The banjo is America's only indigenous musical instrument. As such, you'd think it'd get more respect. Instead, the five-string and those who play it are targets of derision, the butt of corny jokes. Did you hear the one about the definition of perfect pitch? When the banjo lands in the dumpster without hitting any of the four sides.
As with most clichés, there's a kernel of truth inside the banjo's cursed reputation. Learning the banjo is a cross between a full-time job and waterboard torture. And that's just for the people who live with the beginner. "Happy Birthday, Banjo-vee," says my wife Peggy when she and the kids hand me the big box, oblivious to the trouble it contains.
It's a brand-new Deering Good Time open back. The exact kind I want. In a brilliant act of design, the words "Good Time" are burned into the peg board for the inevitable times when the person playing it has to be reminded.
A beginning banjoist, instrument in lap, sits at a crossroads. The corner of Scruggs and Stanley. One road leads to the Earl Scruggs three-finger picking style, the technique best known for flamethrowing notes in bluegrass music. The other path leads to an older form, the grandfather of the Scruggs style. It's called "claw hammer," just as tricky to learn, popularized by Ralph Stanley and his old-time mountain banjo. This is the technique I'm learning.
The day after my birthday I say farewell to my family, grab my banjo and descend into the basement. You learn the banjo one hand at a time, and getting the picking hand down first is the only way to master claw hammer. Two weeks pass before I even put my left hand on the neck. In the meantime, I turn on Ken Burns' The War series, dial the sound way down, and claw my way through WWII.
Knowing how to play the guitar works for and against me. I have to unlearn some things as I learn new ones. A guitarist can cross-pick the strings, striking notes on the down stroke as well as the up. The clawhammer player strikes notes with the nail of the middle finger on the down stroke only.
But what gives the style its body and ring is what happens on alternate strokes. The thumb pulls off the high G string, the string that's pegged halfway up the banjo's neck.
The combination of notes and pull-offs creates what's called the "bum ditty" effect. Say it three times fast and you'll hear the banjo sound well enough.
Night after night I sit in front of Ken Burns, breathing through my mouth, forcing the muscle memory into my right hand. War is hell. Especially with a banjo on your lap.
Bum-ditty bum-ditty D-Day. Bum-ditty bum-ditty Normandy. Bum-ditty bum-ditty Pearl Harbor. Bum-ditty bum-ditty Iwo Jima. With the TV turned down it's hard to tell if the GIs are running from the Japanese or me.
Unless you're 8 years old, it's absolutely no fun to be a beginner at anything. Compared to playing the guitar, I feel like I'm wearing a propeller beanie. Desperate, I click into Amazon and order an instruction book and then, like Michael Landon on Little House, stand in the front yard, squint into the horizon, and look for the rising dust of the delivery wagon.
The book arrives at just the right time. Having survived the war with my right hand intact, I'm ready to play a tune. I'm feeling cocky, but I hit the skids when the book tells me to expect to take an entire week to master a song. Then, as if to rub my disbelieving face in it, the first song offered is "Skip to My Lou."
This must be the point where most people quit, I think. A week to learn "Skip to My Lou" is like being told it'll take a week to learn how to make ice.
I master it in eight days.
Like the shell-shocked soldiers in France, my family is showing signs of serious psychological wear, even before the book arrives. Two weeks of uninterrupted right hand, open-string bum-ditty have taken a toll. At the moment I get a second wind, my left hand finally getting some action, Peggy, Maggie and Riley have crumbled into a constant state of agitation. Maggie has developed a tic.
Peggy appears in the basement a couple nights into my graduate work on "Skip to My Lou."
"Forget the banjo," she says. "I'm going to stomp on your face." This is the kind of gentle support that makes all the hours of practice worthwhile. And so I persist.
Learning an instrument is an easy thing to quantify when you do the math. $350 for a banjo plus $20 for an instruction book plus $50 for a case plus 100 hours of practice equals one performable version of "Old Joe Clark."
Since that song only lasts three minutes (eight if you're jamming with hippies), what's the point? That's a lot of money and time for three minutes of music. The answer is as elusive as the definition of art itself. At this stage of the game I can think of only one explanation.
Like a baby speaking her first words, the banjo gives back to its caretaker, even as it frazzles the nerves of an entire household.