Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Mark Twain on the Banjo
The banjo is an instrument that always manages to bring out the humorist—as someone who’s played banjo in a band, I know about banjo jokes. My favorite one—said by Alice in Wonder Band violinist Lois Fry on the Alpine Playhouse stage while I was tuning a banjo is:
“What’s the definition of perfect pitch? When you throw a banjo in the dumpster & hit an accordion.”
Ah, well…. I do have a weakness for the banjo & the uke, two instruments that are notorious for always being on the verge of going out of tune. But where this is going (in case you were curious) is Mark Twain—who I understand from some sources did himself play the banjo. Twain has two great banjo quips—they’re available elsewhere on the web if you go looking for them—but in case you don’t, now they’re on Robert Frost’s Banjo. Here they are:
The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. Gottschalk compared to Sam Pride or Charley Rhoades, is as a Dashaway cocktail to a hot whisky punch. When you want genuine music -- music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth's pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, -- when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!
A gentleman is a man who can play the banjo, but doesn't.
Gottschalk was a piano player; Pride & Rhoades, banjoists. Soooo—was Mark Twain a gentleman?