Inspired by one professor’s infectious enthusiasm for Emily Dickinson, Obsessed is a new HuffPost Culture series exploring the idiosyncratic, all-consuming passions of public figures and unknowns alike. Through a mix of blogs and interviews, these pieces will highlight the elusiveness of whatever it is you just can’t live without — whether it’s blue jays, Renaissance fairs, fan fiction, or in the case of David Lynch, coffee. If you have an obsession to share, drop us a line at email@example.com.
I used to think being obsessed by the banjo was weird. How could a farm boy from Iowa fall in love with an obscure African instrument? Blame Earl Scruggs and the Beverly Hillbillies. But it didn’t get any easier as an adult. That’s when I found almost 70,000 kindred spirits — banjo lovers from around the world — at Banjo Hangout, a site dedicated to banjos. This place is banjo heaven!
For years I hung out in this forum dedicated to discussions of little-known stars, banjo porn (gorgeous pics of new, custom-made instruments), music and tabs for arcane tunes. That. and the camaraderie of peers across the globe, equally obsessed with this delightfully happy, yet mysterious instrument. The rapid growth of membership from 3,000 or so in 2003 to today’s community of 69,000 has something to do with the web, but probably more to do with the current resurgence in interest in the banjo by today’s popular musicians (i.e. Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and Taylor Swift). Now, trends is trends, and those new folks may come and go. But a true obsession runs very deep. For at least one lifetime.
My interest in the banjo grew 10-fold when my mom showed me a 1907 picture of my great uncle and grandfather as young men. They were seated cross-legged on a parlor floor with seven or eight acoustic stringed instruments scattered about them. Guitars and mandolins were everywhere. But my great uncle held my holy grail — an open-back, 5-string banjo. Three generations later, it was clearly still “in the blood” (my son is also a banjo player). I’m not sure we ever had a choice.
Now, this banjo I speak of isn’t what Earl (Scruggs) plays. That’s too new. I’m obsessed with what the slaves brought from Africa and celebrated as a pivotal part of their heritage. What we know as the banjo is actually some Rube Goldberg job, cobbled together by the Africans from available materials (over here) that may represent one of 62 plucked lutes from Western Africa. There’s another key component of banjo obsession — the mystery of its past.
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