Is Joe Queenan funny?

Or just riven by banjo envy?

Author, reviewer and columnist Joe Queenan has taken to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to expose his hatred of all things banjo. His unburdening was putatively inspired by the recent PBS airing of Give Me The Banjo, a documentary from The Banjo Project that examined the instrument’s brief history in the US.

“Once dismissed as the goofiest, most annoying musical instrument this side of the glockenspiel, the banjo has recently crawled back out of the crypt to which most Americans assigned it a generation ago.

At every turn, it now threatens inveterate banjo-phobes like me. Those of us who grew up associating the banjo with swamps and bayous and Quantrill’s Raiders and the harrowing events that occur in the 1972 film “Deliverance” cannot listen to the foreboding strains of the instrument without imagining ourselves in Burt Reynolds’s dire situation. Or even worse, Ned Beatty’s.

I, for one, have always believed that musical instruments can be divided into three categories: those that are loved (electric guitars, tenor saxophones, pianos), those that are respected (clarinets, trombones, French horns) and those that are feared (bagpipes, didgeridoos, pan flutes, Moog synthesizers).

The banjo falls squarely into this final class. The banjo is the musical equivalent of the battle ax: metallic, obvious, lethal and usually wielded by someone who has not read Jane Austen. The banjo, like the rocket launcher, should never fall into the hands of the amateur. Watching a neophyte take a crack at the banjo is the scariest thing since George Harrison tried playing the sitar. Actually, watching Pete Seeger play the banjo is scary enough.”

Perhaps Joe has his eye on the late Andy Rooney’s old gig at 60 Minutes, and is trying on the crusty curmudgeon. Or maybe he just lives in a musical ghetto and only experiences the old five string when it makes its way into pop culture.

In fact, he admits as much with his supposition that his native Philadelphia was banjo free – despite it being famous for the annual Mummers Parade.

“As the foregoing makes clear, I both despise and fear the banjo. This is probably because I grew up in the banjo-free City of Brotherly Love, where Foggy Mountain Breakdowns simply do not occur. But mostly I dislike the instrument because listening to the banjo makes my ears hurt. It’s tinny, corny, devoid of all nuance. It carries me back to Old Virginny and the top of Old Smokey, places that I would honestly prefer to avoid.”

Hey Joe…  get out much?

May the banjo always haunt your dreams.

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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.

  • Gary Gray

    I thought the article was hilarious. The article is clearly tongue-in-cheek and meant to be funny. I about laughed myself sick reading it.

    • Gary- I suspect that John Lawless’ article here is written in the same manner. Nothing like any debate involving the banjo. Especially in national media. I’m still chuckling myself.

      I also would guess that Philadelphia may hold a record or two for banjos being played simultaneously.

  • rachel wagnon

    The following is a copy of my FB response:
    OK, so everyone is entitled to his/her opinion….and where do I get in line for throwing tomatoes without taking them out of the can first! Just kidding – I don’t like to fight vulgarity with vulgarity. I like one of the comments I read about taking up a donation to get this guy a banjo and some lessons….isn’t that psychology’s way of hurdling inane fears?! – Exposure and Understanding…..

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  • Ken Weil

    Joe Queenan wrote, “The banjo is the musical equivalent of the battle ax: metallic, obvious, lethal, and usually wielded by someone who has not read Jane Austen.” And, I would add James Joyce. But, there is that famous banjo tune Molly Bloom. To his credit, Mr. Munde acknowledges that the name for the tune came from a dog who lived next door to a place where he often played; it was the dog’s owners that had read Joyce.

  • Barry

    Yeah, nothing like “bang your head” electric guitars that you burn at the end of the performance.

  • Alvin Blaine

    How can he consider the City of Brotherly Love as “banjo-free”, when the first commercially successful banjos were produced in Philly.
    In 1878 the S.S. Stewart Banjo Co was started by a Philadelphia native who built the best selling banjo for decades, and they were all built right there in “banjo-free” Philly (they also built all the “Acme” banjos for Sears & Roebuck Co).

    What if we did an genealogy search, on Mr. Queenan, and found out that his relatives help build S.S. Stewart banjos back in the hey day of Philadelphia banjo building. Just think he may be a descendant of Samuel Swain Stewart.
    I have seen Mr. Queenan on the Jon Stewart show before. Coincident?