Fundraiser for Billy Redden, Duelin’ Banjos banjo boy

During the summer of 1972, a movie called Deliverance shook things up in the United States. The film itself, and its intensely negative portrayal of residents of the Appalachian region of northern Georgia offered a view of mountain folk that colored impressions for decades. But it really made a noise in the music world with its soundtrack, especially the hit it produced in Duelin’ Banjos.

Younger folks who don’t remember the time would be flabbergasted by hearing that this tune was everywhere during that summer. It did precisely what the producers hoped, reminding people for months about the movie, and making it a highly successful enterprise. It played on county stations, FM rock stations, and even easy listening. Late night comedy hosts riffed on the tune – and the notorious “squeal like a pig” line – all summer, and banjo players and bluegrass bands were forced to play Duelin’ Banjos ad nauseam for years.

Of course, it is a catchy tune, with the banjo and guitar trading the familiar lick back and forth until it breaks into a bluegrass romp, but perhaps the portrayal of the tune during the film added tremendously to its appeal. A river rafter from Atlanta was shown interacting with a mentally challenged teenager shown picking a banjo in the scene, which unfortunately generated banjo jokes for at least a generation.

We have just learned from Lance Frantzich with The Storytellers in Los Angeles, that the actor who played the banjo kid in Deliverance, Billy Redden, has fallen on hard times and has recently incurred some serious medical bills. So in true bluegrass fashion, Lance has set up a GoFundMe page where people can donate to help get Billy back on his feet.

The fact is that Redden was not in any way mentally challenged, he was simply hired by the director because he had the backwoods look they were after. They coached him, and used makeup techniques, to make him appear to be a witless boy in the film. Billy was 15 at the time the scene was shot.

Lance did some digging before trying to raise money, and discovered that Redden continued to work as an actor after Deliverance, but primarily supported himself doing odd jobs near his home in Georgia. He wasn’t well compensated for his role in the movie, and had survived of late working at Wal Mart. At 68 years of age, he obviously can’t take on the menial construction type jobs he once worked.

“I met him over the phone actually. I was doing my due diligence making sure I was actually connecting with him. So I called a few places in his home town including the editor of the local newspaper, who helped me get in touch with Billy’s manage, who happened to be picking Billy up from the hospital.”

In my youth, I held an unpleasant opinion of “that banjo kid” from the movie, as every banjo player seemed to be compared to the character he played. But the success of that film, and the huge popularity of Duelin’ Banjos was a bit shot in the arm for bluegrass music, even with the hillbilly connotations.

Bluegrass Today readers have proved themselves to be extremely generous over the years when we find one of our own in a tight spot. Perhaps you can find it in your heart to make a contribution to help Billy Redden, a true banjo icon of the 1970s, with his medical bills.

The GoFundMe campaign has already raised close to $1,000 in just a few days, and Lance is hoping to be able to send as much as $20,000 to Redden’s manager to help with doctor’s bills.

Long live Billy Redden and that banjo kid from the movie!

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.