You may be thinking, Wait, Dilovely, aren’t you that crazy smitten ukulele fan? Yes, I am indeed. But I also love the banjo.
Sometime when I was in university, I remember being at home with the family and we were listening to an old vinyl record of Steve Martin’s standup comedy. He was doing a bit about how it’s impossible to play sad music on the banjo, and proceeded to play this insanely happy little number on his own banjo.
At that moment, I realized: it’s true! Or basically true, anyway – I’d never heard a sad banjo song, and there was something incredibly sweet about the sound of it. I loved it.
Since then, I have made a point of enjoying lots of banjo music, including Steve Martin’s recent banjo album – a gift from my Hubbibi – called The Crow. (E likes it too.) The song “Tin Roof”, from this album, is one of my favourite songs ever.
I also enjoy another banjo player named Alison Brown. Here’s a li’l video of her song, “(I’m Naked and I’m) Going to Glasgow”. Once the banjo kicks in, you hear the happy sound I’m talking about – and so do these random dancing people at the folk festival. You can’t not smile, watching them. (Dancing : good for the soul… Way to relish your humanity, people!)
What I have come to realize is that my attraction to the sound of this particular instrument was inevitable. Two of my deepest, most beloved musical memories of childhood involve the banjo (yep, we’re going back to the 80s again! Lucky readers!).
Firstly, there’s Free to Be… You and Me, by Marlo Thomas and Friends. We only had the soundtrack (on a cassette tape with a purple label), never actually saw the TV special that spawned the songs, but we listened to those songs (and stories, and spoken pieces) A LOT. And we loved them fervently. You’d better believe they’re still in the files. From Free to Be (I thought of it as one word, “freedabee”) we learned that it’s all right to cry, that boys can play with dolls, that girls can sometimes run faster than boys and don’t have to get married to be happy, that you don’t have to fit expectations to be a good person, and that you can connect with people in all kinds of unexpected situations. GREAT STUFF.
Then there’s Cabbage Patch Dreams. Oh. Love.
I was one of those kids who wished for a Cabbage Patch Kid at that moment in the 80s when people were poking each other in the eyes with umbrellas fighting over them. I was warned that Santa might not be able to come through for me. The story goes that my grandpa was actually the one who went shopping, blissfully unaware of the significance of his errand. He inquired of a staff person at the store, and was immediately and stealthily ushered to a back storage room where they had exactly one left. Gilbertina Jill.
My sisters also got Cabbies (as we called them) eventually, as did every other kid on the continent. My best friend was one of those people who had, like, four of them, including a Preemie and one with cornsilk hair. (But she didn’t love hers with the same devotion that I loved mine.) We also had three different CPK storybooks with tapes that read to you.
But the very best thing was a tape called “Cabbage Patch Dreams”. It’s a story about the Kids of the Cabbage Patch and their escapades, specifically the time that Lavender McDade recruited Cabbage Jack and Beau Weasel to kidnap two of the Kids (Sybil Sadie and Rachel Marie) to work in her gold mine. Good ol’ Otis Lee, who could sometimes be a scamp, played a crucial role in their rescue. They flew home on the back of the Stork (who was also the Narrator), Colonel Casey.
This story is told mostly through songs – some of the best damn songs a human kid could hope for. (I’m actually serious – musically, they still hold up when I listen to them now. Great instrumentation and solid harmonies.)
Listening to this tape was actually an event. We would gather in the living room, and our Cabbies would sing along, even enact certain songs. And we would all sit quietly, reverently, practically weeping, when “Get Back Home” would come on, a heartrending ballad sung by the kidnapped Kids.
Words cannot properly express how moving this whole adventure was. Whether we pictured ourselves or our beloved Kids as victims of kidnapping, it was a pretty poignant scenario. And the tape was long enough that when it was over, we truly felt like we’d been part of a whole adventure. This song was at the beginning and end of the story, creating a perfect sense of closure for the emotional arc.
Note: awesome banjo.
You see, Di-hards? I have been nerdy for a very long time.
AND, there’s a reason the banjo is a deep-seated part of my sense of self and well-being.
I’m putting an extra bonus video in here for you. This is another beloved Freedabee song (no banjo, but the flutes are lovely); on our soundtrack there was just one female singer, singing about “you” and “me”. I’d never seen the TV version, but this kinda broke my heart.
Look at li’l skinny 14-year-old Michael Jackson, so happy and – well, probably not innocent, since he was already a huge star, but… young and fresh, anyway. Participating in such an optimistic, wholesome project for kids. I hope he actually felt the joy he portrays – and held on to at least some of it through adulthood.