Illustration by Eliza Bishop
He plays a banjo downtown—Crestview, Florida. He’s a big fella, thick-bearded, with a personality so jolly he makes Santa look like a jerk.
“Whatcha want me to play?” he asks a few kids.
Somebody's mother asks, "Do you know ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’”
He does. And he plucks through it like a man whose beard is on fire. He plays this music like he belongs in a different world. An older one.
The world your great-grandparents came from—long before twenty-four-hour news channels.
He was homeless for a long time, and it's been hard on his body. He uses a wheelchair. Once, he even died on an operating table from a collapsed lung.
But he's a cheery son of a banjo.
He fingerpicks the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I've never met this man, I know him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It's a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn't. It's more than that.
It's a rural church, with wood floors. Where preaching is more like shouting, and the pastor rolls up his sleeves to pray for folks.
It's a funeral procession made of cars with headlights on.
The music is salt peanuts and Coca-Cola, straw hats, and side-of-the-road boiled-peanut shacks.
Like the peanut stand I stopped at last week, outside Dothan. The old man filled my bag until I needed a forklift to move it.
“It's on the house,” the man said.
I paid him anyway.
The banjo-man isn't playing for onlookers at all. He's playing for men who hunted coon with oil lanterns, and women who could grow camellias in red clay dirt—and did.
Women like Miss Flora, whose hair is whiter than Elvis’ Resurrection suit. Who still remembers when the biggest news in the universe wasn't Facebook politics, it was a war in Europe.
“During the Great War,” Miss Flora says—tapping her foot to the banjo rhythm. “This town had flags everywhere. Hanging in stores, churches, theaters….”
I'll just bet they did.
I close my eyes while he rolls. I see country stores. Like the Country Store in Jefferson, Alabama—a creaky place that’s been along Highway 28 since your ancestors used mule-wagons. Where you can still buy everything from Duke’s mayo to plug tobacco.
I see farmland—the kind owned by families, not corporations. And the way the moon looks over the bay.
Big lunches. Sunday naps. Women who use talcum powder after showers. Gas-station clerks who bring their bloodhounds to work.
The instrument sounds good in his hands. He has a light touch.
When he's finished, he tells the kids, “My father instilled four things in me, you wanna hear them?"
The kids are eating out of his hand. “Yes!” they say.
He holds up four fingers and says, “Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t judge, and don't disrespect nobody.”
This world could use a few more banjo players.