God, the banjo, and me

An essay by Mitch Finley ’73

About 10 years ago, I discovered that I wanted to learn to play the five-string banjo. In my high school years, it was a big part of the sound of my favorite folk group, the Kingston Trio. Somewhere in an obscure corner of my being, I had wanted to do this for a long time. I said as much to my good spouse. She blinked, looked at me, and replied, “Say what?”

“I want to get a banjo and learn to play it,” I said, and I was serious. This was no passing inclination. But what I did not know was that connections would develop and grow of a spiritual nature. Indeed, learning to play the five-string banjo, and practicing every day, would become not just a hobby but a prayerful discipline.

The two main styles of playing are the old-time “clawhammer” or “frailing” style, done bare-fingered, and the driving, hot, three-finger style of Earl Scruggs, which takes two finger picks and a thumb pick. I decided the Scruggs style was for me, and his bluegrass music, too. Now 84 and celebrated as the master the world over, Scruggs is still active and enthusiastic about playing and promoting his five-string instrument.

Using money left to me by my paternal grandmother when she died at the age of 100, I began to learn the banjo, its history, and how to play it. It is, literally, “America’s Instrument,” to borrow the title of a coffee table-size book on the history of the banjo by Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman. While today’s banjo can be traced to a stringed instrument made from a dried gourd played by 17th- and 18th-century African slaves, in its present form the banjo is the only widely played musical instrument that didn’t come from Europe.

As an undergraduate at Santa Clara in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I adopted a disciplined approach to learning, so it was no surprise to my wife when I set my alarm clock 30 minutes earlier so I could rise at a time that would allow me one full hour each morning for pickin’. I also cultivated the habit of playing my banjo when I had nothing else to do, going once or twice more through whatever tune I was working on at the time, maybe “Wildwood Flower” or “Worried Man Blues.”

One of the first lessons I learned, however, had nothing to do with any particular piece of music. Rather, it had to do with humility, for I was a rank beginner and soon realized that a middle-aged person does not acquire a skill as quickly as a child or adolescent. I had to cultivate the virtue of being only what and who I am. I had to “become as a little child,” because that was the only way I would learn.

I aimed to enjoy doing what I could do without anguishing over what I could not do. Yes, I could play a slow, simple version of “Cripple Creek,” but I could not yet play Scruggs’ classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” I had to work at being okay with playing, over and over, almost endlessly, the various three-finger patterns, called “rolls,” that Scruggs-style banjo playing is built upon. Later, I would add the skills needed to play the three-finger “melodic” style originated by banjo greats Bill Keith and the late Bobby Thompson. This style allows the banjoist to play, note-for-note, fiddle tunes such as Jay Ungar’s lyrical “Ashokan Farewell.”

Sacred time

As I pursued my banjo goals, one slow lesson at a time, I began to see that banjo time was sacred time. Even when I grew frustrated with my slow progress, my deepest feeling was one of joy. I began to say a short prayer at the start of each practice session, asking the Holy Spirit for support and inspiration, and another prayer, one of gratitude, at the end of each banjo hour. When a small breakthrough occurred—a new tune memorized, a previously frustrating technique finally mastered—I whispered a prayerful “Thank you.”

Banjo time has become, for me, a time of grace. Resurrection to new life can happen even with—verily, because I have—a banjo in my hands. With the Catholic sacramental imagination in gear—where anything good, true, or beautiful can whistle up the divine presence—even a banjo can become part of a sacramental spirituality, a conduit of God’s divine life channeled to the human heart through everyday things: the sacred in the ordinary. Indeed, it was as a religious studies major at Santa Clara that I first learned to think like this.

Along the way, I had a “leap of the sacramental imagination.” I realized that in watching performances of great banjo players, each with a unique style, I could see these happy pickers as metaphors or images of God: a playful, graceful, humorous God. In one filmed performance, the late John Hartford—best known as the author of “Gentle On My Mind”—steps onto the stage of Nashville’s fabled, ghost-populated Ryman Auditorium, banjo strapped on, derby hat at a jaunty angle, and plays and sings “Gum Tree Canoe.” Simultaneously, he works his two-tone spectator shoes through a soft-shoe dance. I smile. This, too, is what God is like!

In another, Leroy Troy sits on a wooden chair on the wide covered porch of a rustic Appalachian house and knocks out a wonderful, fast-paced version of “Grandfather’s Clock.” Troy learned to “throw” the banjo from an old man who learned it many years earlier from the first big star of the Grand Ole Opry, Uncle Dave Macon. With one hand just below the peghead, he holds up his banjo and swings it like a pendulum. With the same hand, he plucks a string at the first fret to make the sound of a clock striking the hour. Troy spins the banjo once by its neck, thrusts it forward and back again, then flips it end over end before returning to the accompaniment for his song. God as astonishing, fun-loving singer.

A few years ago, I helped form a sort of bluegrass band with some fellow novice musicians who play guitar, mandolin, fiddle, stand-up bass, and another banjo. We play and sing at retirement communities and nursing homes, wedding receptions, a local bookstore, the occasional bluegrass festival, and whatever other odd venue presents itself. We recorded a CD last year in two sessions. I debuted as a vocalist and banjo soloist on the mysterious, sweet old song “The Foggy, Foggy Dew.” On the same CD, I kick off “I’ll Fly Away” with a banjo solo. At the second recording session, on the ninth take, I finally got it right.

So here I am, almost a decade into my life with banjo. Each morning I heft my banjo, flip its leather strap over my shoulder, and begin to play. Divine grace fills the room as I persist at my project of teaching my fingers to dance. Oh, and if I listen carefully, I hear the voice of God our loving Father as He whispers in my ear, “Pick it solid, son!”

Mitch Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes, most recently The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those in Between (The Word Among Us Press) and Key Moments in Church History (Sheed & Ward). He lives in Spokane.

post-image Playing America’s instrument: Mitch Finley and his five-string / Courtesy Mitch Finley
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