Film: Give Me the Banjo (2011)
Writer/Producer/Director: Marc Fields
Cast: Narrated by Steve Martin, with appearances by Béla Fleck, Dom Flemons, Pete Seeger, Rhiannon Giddens, Alison Kraus, Taj Mahal, and many others
?This machine kills fascists.?
A sticker on Woody Guthrie’s guitar
?This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.?
Inscribed on Pete Seeger’s banjo
America’s Instrument Is Talking. If Only We’d Listen . . .
A brightly painted antique picture frame bearing the inscription ?Minstrel Show? is wound up and set in motion. Inside, a minstrel with a black face plucks a banjo, his head bobbing jauntily back and forth as his hand strums against the strings.
While the banjo plays on, ethnomusicologist Greg Adams explains, ?You can’t talk about the history of the banjo without talking about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation?all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo. We are beyond the point in our understanding of the history of this instrument of pretending that these things don’t exist.?
The banjo began in Africa but developed a history of its own among American slaves. It was an instrument that could absorb any musical tradition you could throw at it, and was important to the development of a whole slew of uniquely American musical forms, including Tin Pan Alley, blues, bluegrass, and Dixieland jazz.
Disdained for being an integral part of the degraded lives of American slaves, the banjo at the same time became a tool allowing African-Americans to enter mainstream culture by manifesting their pre-existing cultural aesthetic, a thing so bona fide that people of all hues couldn’t help being drawn to it.
It wasn’t just African-Americans who benefitted. Poor factory workers and white farm folk also found in the banjo a sturdy ladder out of cycles of poverty and back-breaking labour. Later on, during the folk revivals of the ?50s and ?60s, pissed-off college kids used the banjo’s crude but sparkling voice in songs of solidarity and protest.
I’ve often said that America’s greatest contribution to the world has been the music of her oppressed peoples. For some reason the injustices of the first centuries allowed the suffering ones to make lemonade out of all those lemons by developing a vibrant low culture, without which global high culture would have been ever so much the poorer.
In laying out the history of the banjo in America, Fields has given us an expansive survey of American history, a history unimaginable without this humble string instrument. The writer starts with a brilliant premise and executes it beautifully.
I was delighted to see that several of the people appearing in this documentary have also been reviewed right here on the Mindful Bard and in interviews with The Voice. Either this means that yours truly might have a crush on the banjo, or the banjo itself has qualities that make it the poster child for the Mindful Bard aesthetic.
Give Me the Banjo manifests six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria about for films well worth seeing: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence; 3) it harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda; 4) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavour; 5) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; and 6) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.