Playing the Banjo

A few weeks ago NPR hosted an event called “Roseanne Cash in Concert: A Night of Songs and Storytelling.”  In early May they broadcast a short clip from the event on “All Things Considered”

I happened to hear it as I walked to my car after work. In the clip, reporter Michele Norris asks Roseanne Cash to speak about her stepmother, June Carter Cash.  Cash describes her as someone who spent her entire life performing, and as a result made no distinction between life on and off stage.

Cash then shares her favorite story about June Carter Cash.  (If you want to hear it, click on the link and forward to 4:05.  It’s definitely worth hearing in Roseanne Cash’s voice).  But if you prefer you can read the transcription.

One night while on tour, a banjo player for another group didn’t show up.  June Carter Cash volunteered to play banjo and did the whole show, even though she had never played banjo before.  After hearing the story, Roseanne Cash asked how she knew how to play the banjo.  June Carter Cash said, “Well, honey, when I stepped out on stage I knew how to play banjo.”

When I first heard this story, I was blown away by her fearlessness.  She wasn’t even remotely nervous about playing a new instrument with a new band in front of a crowd of people.  Playing for music vigils is very different from learning to play the banjo while on stage playing the banjo.  But when I began to think about what it feels like to walk into a music-vigil, June Carter Cash’s words began to resonate with my own experience.  During my music-thanatology training, we were regularly required to do small, short solos in front of the class.  Even in our first semester on the harp, we were encouraged to become familiar with playing in front of people, getting to know that feeling of being nervous or unprepared, and playing anyway.  The most important thing in those early weeks was to stay in our seats, keep the harp upright, and just play the solo.

We also talked frequently about “creating in the moment,” relying on our knowledge of the music and our prescriptive process, no matter what happened.  Anything – including death – can happen when a music-thanatologist plays, so having flexibility in the moment is necessary.  Unlike a concert, there are no rules for patients and families in a music-vigil.  People talk, pray, sleep, and wail their way through visits.  When I walk up to a hospital door, I do not know if there will be one person or thirty, if I will be there for thirty minutes or three hours, or if I will play my entire repertoire or one single melody.  There is no rehearsal for a vigil.  There is no program.  I show up with the limited tools I have, and then I have to trust myself to create in the moment.

I think this is what is so startling about June Carter Cash’s claim about playing the banjo.  She completely trusts herself.  Of course, after a lifetime of performance in a large family of musicians, she had probably picked up some knowledge about the banjo, or at least been able to transfer some of the skills from another instruments she knew.  Regardless, she knows the possibilities contained within her own musicality, her own presence as a performer, and that gives her the confidence to walk on that stage with her banjo.  I believe it is that self-knowledge, and not the banjo playing, that made her such a remarkable performer that night.

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