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