Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why Robert Frost? Why the banjo?

So my wife & I are out driving on this yellow & stifling August afternoon coming down 50 miles & more than 2000 feet from the Idaho pines & the temperate lake breezes to the Idaho rangelands where the heat’s rippling off the blacktop & the landscape is all wilted yellow-purple-brown dotted with gnarly bitterroot & pale sagebrush & U.S. flags & where during the last boom formidable homes sprang up on 40 acre McRanches replacing the double-wides, & folks from the big homes would stop by in August & ask “Where’s the water? There was water on my property back in April when I bought it,” & of course the rangeland is emerald green in April, & temperate, & full of blackbird trills… & all the folks at the big houses buy their scotch pines to plant, because this is Idaho of course & you have to have pine trees, not noticing perhaps that there really are no trees in Indian Valley except aspens & cottonwoods—trees whose shallow roots can find some water above the hard-pan—so the pines either wilt in the summer heat & drought or are stunted….

So we’re driving home—but what does this have to do with Robert Frost or the banjo? We’re talking about the farrago of topics that occupy my mind & whether they have any unifying element—because I’m thinking a blog ought to be about something more definite than what I’m thinking about on a given day; & we’re talking about music & the history of musical instruments & all the anecdotes I’ve picked up between Vermont & Virginia & San Francisco & Idaho & various rest stops in between & maybe some sort of America the way it never was vision out of Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” & a postcard collection that takes up three bulletin boards & a rather large drawer in the old sideboard, & an off-&-on obsession with poetry that doesn’t add up in many ways, since it tends to focus on both Elizabeth Bishop & Ted Berrigan, & she says, “Well, it’s sort of come down to Americana—it’s like Robert Frost’s banjo.”

Robert Frost—the avuncular rural Vermont poet who writes about sleighbells in easy to read rhymed pentameter—except he wasn’t from Vermont (or New Hampshire—for which we native Vermonters can be glad at least) at all but from Baghdad by the Bay as it used to be called back when Baghdad stood for sinful glamour & not bombed-out imperialist apocalypse— & his vision of the world encompasses “Desert Places” & a lonely train ride across Utah & various forms of insanity….

& the banjo—so quintessentially American, though actually not American at all but African—a sort of elongated & 4-stringed thumb piano with a drone (because it seems, the string added later in the 19th century wasn’t the drone string); a gourd on a pole, a slave instrument that wouldn’t have much to do with 3-chord music but then later was transformed through minstrel shows & the early 20th century banjo craze to reflect white America’s tastes in popular music—was then pretty much abandoned only to re-surface both in bluegrass through Earl Scruggs’ re-interpretation of old time techniques & with the addition of thumb & fingerpicks, or in the folkie movement under the unremittingly benign vision of Pete Seeger, complete with frailing fingernail & thumb, or with Pete’s own re-vision of the banjo—long-necked & played sort of guitar style with the middle finger plucking up instead of the fingernail striking down….

So anyway, folks, thanks to my wife—also, if she’d ever practice, a far better banjo player than I am—this is “Robert Frost’s banjo,” & after all the talking is over, & the coffee’s drunk & you’ve cleaned up the last crumbs of strawberry rhubarb pie, this is still me just writing about whatever comes to mind. Hope you’d like to come along for the ride….

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