From Keys to Strings

From keys to strings, a musical adventure begins!

Friends never ask why I took up the piano. Not so with the banjo! When they discover I devote time to the banjo rather than the piano, they panic: “Stick with the piano; it’s a much nicer instrument! Women don’t play banjo! You’re from Ottawa, not the Deep South!”

I tell them I bought my Goldtone banjo right here at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. Still, they find it strange I would ‘switch’ to banjo. One pianist friend of mine whose arms are as graceful as a ballet dancer’s told me that my new choice of instrument was “unfeminine”- the harp would have been far more appropriate.  She was right on that point. Carrying the banjo case around ain’t exactly Grace Kelly gorgeous.

Most importantly, the banjo and piano are totally unrelated instruments. The only thing they have in common is the need for finger dexterity. One is percussive, and the notes are already there; the other is a ‘plucker’ with strings, and frets to guide you. So why the banjo?

Years ago at the Bluesfest, I met Tony Levin, one of the world’s greatest bass players. I was interviewing some veteran musicians performing at the event for a Montreal paper. After chatting for a while, he asked me that obvious question: “Why did you take up the banjo. It’s so different from the piano,” he found it amusing – not a common occurrence. “Do you find it harder than piano?”

Not wanting to waste his time with a nobody like me, I tried to sum it up in a few succinct sentences. “The banjo is portable; it is a social instrument. I love the lyric in the songs for banjo. The stories are about good old fashioned God-fearing people who have a lot of common sense and wisdom. And yes, it is incredibly difficult – at least for me.”

Mr. Levin’s parting words were: “Keep on plucking. Your enthusiasm is great!” (Unfortunately, my enthusiasm did not match my level of banjo playing). Still, I followed his advice and persisted, fresh on the heels of Mark Twain’s banjo comment: “If you want to feel strychnine running through your veins…feel life like you never have, then smash the piano and take up the banjo.”

I didn’t tell Mr. Levin this that Twain’s words really resonated for me, for I was in a slump following a failed relationship. I needed to feel alive again. Ever hear of banjo therapy? Maybe, it’s in the twang.

Furthermore, traveling around with a banjo on your knee beats carrying a suitcase of soundless clothes. True, the film Deliverance gave the banjo a bad rap, but the Dixie Chicks fixed all that.

It was just before they hit the charts, that the banjo put me on a new track of life.

There were no female teachers up here, so it was a thrill to go to Elkins College in West Virginia and study with Murphy Henry (a woman) who basically made us females feel feminine and empowered toting our banjos around and taking them out to play together. I’d never experienced that kind of music. It was light, yet sorrowful in solo, responsive yet complex. The banjo repertoire offers spirited glimpses into humanity’s triumphs and woes, such as Keep on the Sunny Side; It’s hard Ain’t it Hard; even murder makes its banjo mark, Pretty Polly.

One night there was a huge jamming session in the park in Elkins. Bluegrass groups were brimming. You could move about and join anyone you wanted to. I remember a really friendly all-female group of players plucking away their banjos in bluegrass style, giving a rip roaring rendition of Cripple Creek. I felt the joy of banjo, vocals, and unity. We must have replayed that tune 20 times, and each time I felt a growing ecstasy. Then there was a tap on my shoulder from behind. It was a Mennonite lady loudly declaring: “Sweetie, you really have the Lord in you!” That did it. I nearly converted on the spot!

Playing the banjo turned me into a singer/songwriter. The banjo brought me fine friends, professional gigs and a chance to learn about life through songs steeped in tried and true experiences.

I left the piano for over a decade.  But if truth be told, I came back to it – like a lover longing for the one she first loved.  Hey, that line belongs in a banjo song!