Peanut Music

He fingerpicks the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I've never met this man, I know him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It's a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn't. It's more than that.

He plays a banjo downtown, Crestview, Florida. He’s a big fella, thick-bearded, with a personality so jolly he makes Santa look like a jerk.

“Whatcha want me to play?” he asks a few kids.

Somebody’s mother asks, “Do you know ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’”

He does. And he plucks through it like a man whose beard is on fire. He plays this music like he belongs in a different world. An older one.

The world your great-grandparents came from—long before twenty-four-hour news channels.

He was homeless for a long time, and it’s been hard on his body. He uses a wheelchair. Once, he even died on an operating table from a collapsed lung.

But he’s a cheery son of a banjo.

He fingerpicks the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I’ve never met this man, I know him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It’s a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn’t. It’s more than that.

It’s a rural church, with wood floors. Where preaching is more like shouting, and the pastor rolls up his sleeves to pray for folks.

It’s a funeral procession made of cars with headlights on.

The music is salt peanuts in Coca-Cola, straw hats, and side-of-the-road boiled-peanut shacks.

Like the peanut stand I stopped at last week, outside Dothan. The old man filled my bag until I needed a forklift to move it.

“It’s on the house,” the man said.

I paid him anyway.

The banjo-man isn’t playing for onlookers at all. He’s playing for men who hunted coon with oil lanterns, and women who could grow camellias in red clay dirt—and did.

Women like Miss Flora, whose hair is whiter than Elvis’ Resurrection suit. Who still remembers when the biggest news in the universe wasn’t Facebook politics, it was a war in Europe.

“During the Great War,” Miss Flora says—tapping her foot to the banjo rhythm. “This town had flags everywhere. Hanging in stores, churches, theaters….”

I’ll just bet they did.

I close my eyes while he rolls. I see country stores. Like the Country Store, in Jefferson, Alabama—a creaky place that’s been along Highway 28 since your ancestors used mule-wagons. Where you can still buy everything from Duke’s mayo to plug tobacco.

Also: I see farmland—the kind owned by families, not corporations. And the way the moon looks over the bay.

Big lunches. Sunday naps. Women who use talcum powder after showers. Gas-station clerks who bring their bloodhounds to work.

And banjos.

The instrument sounds good in his hands. He has a light touch.

When he’s finished, he tells the kids, “My father instilled four things in me, you wanna hear them?”

The kids are eating out of his hand. “Yes!” they say.

He holds up four fingers and says, “Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t judge, and don’t disrespect nobody.”

Well.

This world could use a few more banjo players.

14 comments

  1. Loree - February 19, 2017 2:42 pm

    He is one of my favorites in Crestview. I always look for him!

    Reply
  2. Judy - February 19, 2017 3:11 pm

    Those 4 things are still in people around here, it’s just that those people are the quiet ones. The three generations that lived before me on the farm where I was born, never signed a piece of paper when making a deal or a contract with anyone. It was all done with a hand shake, still is sometimes. The sheep shearer stopped in one day, told you when he could come back and how much it would cost. You shook hands. He came back at the appointed time and did the job. The money was paid or wool was given in payment. No problems. I miss those days!

    Reply
  3. JP - February 19, 2017 3:23 pm

    Those four things need to be instilled in everyone, hope those values return!

    Reply
  4. Susie Munz - February 19, 2017 6:51 pm

    Sean, I’m reading “1984” again, and your stories are a breath of fresh air!!!

    Reply
  5. Maureen - February 19, 2017 7:27 pm

    sure could!

    Reply
  6. Nancy Messina - February 20, 2017 1:16 am

    Wow. You are so good at capturing my life. I grew up in FWB, FL and yearn to get back (at retirement). I go home every year or so. I was shocked when the appliance grave yard was gone from 231 south of Montgomery heading home to Destin. Guess I got a little too big for my britches and flew in too many times to notice the invasion of the car dealerships south of Montgomery. Boiled peanuts are my favorite. I’ve even stopped at a gas station on 231 below Eufaula AL to ask the Indian owners why they chose that place. My opinion – it’s God’s country. I yearn for my home. I’ve been in NOVA (northern VA) for almost 20 years now working for the government at the Pentagon and in surrounding areas. I’ll always be a Florida Girl, but more importantly, I’m from the South.

    Reply
  7. Shirley Sawyer - February 20, 2017 1:55 am

    Amen…..

    Reply
  8. Marion Pitts - February 20, 2017 2:37 am

    I’m so glad I decided to receive your posts. They make me so happy! Great news for a change!
    Thank you, Marion Pitts

    Reply
  9. Cherryl Shiver - February 20, 2017 11:27 am

    I am the proud Momma of a Banjo picker. Yes sir, lots of folks have always said he reminds them of Hoss,….Cartwright, the big good one. Some folks say he reminds them of those Country Bears from Disney, I say,……I am proud he is mine. That little fellow, all 400 plus pounds, are pure love, and his purpose in life is to see people smile. Must be something about that banjo……..oh, my Papa played the fire out of one too!

    Reply
  10. Michael Bishop - February 21, 2017 6:23 pm

    What Shirley Sawyer said.

    Reply
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  12. Karen Bethea - March 12, 2017 5:19 pm

    You get “it, “Sean, at your young age you get “it.” I wish you could have met my Grandmother – called her Mama…she owned a general store in Campbellton, Florida…we were Woodhams… kind of like the “Smiths” for S. Alabama. Mama’s store was a tin roofed one room store…one kerosene pump and one gas pump out front…so many stories…I grew up in that store….but Mullins…I never share stories about Mullins because “they” won’t get “it”….you would. Mullins was an old black woman who every week, made the long trek from her home on a dirt road, to the paved, road to the store. She always had the same dress on – everyone wore dresses back then – and a black hat with some ragged netting sitting cattywampus on her head. She would come into the semi-coolness of the store and buy an RC cola and a couple of cans of snuff. “Miss Callyn (my name is Karen) I come to get my snuff…” and I would have it ready….I miss Mullins…I miss the store, I miss Mama, I miss the dirt roads, I miss ranging far and wide as a wild child, walking the railroad tracks, waving at the caboose, picking blackberries off the fence lines – never ever thinking of a snake ( am amazed I was never bitten by one )…and I thank you for stirring those memories for me…they are so very, very precious. I wish you could have met Mama – you would have been one of her weekly visitors that come by the store just to see how Ms. Lucile was doing…and stayed and rocked and talked…..

    Reply
  13. Thressa - March 12, 2017 5:20 pm

    I read your blog because you seem to have a compassionate heart, you have an eye for the details that make us all different and more interesting, and you know how to string words together to wrap around our minds.
    There is a peanut shed west of Crestview in Milligan on Highway 189 where you can get southern boiled peanuts with the latest local gossip from some good people!!

    Reply
  14. Nancy Kane - March 12, 2017 5:27 pm

    Just curious…do you do your own illustrations? I hope you say yes!

    Reply

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