Strumming On My Old Banjo

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Be careful what you wish for. Your wish may come true. I was reminded of this familiar adage when, to my complete surprise, one of my long-ago wishes did come true.

In the mid-1960s, when my children were quite young, I often told them that I would love to learn how to play the banjo. When they asked me why, I always told them that the banjo was a “happy” instrument. Whenever I heard it, the joyful sound always made me feel like dancing. But my dream was just wishful thinking.

To be honest I never had any interest in learning to read music. Musical notes have always resembled a form of hieroglyphics that I could never master. Attempts to do so during my school years were painful and even the rudiments of what I managed to grasp were soon forgotten.

In high school I made some feeble attempts to learn to play the violin. After a few lessons and minimum attempts at practicing, these efforts went nowhere. My violin teacher, a talented violinist, said that I showed some promise, but he insisted that I hold the bow in my right hand even though I was a “leftie”. It always felt awkward. I soon lost interest and quit.

Later, someone convinced me to take bagpipe lessons. The bagpipe teacher was a gruff old Scotsman who believed the bagpipes to be a holy instrument to be treated with great reverence. Students are only introduced to the bagpipes after learning to play the puny little chanter, a simple flute-like appendage of the bagpipes. One evening the sour old tutor barged unexpectantly into the teaching area and heard me improvising a familiar little tune that I had picked out by ear. He loudly berated me in front of the small class and ordered me to stick to the music. I ended up hating him, hating the chanter, and disliking the sound of bagpipe music. That ended bagpipe lessons for me.

Someone once said that the best way to enjoy bagpipe music was from far away. I can remember only one time that I enjoyed the droning pipes. A friend of mine stipulated in his will that the pipes were to be played as his funeral procession made its way to the gravesite. It happened as he wished. As we followed the coffin to the burial site the bagpiper drew applause and wide grins from the surprised mourners as he played Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here, and Put Another Nickel In, In the Nickelodeon. It was an unusual send-off to the Great Beyond.

I did have “an ear” for music and could carry a tune. I loved to sing and enjoyed participating in family sing-songs from an early age. When I got married, my wife, Cathy, a talented pianist, enjoyed playing for parties. For years friends and relatives looked forward to New Year’s Eve parties at our home, where energetic songbirds, whose inhibitions were eased with a few holiday drinks, would gather around the piano in our recreation room while Cathy led us in rousing choruses of The Happy Wanderer, This Ole House, Sweet Afton, Auld Lang Syne, I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, and Danny Boy.

In February, 2007, long after my kids had left home, and 10 years after my wife died, my neighbor convinced me to rent a little cottage near his winter home for a month in northern Florida to escape some of our Canadian winter. The community is called Weeki Wachee, situated a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

A few days before departing, my daughter, Valerie, visited me along with an elegant black case. Seeing the surprised look on my face she remarked, “Well, you have said for years and years that you would love to learn to play the banjo, and so here is your chance. Take this banjo with you to Florida”.

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James Franklin McDonald with Banjo

James Franklin McDonald with banjo

Dr. James F. McDonald is a retired elementary school principal who lives in Dundas, ON.
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    Valerie McDonald7 months ago

    Your persistence paid off! I enjoyed the song titles and history of the banjo–and the photo!


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