Every now and then when I’m feeling particularly wistful and contemplative, I’m struck by the gravity of just what it has meant to me to have this thing called “banjo” in my life. Who could have known when I took my first lesson at age 16 that the banjo and me would become so intertwined and mutually identifiable?
The banjo is a true gift, to me and to you
As I write this I’m at the ripe old age of 45. In the grand scheme of an entire lifetime, I’m maybe just a little less than halfway through, if I’m lucky. I’ve got the same amount of time left…or hopefully a little more…as has already passed, depending on God’s plan for me of course. And, in this current day & age, 45 is still young. For me to speak as a wise old veteran may seem a little over the top, but there’s no denying I’m getting long in the tooth and that there are a couple generations under me now! 45 years went quickly, but at the same time it’s not exactly just a drop in the bucket. I’ve experienced an awful lot in this life, and I’ve gone down the road a few miles if you know what I mean.
As I said, the banjo and I are one and the same, and what a powerful gift that is. The vast majority of people in my life have never known me without a banjo in my hand. I can’t remember not having a banjo in my hand. When you think of Paul, you think of banjo. The banjo very much feels like another appendage on my body; like a useful extension of myself and my personality. I’m not the best in the world, not the best in this country, not the best in my state, not even the best in my city. But I am knowledgeable and competent on the banjo, and that is worth more than gold to me.
Do you ever groan when asked to play your banjo?
So now that you’ve read my deep and poetic musings on what it’s meant to be involved with the banjo, let me get to the main thoughts of this blog post.
When I play banjo, it often makes people very happy. There’s nothing like an appreciative bluegrass crowd at my stage shows, hooting and hollering. And to have a crowd gather around a jam session that I am in and be so into what’s being played that they just stay right there for several songs or more is a really cool feeling. But…it’s not always thrilling to get asked to play the banjo.
There have been so many times when someone has encountered me and my banjo outside of a musical situation and have asked me to play. Perhaps I’m heading to or coming from a gig; maybe I’m putting it in the car or taking it out; maybe the banjo is just in the building where I’m at for a non-musical reason. Maybe they’ve come to my house for a visit. No matter the scenario, I can think of lots of times when I’ve been “found out”, or when the cat has been let out of the bag. “YOU PLAY BANJO?! REALLY?! THAT’S SO COOL! CAN YA’ PLAY SOMETHING FOR ME?!”
Too many times my immediate internal reaction is oh, please no. Because I know this person has no knowledge of bluegrass or banjo. Most likely, they aren’t a fan and won’t ever become one. For about half a song, it’s “yuk yuk” cool, before they start losing interest. They invariably will slap their knee, dance around wildly, laugh. And then comes the request to play one…or both…of the two most requested songs that people who aren’t educated to banjo or bluegrass ask for when they find out I play: The Ballad of Jed Clampett, and Dueling Banjos. All in all, revealing my banjo playing tendencies in the wrong setting leads to much mockery or poking fun at the genre and instrument.
What I just described is a very common scenario, but something else that used to happen to me and might be happening to you right now is that when I was a beginner who was actively learning and didn’t know a lot, I would get asked to play before I deserved to be playing for anyone. I had the same oh please no reaction then too because I didn’t know much and wasn’t confident.
Never miss a chance to play your banjo for others
I‘ve learned over the years to take a different attitude when it comes to everything I just described. I’ve learned to take the title of this blog post to heart, and to adopt my role as the Banjo Ambassador. I get it out now and pick. Maybe all it takes is half a song and then I can put it away. Or maybe I keep the listener engaged for 2 or 3 songs. No matter. For that brief half a song moment, I’ve made that person smile. I…and you too if it’s you picking…make a deep, deep impact on that person. They now know a banjo player, and that’s a pretty neat thing. So what if they “yuk yuk” it up and dance in a silly way? So what if they slap their knee and bring out all the stereotypes? You’ve brought a moment of lightness and joy into their lives. Whether or not you realize it, you’ve made a lasting impression on that person. 10 years later, when the person you played for happens to get in a discussion about banjos or banjo music, they will say “I knew a banjo player once…” For non-pickers and non-fans, it’s a unique and really cool thing. And who knows how many people you’ve turned into bluegrass fans over the years thanks to your willingness to be a banjo ambassador?
It doesn’t matter if you aren’t a touring professional. Even a rank amateur rolling off a few measures of Cripple Creek in a sloppy way will do so much more than you can imagine for our “cause”. Did you get an invite to bring your banjo to a social gathering? Afraid to because you only know two songs? Don’t be! You get it out, you play those two songs. When you’ve played both songs 4 times each, you noodle around and make some “banjo-ey” noise, and you just see how happy you make those people. They’ll move on to other conversations and other music and other topics and won’t appear as if they’ve been moved, but you can rest assured you moved them. Can you think back to the days before you picked up a banjo? Remember how unique and mysterious and wonderful it seemed? Can you remember the first time you were in the same room with a banjo player? Well, the people you play for now know a banjo player, and that’s a really great thing you Banjo Ambassador you!