Magazine article The Spectator

Plucking Heartstrings

Magazine article The Spectator

Plucking Heartstrings

Article excerpt

The death last week of legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs was marked by generous obituaries. He fashioned a style of playing now copied worldwide.

In 2004, his instrumental 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' - theme music for the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde - was chosen by the US Library of Congress for the National Recording Registry. He died at 88. So, a good innings. No doubt he's now playing elsewhere. As they say in Nashville, 'The good Lord likes a little pickin' too.'

A friend wonders how I 'defend' playing - or, more accurately trying to play - the banjo. As if it's a type of discriminatory behaviour now forbidden. I say that, like the violin, I find it's an instrument capable of producing sounds both joyous and sad.

Sometimes both at the same time.

No instrument plucks at my heartstrings so reliably. For me, the most affecting scene in the Oscar-laden 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke - '67 was clearly a vintage film year - involves a banjo. Luke, played by Paul Newman, beaten half to death by guards at a nightmarishly violent Deep South prison farm, is informed that his dying mother has gone. He retires dejectedly to his bunk, watched by apprehensive fellow inmates.

There he begins to strum his banjo and sing a tawdry ditty, 'Plastic Jesus' , which praises the religious symbols carried by many US motorists: Goin' 90, I ain't wary 'cause I've got the Virgin Mary Assurin' me that I won't go to hell.

The scene could be pure bathos in the hands of anyone but Newman, who doesn't play the banjo well and sings out of tune. His co-star, George Kennedy, said years later in an interview: 'Paul knew as much about playing a banjo as I know about making cakes, but he wanted to play his own accompaniment. The director, Stuart Rosenberg, said you can't learn to play banjo that easily. But Paul said, "No, I'm going to try.'' 'And in the scene you see Paul make an error. He wasn't doing it the way he wanted and became madder and madder. . . although you can only tell by the increase of the pace of his picking the banjo.

'When it was over, Rosenberg said, "Print." Paul said, "I could do it better."

Rosenberg said, "Nobody can do it better." ' He's right. Check it out on YouTube under Paul Newman - Plastic Jesus.

Banjos - essentially drums with strings over them - are mentioned in the 1620 diaries of the explorer Richard Jobson who found in Africa an instrument 'made of a great gourd and a neck, thereunto was fastened strings.' Thomas Jefferson said of it in 1781: 'The instrument proper to them (the slaves) is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa. …

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