[Dixielandjazz] No More Banjo Jokes -- It's Art!

Dick Baker box2 at twotonbaker.com
Sun Dec 18 08:03:11 PST 2005

Dear Friends -- Especially You Plunkers:

I know many of you are both banjo enthusiasts and Serious Scholars of the 
Arts, so you'll want to read all about the latest exhibition at 
Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.  The link to the full article is 
directly below (you *may* have to log-in or sign-up or something with 
Washington Post to get to it, but that's free).  I was sorely tempted to 
quote it in its entirety, but restrained myself to the first half-dozen 
paragraphs.  Enjoy.


Clear your thoughts of banjo-picking as happy music. Stop those toes from 
tapping. If you start humming the cheerful ripple of "Roll in My Sweet 
Baby's Arms," quit it. We're at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, for goodness' 
sake, and we're here to appreciate the banjo as an icon.

"Picturing the Banjo" is "the first exhibit to underscore the banjo's 
symbolism in American art," the gallery's press release proclaims. The 
show's 72 works include paintings, sketches, illustrations and a few 
antique instruments, dating back to the 18th century. It was put together 
by Leo G. Mazow, curator of American art at Penn State's Palmer Museum. The 
Corcoran is the exhibition's first stop.

Sometimes a banjo is just a banjo. But not here. The gallery wants you to 
know that while other banjo exhibitions have been simply about the banjo, 
the Corcoran wasn't going to make that mistake. This show is about the 
metabanjo, and if that sounds like an exciting premise to you, then these 
three rooms divided into seven thematic categories will be heaven. For here 
the banjo is not picked -- it is picked apart. It is probed, prodded and 
pondered. These banjos are so laden with meaning it's a wonder they stick 
to their canvases.

Forget that outmoded notion of the banjo as mere musical instrument, as the 
chipper giddyup in a bluegrass band or the lilting heart of so many 
old-time gospel songs. And don't come expecting any nimble finger-rolling 
to be piped in over loudspeakers. You study the pictures in silence, and if 
you need help solving the puzzle of these banjo images, the descriptive 
wall labels are there to give you answers.

The banjo, as Mazow explained at the media opening, speaks to us about our 
national identity. It represents our need to understand the African folk 
culture whence it came. It marks "an effort to normalize the element of the 
Other into American musical life."

In this exhibition, the banjo is racially charged and sociologically 
weighty. Forget about strings and frets. These banjos are fraught. Deeply 
fraught. Some are even sexually fraught. Women's lib might be traced back 
to the banjo, if we correctly interpret Frances Benjamin Johnston's 1895 
photo of a mischievous Miss Apperson in Sen. George Hearst's Washington 
mansion. Miss Apperson is juxtaposed with a statue of a goddess, a vision 
of Victorian virginity raised on a marble pedestal. Miss Apperson, however, 
is hardly so chaste . . . for in her hands she holds a banjo. And she's 
having a good time with it. (Really, isn't the instrument just one big 
phallic symbol? But that's a bit of banjo symbology the curators did not 
spell out.)

   Dick Baker - Falls Church, Virginia, USA
             box2 at twotonbaker.com

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