The Stories His Banjo Told

When I was a kid, while the cousins, auntie and my grandma shouted, “Pappa it's too loud, close the door.” I sat with my ear tuned to my grandpa's banjo playing. Although I’m most often described as a Cherokee, Delaware and Seneca woman—banjo music is truly my deepest felt heritage.

My grandfather had a long neck Plectrum built in the late 1920’s, three tenors and one old five-string plectrum. He liked to experiment with different tuning and kept each banjo at a different tune. While everyone in the family liked hearing my grandpa’s banjo playing, I was the only one who liked hearing it all of the time.

The rhythm of the banjo speaks to me. I feel the tang of each cord my grandfather plays, every song floats in it’s own color. Four Leaf Clover is silver-green. Waiting For the Robert E. Lee is brown, the calm color of dry weeds and grass, and Carolina Moon is bluer than Morning Glories. My grandfather got his first banjo in 1922 at the age of ten. It was a five-string banjo bought for five dollars out of the Montgomery Ward mail-order catalog. He earned the money by milking cows and selling the cream. He taught himself to play it by looking at songs in old school music books he found at the thrift shop. After studying the song he would shut the book and try to match the tune.

“I left my first banjo in the coal shed at the house on 28th and Race Street.” My grandfather explained. “We moved and I forgot to get it. But it was just a cheap banjo and by the time we moved I already bought myself a Paramount banjo.”

 “Is that the same house where you slept out of the back porch in the summer and could hear mountain lions?" I asked. Then it dawned on me that Elbert, Colorado is fifty miles south east of Denver and not at all near the natural world. Remember, I had grown up as a child of the mountains, often falling asleep in my flannel-lined sleeping bag with bear noises outside.

 “Pappa, if you lived in the city how did you hear mountain lions at night?” I asked. My grandfather peered at me over the tops of his glasses. We were both silent, our conversation about banjo music seemed to have been left on some beautiful mountain on the other side of the continental divide. Pappa answered slowly, “Our house was a block from the City Zoo.”

All my life my grandfather has given me stories. The stories I liked best were the ones his banjo told. When he wasn’t playing his banjo he was growing things in the garden. His backyard was the only childhood home I’d ever known that hadn’t gone away. He took care of me when my mom was sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, and I was one, two and three. My mom and my dad were good parents, as good as teenagers trying to grow up with a baby can be.

In my mind today I am again with my grandfather, eating extra sharp cheddar cheese, black licorice and reliving the time he stayed with me for a week. Buttoning Pappa’s shirt for him when his fingers wouldn't close around the buttons. Days and days of rodeo watching and drinking Dr. Pepper so that I can keep up with my eighty-five year old grandfather.

While I am folding laundry Pappa asks, “Honey do you remember that book you liked so much when you were little?” By now I’m already rummaging through the bookshelves, searching for an old book with yellow pages and a loose binding. Pappa clears his throat, his voice is rough with an eighth grade education, yet he is a good reader and for the last time he reads to me.

And when the story ends, he pulls out his banjo and plays for me.

 First published in The Raven Chronicles: A Journal of Art, Literature and the Spoken Word