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Thinly Read

'Dueling Banjos' only a bump in the high road
Scripps Howard News Service


October 19, 2005
Wednesday AM

The banjo, as an instrument, takes some getting used to. Like the high nasal whine of most traditional male bluegrass singers, it is a somewhat cringe-inducing sound at first. But like anything worth enjoying, from coffee to cold beer, the very first taste is not always pleasant.

Give it a chance and, after a while, the banjo twang will grow on you. This is not only because the banjo is awesome, but because the banjo was, in fact, designed to be awesome.

One story holds that the banjo was invented around the 14th century by the Earl of Banjo. The earl was seeking a way to improve the accuracy of his archers by giving them a bow with five strings rather than just one. This new bow proved useful in firing multiple arrows, but its characteristic twang, coincidently in the key of G Major, tended to warn opposing armies that a wave arrows of was approaching.

This story is, of course, not true. The most accurate story going is that God himself bestowed the first banjo on bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs more than 200 years ago, telling him to go forth and bring the instrument to the people. Earl did as he was told, and over the course of two centuries brought the music to the masses. Apparently, God didn't tell Earl to hurry.

After years of increasing popularity, the banjo hit a major roadblock with the 1972 film "Deliverance." In this movie a seriously unattractive young man plays a wicked banjo duet with an acoustic guitar. The piece is known as "Dueling Banjos," and is unequivocally awesome. Unfortunately, there is an infamous scene in this movie that involves squealing pigs. As a result, the banjo has been associated with, uh, pig squealing, for nearly 30 years.

The banjo is, however, an irrepressible instrument. It would take far more than a bad reputation to keep the banjo down, and surely enough there has been a genuine renaissance in banjo music in the past few years. With their steady picking, more recent artists like Mike Munford and the incomparable Bela Fleck and classic musicians like Earl Scruggs himself have brought the banjo back to the status it deserves.

And what is it, exactly, that makes the banjo so truly awe-inspiring? The simple answer is that one does not play the banjo; the banjo plays you.

The sound of the banjo inspires nostalgia for places you have never been, trains you have never hitched and loads of lumber you have never hauled down the highway. It is the lonely, mournful twang of a restless man's heart and the raucous, rolling hellfire of a wicked man's intentions. It is the sound your soul makes when you know you're living right. And, more than anything, it'll make you tap your foot.

So no matter where you live, how old you are or how fearful you are of squealing pigs, maybe it's time you gave the banjo a little try. Work your way into it, just a few minutes of the local bluegrass program at a time. And soon you, too, will know the sheer awesomeness that is the banjo.


Ben Grabow writes for the young, the urban and the easily amused.
Contact him at thinlyread(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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