Banjo Blues

I’ve been absent-minded since birth. As a kid I was forever losing things—combs, watches, ball gloves—you name it. My hands had the ability to operate independently of any cerebral process, as if each had a mind of its own. I still wish I had the wristwatch I left in the dressing room at Smoky Stover’s swimming pool in Willow in 1962. 
 
My mind would center on something of interest while, unbeknownst to it, my hand would lay whatever it was holding in an obvious spot never to be found again. I understand why my Irish ancestors believed in those prankish wee folk—leprechauns and fairies, who sneak around and hide things.  
 
Age has not improved my absent-mindedness. If anything, it has compounded the problem with age-related issues such as short-term memory impairment, “senior moments,” and CRS (can’t remember stuff).  
 
So, after countless incidents of staring vacantly into the refrigerator because I couldn’t remember why I had opened it or going on scavenger hunts several times a week to find my car keys, I decided to take action before I was placed in a nursing home before my time. Because my brother ran the nursing home and still remembers that as a toddler I wrecked his trove of toys, this could be another problem.
 
Articles abound in popular magazines and on the internet about the importance of exercising the senior mind to stay vital and engaged. The mind is like a muscle they say—use it or lose it. My wife’s solution is Sudoku, that mind-boggling numbers grid invented by a Swiss mathematician over 200 years ago and popularized more recently by a Japanese publisher. But that’s too much like arithmetic for someone who got a “C” in college algebra. (In my defense, I overslept and missed most of a midterm exam.). 
 
My mother-in-law, who maintained a sharp mind and disposing memory into her nineties, worked crossword puzzles all her life. Crossword puzzles are not for me. They involve too many obscure words like “ova” and esoteric names of Greek muses or the moons of Jupiter.  
 
Then there’s the old standard—learn a new language. Not for me, either. I’m fine with the two years of French I learned from Mr. Findley at WSHS—it sustained me for a summer in Europe. Plus, that would mean going to class at night. I spent seven years teaching evening classes at colleges, and I’m too old for that, now. And, as my wife will attest, my brain shuts down after 8:00 p.m.  
 
I read someplace that learning to play a musical instrument was good for the developing brains of children, as well as the declining minds of seniors. Now, that seemed like a possibility. It sounded better than sitting in front of the courthouse whittling with the codgers I used to see on trips to West Plains. [My apologies to any current gentlemen woodcarvers.] 
 
The piano was out of the question—entirely too intimidating. Then my aging mind, which still tries to engage in fancy footwork and look for loopholes, decided a banjo might be the solution. Who wouldn’t like to be able to play a banjo? A banjo looked like it would be fun and has a certain amount of cachet. How hard could it be? I’d seen hillbillies on Heehaw make it look easy. Even a comedian like Steve Martin learned to play a 5-string banjo. I didn’t expect to be a virtuoso such as Earl Scruggs—just five easy pieces was all I wanted to be able to play. 
 
After all, I had a little experience with a guitar. In the sixties, folk music and simple rock and roll songs were the rage and most involved guitars, and I decided to get one. Peanut Gilbert, a jack of all trades at the Western Auto store, sold me an off-brand guitar they had displayed there. The tone quality of this guitar was about what one would expect from a musical instrument purchased at an auto parts store. The sound it produced was like a fork scraping a pan.
 
Nevertheless, I joined several boys to take beginning guitar lessons at Wilma Stringer’s house. Wilma, married to elementary principal Clifford “Mack” Stringer, taught freshman chorus and grade school music. 
 
Wilma’s guitar wasn’t much better than mine, but she knew music and knew how to play a guitar. The lessons only lasted a few weeks, but we learned how to play a ditty called “Bill Grogan’s Goat” and several three-chord songs.
 
My mind was doing the Texas two-step, now. Since I had plinked a guitar for a while and had some campfire songs and a few Beatle tunes in my repertoire, I thought I’d have a running start with a banjo.  
 
Asking for help is always the last refuge for me, but I called a music store in the city and inquired about lessons. The owner said he provided instruction in bluegrass-style picking, and added that he could rent me a five-string banjo.
 
At my first lesson, I advised the instructor that I just wanted to learn five easy pieces, but in no time at all, I was convinced there weren’t five easy pieces. Not on the banjo. Not even “Turkey in the Straw.” 
 
With a five-string banjo, the lower four strings extend from the bottom all the way to the top of the neck. The top string only goes about half-way up the neck and produces a high-pitched tone that is integral to the bluegrass sound.  
 
With four strings on the upper neck and five on the bottom, my mind believes, and sabotages my hands into believing, that when my left hand is playing the top string on the neck that my right hand should be playing the top string on the bottom. Wrong. The top string on the bottom is the fifth (short) string. The result is a piercing whine that sounds like a bullet ricocheting off a church bell, and I hit it often. I was beginning to think my instructor’s frown lines would be permanent.
 
For the accomplished picker, the banjo is truly a musical instrument. For me, it is a neuro-motor skills appliance that challenges both sides of my brain. On the neck of the banjo, the right-brain controls the fingers of the left hand to make individual notes and chords. On the strumming part, the left brain manipulates curled fingers of the right hand in continuous rolling patterns. But getting the left hand and the right hand to work independently is like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. It can be done but only with serious practice . . . and not by everyone.
 
Did a year of lessons improve my memory and mental faculties? As Mao Tse-tung supposedly said in remarking on the effect of the French Revolution—it’s too soon to tell. But nonetheless, there are collateral benefits. I no longer fret about avoiding Sudoku and crossword puzzles, and I experience a lofty, insufferable smugness when a stranger sees my banjo case and wistfully says, “I always wanted to play the banjo.”  
 
Smugness is a precarious perch. As I was getting in my car after a lesson, my instructor hustled out of his studio waving some papers to get my attention. “Hey, professor, you forgot your music.”  
 
Maybe I should see if I can still play “Bill Grogan’s Goat” on the guitar . . . or just give up and join the geezers at the courthouse. 

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793
417-252-2123

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