There was a muted busy, muffled buzz in the classroom. The thirty-three eighth were engaged in a challenging project. After the perfunctory walk around the classroom to monitor student activity (hardly necessary with this industrious bunch), I paused at at my desk where my banjo leaned in the corner. Compulsively, I sat for a moment and began to tune the instrument…a compulsion formed by repetitive necessity if one acquainted with that long necked, slinky stringed instrument for long. I merely wanted to tune it, but soon I was plunking away at Mississippi Sawyer. The kids, surprisingly, applauded and then busily resumed their toils. I dove into a rendition of Julianne Johnson, the perfect vehicle for practicing drop-thumbing.
Only a minute must have passed when I was roused from my state of fixed concentration.
“What are you doing?” It was the sonorous voice of our vice-principal. I had never even noticed tall, affable man walk in. The response to his query, however, seemed obvious.
“Playing the banjo.”
“Oh.” His tone was not disapproving. Just a little bewildered. “It’s not as loud as I would expect.”
I showed him the open back and explained that it lacked a resonator like in bluegrass. He said he thought all banjos sounded like Dueling Banjos. Of course I thrust through that opening and gave him a very abridged explanation of the English/Irish roots of old time and the African roots of the banjo in particular.
He scanned the room. The kids were still immersed in their work; a couple, sensing they were being watched, looked up. I took advantage of the pause to jump into Old Molly Hare and the V.P. took a leisurely through the room and chatted amicably with a few kids about what they were doing. Shortly, with a broad smile and wave as he left, he commented, “Nice class.” I nodded back and began tuning back to G.
Over many years of teaching, I have always tried to pair music with my instruction. After playing scores of hours of music in the classroom, I’ve noticed certain trends. While many have read or heard that Bach is good for studying, my observations tell me that the kids settle to work and really focus when I play artists like Debussy, Julie Fowlis, Ellington and Coltrane, Guy Clark, and yes old-time. What is it that these disperse genres have in common? My suspicion is that much of this music penetrates the thick habituated rituals of our daily grind. It is easy to pass days—weeks — on emotional autopilot. Music at its best pierces and transcends our encapsulated lives. Poetry, music, art at its best changes one’s perception. But old-time…transformational? Really?
Most have heard that stale trope: Old-time…it’s better than it sounds. As disparaging as the remark is meant to be, there is a certain ironic truth to it: Old time…as good as it sounds, it’s even better. The banjo and fiddle at their nascence are primitive instruments. The songs that emanate from these instruments in old-time, for the most part, were first sung and played by people who were as connected to the earth, moon and sun as any redwood tree or mountain peak. Those ancient tones resonate throughout the music, whether it be a gleeful reel or a slow lament, and pull my students through time— my students born into a world where city life is as removed from the ancient as the Earth is from Pluto.
It is also possible that my students, like the teenager that responded to Dick Clark in1960 when he asked, “What do you like about this song?” simply like the beat.
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