Banjos, Birds and Janis

Your banjo teacher’s a local legend, but a likable guy. And impressive. He plays every instrument there is, even the bagpipes, although he seems most interested in trumpet. But he does know the banjo, which is why you’re there.

At your last lesson you gave him Steve Martin’s all-banjo album, The Crow, Steve playing the banjo like a pluckin’ madman on 16 cuts.  The fact that this album is titled The Crow has nothing to do with your interest in birds or banjos.

banjo hands

You figured your teacher would like it and you wanted to give him something good for a change to listen to. Your pathetic strumming wasn’t getting the job done, although you liked the music and figured there’s nothing coming out of a banjo that isn’t just a two-fisted cool sound.

So the guy’s got Martin’s CD. Next week he gives you a quiz. He says, “Did you hear what he’s doing?” And you say, “Yeah, playin’ the banjo.” “No,” the teach says, “Did you listen to the third song?”

“What was he doing there, didn’t you hear?”

Truth is, sure, you heard. It was banjo. A lot of fast plucking and a wild happy sound. The reason you’re taking banjo lessons. Your desire to play started when you heard the audio book of Steve Martin’s life, Born Standing Up, and Martin used banjo riffs in between chapters. You wanted to make that kind of noise. But that’s not what the guy was asking. He gets a CD player and hits the button.

“He’s playing down here.”

And your teacher indicates the lower part of the banjo’s neck. “And he’s making all the melody with the strings, no chords.” You figure, okay, if he says so. It still just sounds like a lot of banjo noise. Not bad, but nothing discernible.

And then he hits another cut, “Get this?” And you listen, but get nothing. “He’s doing claw hammer. That’s amazing. Nobody does that kind of thing any more. “Okay, enough.” You figure this guy’s hearing something you just can’t. But he’s been making music for more years than you’ve been alive, so maybe he’s learned a thing or two about it.

Still, you feel bad. Because you’re not hearing, identifying, digging and loving something that’s apparently worth knowing about.


There’s a window behind your teacher.

In the distance you see some birds flying by, silhouetted against the sky. You don’t want to change the subject, but what the hell. You go for it: You say to the guy, “Hey, look over the roof across the street. What d’you see?” And your teacher says, “Birds, why.”

And you know that what you’re seeing is a Red-Tailed Hawk being harassed by a group of Grackles, probably defending their nests or at least a territory. And your teacher just saw “birds.”

This has happened before.

It’s not your teacher’s fault. Another bird flies by, way off in the distance. You say, “See that bird flying, what kind is it?” And he says, laughing, “ I don’t know, man, it’s a bird.” And you know it’s a Blue Jay. Come on, the long tail, the stubby wings, the strong but erratic flight. Obvious. And a good thing to see, too, since West Nile has all but wiped out the Jays around here. But your banjo master just saw a bird, that’s all. And you only heard banjo music, that’s all.

You didn’t get the details. He didn’t get the details.

And this drives home an essential truth. Not just about birds or banjos but about everything we know and don’t know: When you learn about a thing, you see it differently. No, not just differently, better. This is not a value judgment. Not a subjective opinion. It’s reality.

A guy who spends forty years with banjos hears notes and subtleties that a dope like you can’t possibly get. He’s better off because of that. He lives in a beautiful world of complex surprising music while you hear what is essentially pretty noise.

You have something else, though.

For some inexplicable reason, you have picked up bird knowledge since you were a little kid intrigued by a bird book, and have regarded seeing birds as something akin to stamp collecting. Because of that, you know every kind of bird that flies past.

You don’t see birds, even if they’re shadowy silhouettes at a distance; you see herons with long unmistakable curled necks, and raucous crows with unbeautiful flapping wings, and hawks you’re envious of, powerful buteos with awesome wingspreads. Boring sparrows; and robins who no longer migrate in this changed climate. And you know a grackle by its tail and a starling by its tubby mundane body shape.

You and your banjo teacher are alike.

