Before reading this installment of Blue Yodel, you may want to (re)visit a recent reference by John Lawless to an article written by columnist Joe Queenan in the Wall Street Journal.
Dear Joe Queenan,
I’m writing from the year 2111—a full 100 years after your pivotal column on the banjo appeared in the Wall Street Journal in November 2011.
We all know the story by now, but it’s still astonishing to read the words—your words—that led, paradoxically, to the banjo being embraced by the greatest musical minds of the 21st century, hailed as the voice of the people, and held in our hearts as the symbol of world peace.
Of course, that was not your intention. But nor do I believe you were just banjo bashing. Scholars have long deduced that you were simply trying to meet a deadline and it was a slow news day. (The crossed-out words in your journal—’lawyer jokes, accordion jokes’—followed by ‘banjo jokes!’ give that away.)
In fact, the signs were there that the Century of the Banjo (some see it ongoing as the Millennium of the Banjo) had already begun. The PBS documentary, Give Me the Banjo, which set off your diatribe, had aired the previous night on a national broadcast. And Steve Martin had appeared on the David Letterman Show and presented Sammy Shelor with the Banjo Genius award and a check for $50,000.
But scholars also point to the appearance of Noam Pikelny in a cartoon by Matthew Diffie in the New Yorker of that week and compare it to the 1993 cartoon by Peter Steiner, which marked the beginning of the Internet Age—”On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”
While Diffie’s cartoon was funny and showed an intimate knowledge of and respect for the instrument, your column—it must be conceded—had the greater impact.
Who could have predicted that within days the banjo would be chosen as the official musical instrument of Occupy Wall Street? Or that desperate bankers, faced with a phalanx of banjo-playing protesters, would begin dumping millions of dollars off the top of the New York Stock Exchange? Or that Steve Martin would run as the Banjo Party candidate and serve five terms as president?
And when your hometown of Philadelphia changed its name to Philabanjia, well, that must have been hard to take. Although, really, you should have seen that coming since the banjo had long been the image used by the Philadelphia Folk Festival on its posters.
And worse, with the breakthroughs in medicine from rain forest pharmaceuticals applied to banjo technology, you are still alive and have had to endure the sound of banjos nearly every hour of every day for 100 years! The video of you throwing a hot dog onto the field during the playing of the National Anthem, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, for the Chicago Cubs’ third straight World Series win is still getting a lot of hits on YouTube 3.
And I must say I was just as surprised as you when in 2100 you were chosen as the Grand Marshall of the Banjo Bowl (formerly, Rose Bowl). I thought you showed great sportsmanship in accepting that honor—although your single-finger response to people booing you along the parade route did tarnish what otherwise would have been seen as a day of healing.
Still, I write as a fan. Your commitment to cultural stereotyping has not wavered in 100 years, and although you have in some ways benefitted financially by your 12-volume work, Who Are You Going to Listen To, Me or Mark Twain?, which is studied in nearly every advanced seminar at the PhD level of banjology, you have kept the blinders on and I respect that.
Surely, though, after 100 years, we can come to some sort of rapprochement. I don’t pretend to think that I can lure you into the ranks of those who see the banjo as the sine qua non of artistic expression.
Still, re-reading your column, I think I see room for mutual understanding. For instance, you did not use the phrase ‘cracker pants,’ nor did you lower yourself to discuss the nocturnal habits of possums in relation to gum stumps. (This may have been simply out of ignorance of things that appear regularly in the works of Jane Austen, but I give you the benefit of the doubt.)
What I can offer is a thought that may or may not be of interest to you. It is this: that the banjo demands attention, whether it strikes your deepest fears or sustains your highest aspirations. Unappreciated, it can represent the clang of ignorance. Appreciated, it is the rolling hope of humanity that we will be heard. But it has no time for indifference.
So, I hear you, because the banjo has taught me how to listen. And I respond, because the banjo has taught me how to speak.
Besides, I blame it on the Mummers.