My banjo arrived—as most of my mail does—at work. I had been stalking the UPS website all morning, waiting to see when the delivery truck had arrived. At noon the men in brown where here and I floated down to the second floor. The long box marked Fragile was there, as was a slew of other employees, and the UPS guy. All were eating cake. It was the driver's birthday, and Tami, our mail maven had made sure he had a vanilla sheet cake waiting for him. (I adore that I work for a company that remembers the mailman's birthday, and bakes for him). I had my cake (at wolfish speed) and then took the box down to an empty room on the first floor to open it, tune her up, and frail away.
When I was in the sanctity of the little private room I opened the box and pulled out the black case. INside was green felt, a little hydrometer, and a thing of beauty: a 5-string open back banjo. It was a modest model, a Morgan Monroe. (They also make the great beginner old-time banjo, the hobo) and since it was ordered from Knoxville's Banjo Hut: it was ready to play—strings on, bridge set, nearly in tune. I lifted her into my arms. I took a deep breath. What a feeling to have back again.
It had been a while since I had played, but the old Waltz came back to me. I played Down in the Willow Gardens, which I learned from a Wayne Erbsen beginner tab book, and that mountain music was back. I closed my eyes, playing from automatic memory. The same type of motions that get you twenty miles down the road you don't remember driving to. I played that song, clumsily, making mistakes and keeping on. I felt the dark green grass under me, and the navy blue and purple sky above me, and the blesses summer heat of Tennessee. I felt the warmth of a campfire on my cheek. The sting of muscles sore from hiking up Chimney Tops. The flash of heat lightening, the glow of a firefly just outside my line of site, the constant percussion of a cold stream.
Old Time Banjo is all these things, every time. From that first lesson of learning how to frail the timeless clawhammer strum to your mastering of Georgia Buck is Dead: it's that exhale of place and past. It's a postcard and a memory. It's instant smiles and heart-wrenching reflection. It's the music played in camps of the Civil War, and 60s protests, and my own adventures around America. It's a part of me, woven in.
Thank you for this fine gift.