In Defense of Banjo Jokes

Reader Contribution by Michael Johnathon
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Hey friend, how late does the band play?
Oh, about half a beat behind the banjo player.

Recently a prominent artist, a really good fellow and a brilliant musician, a true leader in the exploration of the banjo … expressed a very sincere opinion about his dislike for jokes about the banjo. I get it and I understand it, but I want to present a polite alternate opinion.

Jokes about the banjo are great. I don’t feel they are negative, I think they make the banjo more appealing and accessible to the public at large. It makes the banjo seem fun and approachable.

It’s not my impression that jokes about the banjo somehow dishonor the instrument or the brilliant players that it attracts. It actually elevates the banjo above most other instruments because, well, it makes folks talk about it. It makes folks aware of it. Jokes about the banjo create a mystery about the instrument that we can learn from.

We live in a very serious world with very serious things happening that are creating very serious consequences. The front porch spirit of America is needed more than ever and the music of the front porch is needed more than ever. That’s where fiddles and mandolins and, yes, banjos are part of the revitalization of the front porch spirit.

Two musicians were walking down the street,

one of them played banjo and the other didn’t have any money either.

Part of that spirit is good old-fashioned rural humor. Banjo jokes are the epitome of that simple, innocent, stress relieving humor that started in the days even before the Grand Ole Opry. Stringbean to Uncle Dave Macon to Grandpa Jones to Steve Martin filled stages with the laughter of all kinds of humor including jokes about that amazing, wonderful instrument in their hands.

To me, the elimination of a good old fashion banjo joke creates the impression the instrument is beyond the reach of the average player, a “hard to reach” level.

It makes it less happy.

I love the skill level of my friend, and certainly respect his feelings that the banjo is an expressive, adventurous instrument. Yes, it’s more than a joke. But it’s also part of the fabric of America and America needs to laugh a little.

A banjo is like an artillery shell,

by the time you hear it, it’s too late.

As Steve Martin says in one of his comedy routines, “nobody can be angry when they’re playing a banjo.”

 The artist in this case wasn’t angry, simply expressing a very sincere opinion about his view of joking about something that he has devoted his life to. I get it and I can understand why he feels it is a serious issue. Joking about a banjo might feel like joking about his life, his heart, his years of effort work in practice, his love, his very life. But the reality is the banjo is one of the most enjoyable, fun family instruments in the world. And yes, folks joke about it because they love it, it means something to them, it attracts them, it makes them well, happy.

What do you call a beautiful woman on the arm of a banjo player? A tattoo.

So pick up a banjo, maybe from Deering Banjos, they have great instruments and affordable. Learn a good old front porch song, tell a good old banjo joke… And laugh a little. Let’s give ourselves the freedom and permission to have fun.

Michael Johnathonis a folk singer, songwriter, and homesteader based in Kentucky. He is the founder, producer and host ofWoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, a radio and television program featuring Americana, folk and other American roots music. He wrote the play Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau, which has been performed in more than 8,900 colleges, community theaters and schools in nine countries. His latest book WoodSongs IV and album Dazed & Confuzed are being released in 2019.  Connect with Michael on his websiteand read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere


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