I am playing the banjo, sitting near the swimming pool at my hotel in Pensacola. I’ve been on the road for six days, playing music and performing my one-man spasm in different states.

There are a bunch of kids out by the pool, playing on cellphones, texting each other although they are two feet apart.

There is a blaring radio playing “Beat It” (1983) by Michael Jackson, a song which sounds remarkably like garbage can lids being played by guys with socket wrenches.

The song I am practicing is the old-time tune “Blackberry Blossom” (1860), a song my grandfather loved and often played on mandolin. I am not a great banjo player. But you see, that’s the thing about the banjo, you don’t have to play well to sound truly awful.

One of my uncles picked a banjo. He always said the beauty of the banjo was that, no matter where you were, no matter how many people were around you, everyone nearby would suddenly leave the room.

But that is not the case this morning. As I am playing, a young man quits playing with his phone and wanders toward me and. Without saying a word, he sits in a patio chair beside mine. He listens to a few songs. And when I am finished, he applauds.

Finally, he speaks. “Is the banjo hard?”

“It is for me.”

The kid just sits there and keeps looking at me. “What’s the difference between a banjo and a guitar?”

“When you play a guitar you flatpick the strings and cause vibrations to resonate from a spruce top. Whereas when you play the banjo you will die unmarried.”

I hand him the banjo, and he tries to play. The music he makes sounds truly horrible. Welcome to the club, I tell him.

So I give the boy a cursory lesson. I teach him to play an old song named “Do Lord, Do Remember Me.” It’s not a hard tune to play. Impressively, within only a few minutes, the boy is playing better than before.

The radio music overhead is now “Call Me,” by Blondie (1980). Which sounds like a dying animal caught in a Cuisinart.

Meantime, a few younger children are gathered around us, watching the boy play. Amazingly, nobody is on their phones anymore. None are texting, TikTokking, buying crypto currency, or whatever kids do on phones.

The boy is stares at the fretboard as he plays, with laser focus. The music is sounding better. In fact, the kid is already playing better than the banjo’s owner.

The music overhead is now “Step by Step” by New Kids on the block, á la (1990). A song which features the same musical sensitivity as a dump truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant.

But the kids can’t hear the radio anymore. They are all mesmerized by the banjo. The kid’s little sister says, “Can I try?”

So Brother passes Sister the banjo. She plays “Do Lord,” and within five minutes, she is playing better than the boy and I put together.

“I really like this song!” she remarks.

And as the little girl is steadily improving on the banjo the music on the radio is now “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode (1990), which features vocals that sound a lot like premeditated strangulation.

Even so, the kids still don’t notice the music overhead. The kids are hypnotized by ancient songs. The music of our ancestors. Music that predates Michael “Jacko” Jackson.

After several minutes, the kid’s parents are ready to leave, but the children are still transfixed to the instrument.

“Do we HAVE to go?” the kids ask.

“Yes,” the parents say. “Put that banjo down.”

The banjo is returned to my clumsy hands.

“Thank you for letting us play your banjo,” the children say sincerely.

And while watching them walk away, a noisy song plays overhead. The song is “Like a Virgin,” Madonna (1984), which is arguably the worst thing to ever be produced by the 20th century, with the exception of maybe communism, or Miracle Whip.

But I overhear something else, too. I overhear a handful of kids humming “Do Lord” as the walk away.

When the children have disappeared, I am left holding my instrument. But I have this warm inside. An overwhelming feeling that—no matter what anyone says—everything is going to be okay with America’s youth.


  1. SHANNA RAINEY - August 25, 2023 4:42 pm

    love your work!

  2. H. J. Patterson - August 25, 2023 9:23 pm

    To bad you didn’t have a piano, you could of introduced them to Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Diana Krall, etc., etc., etc. Maybe a seed was planted though.

  3. David Brooks - August 25, 2023 9:48 pm

    As a self-deprecating Clawhammer banjo teacher, I resemble your remarks and plan to share your tale with some of my students.

  4. Sharon - August 25, 2023 11:14 pm

    I so appreciate your stories!


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