Or: The True History of the Banjo

Humor by Chris Stuart

In 1975 I was spending most of my time hanging out with Travolta teaching him how to dance. On weekends I was driving to Atlanta to try to persuade a then grim Jimmy Carter that if he learned how to smile he could be the next president.

I'm not bragging; just giving you my credentials.

Nostalgia. Let's talk nostalgia. As I said, 1975, killing time, working in a large medieval history firm in Lexington, Kentucky. The universe didn't seem right; something was missing. I've always been able to see the future. You can change the future. It's easy. The past is hard. The firm I was working for had tried a few small changes in thirteenth-century England. We moved a privy bowl four inches. What did we get? The Magna Carta. You don't mess with the past. The past is a million storms that create a single butterfly flapping its wings.

As I said, something was missing. I was troubled at night by visions of a round object with strings. Yeah. A banjo. Everyone knows that now. Before 1975? Didn't exist. At least not yet. I had known for several years that something was wrong. A few times I had driven into the country with a van loaded with beer, only to find empty fields. In '65 I went to see Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys.

For whole songs everyone vamped backup and no one knew why. My favorite show, the Beverly Hillbillies, had gone off the air after one season. A southerner named James Dickey looked deep into his soul and heard only the redemptionless thrashing of water. And a man named Earl pumped gas at "Earl's Full Service" in Durham, North Carolina. People were known to break into tears just by having him check their oil.

The universe was wrong. But where to start? You rarely get a third chance with the past. If you get it wrong the second time, it's too far gone to save. And I needed cash. A lot of it. You show up in the past wearing hip-hugger bell-bottoms, disco chains, and platform shoes--you need to flash some bills for them to take you seriously. I bought shares of a small company called Apple, went forward to 1992, sold it all, then took the dive back to 856 Anno Domini.

India. The subcontinent. The first point of pressure. Language was no problem. I found the man I was looking for scraping vellum.


"Aiiyeee! Get Away! Get Away!"

"Check out the Franklins..."

"Okay, so we can talk. What you want? I got dobro, I got mandolin, I got fiddle -- go scrapee scrapee. I got big fiddle go boomee boomee. Ten dollar all four..."

"Can it. I've just got one word to say....banjo."

"Panjo? That mean 'white man with small...'"

"Banjo. Four and a half strings. Gourd. Animal skin. Cam tuners."

"I'll take the gold chains and you've got a deal."

I handed him the chains Travolta had given me. Skipped forward ten centuries. Africa. The dark continent. A small village on the west coast. So far it looked good. Only four strings, but that could wait.

"What you got there?"

"Aiiyeee! Get Away! Get Away!"

"Is that a banjo?"

"Banjo? No, this is a banjar."

"It was supposed to be a banjo."

"Banjo mean 'white man with small, ahem, mind' in swahili."

"Here's a hundred dollars, call it a banjo."

"Where am I gonna spend this?"

"Another hundred if you add a fifth string half way up the neck."

"Hey, I'll put a damn plastic head on it for another bill."

"How do you know about plastic?"

"They call me Future Man."

"Oh. Nice gig."

"Hey, I got to get back to Telluride, want a ride?"

I caught a ride with Future Man, but got off in 1939. America. The "in" continent. A small cabin in the hills of North Carolina. "Earl?"

"Aiiyeee! Get Away! Get Away!

"Here's some shoes. What you got there?"

"Banjo. Watch this."

"You're playing it with your feet."

"Yeah, it's just something I made up. Anybody can play it with their hands."

"Earl, three fingers, smooth it out dude."

"Hey, you're right. Hey mister where'd you go?"

The rest as they say is history. It is now at least. And I'm sitting in my dark office in L.A. waiting for the next client. The banjo? Yeah, I did that. The next time I went back wasn't so pretty. They say there's a million stories in the cruel city. When you have time, we'll talk about the tuba.

--Chris Stuart

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