Uncanny Banjo

by zunguzungu

“The transfer of a sense of gravity into what is in itself a rather blank and unvarious spectacle…is effected by interpreting it as expressive of something unsettling in the way its authors and audience live, or, even more ominously, what they are.” Clifford Geertz

People often use the word “twang” to describe the sound of the banjo, but this must be people’s sociological imagination getting between them and the music: like the “twang” you hear in the accent of a person in the Appalachian south, there’s a kind of excess to the notes that has to be accounted for, that needs to be named. And so it is: in contrast with “normal” speech — which is supposed to only sound exactly the way it is written — an Appalachian or southerner will have something extra in their speech, something you call “drawl” or “twang” or something else. That even you have an accent — oh you vanilla urbanite of my authorial presumption![1] — is something that you may know to be true in the abstract, but still, when you hear someone speak in middle-American urban-ese, you hear only the words and none of the voice. It sounds like you. It’s only when you hear something extra added, that accent on top, that you feel the need to note something between the speaker and the speech, a cultural excess that indexes whatever it is you think it indexes.

I had that thought while listening to Bela Fleck play on McCoy Tyner’s Guitars the other day, where the contrast between banjo and piano is of that nature (as it is on his collaboration with Chick Corea, The Enchantment). The piano which may or may not have been invented to sound like pure note — as a music teacher once told me — but it certainly does, clean and mechanically precise, exactly what it is and no more than the notes on the page. But there’s so much extra in Fleck’s banjo; it’s scratchy as hell, you can hear the friction of his fretting hand on the strings, and he’s bending strings all over the place. That’s just because he’s him, partly. But the banjo is also just a weird instrument for a much more fundamental reason, its construction: pianos and guitars resonate, and so the decay of the note is predictable and warm, a gentle hit followed by a slow decline of sound. Whereas not only does the banjo have dramatically less resonance, the combination of the really harsh attack you get from finger-picks and the drum-head you use to amplify the instrument means that the sound starts fast and ends faster. This is partly why banjo playing is built around the kind of fast and repeated flurries of notes that characterize the instrument (and if you play a banjo roll on a guitar, by contrast, the sound gets muddy and blurs together). An unpedalled piano can do this too, of course, as can the particular amplification set-up that so many African guitar players favor. But it’s in the banjo’s nature to do something much stranger, much more uncanny. The notes almost come out of nowhere — the sounds of no other acoustic instrument seem as disassociated from the musician’s body than the banjo, in my opinion — and, after it’s struck, it’s gone, just as strangely.

Related: 1, 2, 3

[1] Though perhaps I am addressing myself, I who once had an Appalachian accent — I learn from videotaped evidence — but no longer seem to. Also, fyi, “vanilla” scans to me as unflavored — but, of course, is not — whereas I buy a chocolate flavored ice cream when I want to taste chocolate. As always, it is necessary and insufficient to note that this is all about race.