You both know a subject and get the details of it while other people might blithely stumble by, missing these details. And you figure, wait, if this is the way it is with banjos and birds, maybe it’s like that with…. everything. Of course, you’re right. Ad executives don’t see billboards…they see cost per thousand drive-by impressions. You remember working in a Chinese take-out joint when you were a kid. The boss asked you to go to a newly opened rival Chinese place and order egg rolls to bring back for analysis. He dissected these, muttering Mandarin about the contents. He didn’t see egg roll stuffing; he saw everything he needed to know about his competitor.


When you wrote truck tire brochures…

…it was a lousy job, but you came to know everything about truck tires. While waiting for a light, you looked at the truck next to you and said to your wife, “diagonal lugs on that 275/70R22.5 baby,” or some such arcane nonsense.

But wait, that was good.

Essentially good. You didn’t just see a tire; you saw a kind of tire and understood it to its core. That made you smarter. So, point of all this: you may not know one banjo chord from a pluckn’ other chord. But you’ve got the birds. As Janis Joplin said to Leonard Cohen in the Chelsea Hotel, “We may be ugly, but we’ve got the music.”

Well, neither was ugly.

janis new

But they did have the music, that’s for sure. And you may be tone deaf, but you’ve got the birds. And when you see them you know that they’re not just birds. They’re Rock Doves and Mourning Doves and Cedar freakin’ Waxwings and Merlins with mice in their bellies, and you’re better for it.

Strum that tune, Steve Martin.

8 Responses to “Banjos, Birds and Janis”

  1. sue z smith says:

    What a beautiful post. And the perfect antidote after a screamingly trying day. It even prompted me to pick up my fiddle. Music, the great healer!

  2. daniel patrick says:

    i love it! you guys might like this.. it is 1570 time lapsed images of chickadees feeding from five inches, with elecric banjo music in the backround.. Aint google great! you can pretty much type bird or banjo with anything behind it and you will find kindred spirits… birds of a feather.. anyhoo if ya like it, go ahead share it.. just drop me a line.. love this site guys.. keep it up. The video is 4min 6 sec. if you like it watch.. behind the birdbowl.. (about 35 sec) for a funny behind the scenes shot.. enjoy -daniel

  3. Ann F says:

    Wow, this is the first time that I’ve ever really gotten WHY it feels so good to see a bird and know what it is–it’s deeper into that world. Cool.

  4. G'Cat says:

    sue, I definitely do this with plants, but mine are all wild plants. I glace out the window as the car moves on its way to work, my mind labeling each weed and plant I see. Knowing which plants are out there, whatever the season, makes me happier somehow.

    When I can identify a bird by sight and sound I get the same happier, at-home feeling, too.

  5. sue says:

    been in retail horticulture all my life and I do the same thing with plants. I don’t look at my hedgerow and think ‘shrubs’, I think toyon, arbutus, prunus, redbud, live oak, coffeeberry,… it’s like seeing an image of friends where your mind puts names to faces: “Nancy and Pat, Diane and Phil, Linda and Paul and Neil…” I’ve always wondered if others do the same.

  6. Karen & Jack says:

    Aren’t our brains and how they’re wired (differently) fascinating?!

  7. Kramer says:

    I understand the whole banjo thing. I never really cared about music other than whether it sounded nice or not – can’t even read it. But I can ID birds like *that*. My mom’s the opposite. It’s funny sometimes.

  8. Ari Litt says:

    Buried in a website ostensibly about birds one finds philosophy–as in this post–interesting observation, and a literary hand at work. In fact the literary hand is evident in many other posts here, as well as interesting and accessible commentary about birds and birding. This material ought to be assembled into a book. But wait. Books are a medium of the past and web posting is the medium of now and going forward. So maybe this is all perfectly where it should be. So much fun reading. Thanks Mr. Two-fisted “writer” (and birdwatcher).
    Best to you,
    Ari, a guy in publishing