info Site. The Banjo Bashin' Joke Book is available from The Fifth String, 3051 Adeline, Berkeley, CA 94703 for $2.95; send a buck for postage.
Copyright 1995 Cheryl Cline