The banjo came, not down
from the mountains, but across the Atlantic.
Its straight, wooden neck perched
atop a gourd stretched with skin,
its curve shaped not unlike
those bodies packed spoon-like
below ship-deck. It drifted south via
the Ohio, where its chords first twanged
to soothe the strangeness of cotton fields,
to quiet the sting of work and whip.
It was fretless, traversed by strings
made of horsehair or cat guts twined
thinly so that the downstroke rang
like a hammer against steel, knocking down
against the thumb’s lift. It sounded
like moon beams, a skipped stone,
a tin roof hit with rain after baking
all day in the Alabama sun.
By the time it followed the tributaries
to Appalachia, it had already been snatched
by white men who corked their faces
black and picked and grinned upon the stages
of circuses and steamboats. As the railroad
trekked it north and west, its story rose up
like steam, scattering across mountains
and valleys, and somewhere in between
fields of okra and blue grasses,
we took spoof for truth.
Today, if you cross the Ohio south
from Indiana, you can find banjos lined up
like polished stones. There, behind
Uncle Penn’s fiddle, and just to the right,
the “Whyte Ladyie” preens, its delicate
filigree of pearl and carved maple
framing its rounded headboard. Gleaming
from behind the glass, its bleached face,
marred only by a thin, ebony fingerboard,
stares ahead blankly,
a whitewashed tomb.
Photo by peppergrasss