Preston Sturges on the Banjo
[From the autobiography “Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges.”]
(Thanks to Adam Miller for this.)
Mother took a rotten little apartment for us on Twelfth Street, the only banal apartment I have ever known her to take, and one afternoon I arrived home with a big smile on my face and a peculiarly shaped package under my arm.
“What’s that?” asked my mother looking at the package apprehensively. Then in a pale gray voice, she added, “That wouldn’t happen to be a banjo by some remote chance, would it?”
“How did you guess?” I cried enthusiastically. “Just wait till you see it! The pawnbroker practically gave it to me for only three dollars, including the case, and it has real mother-of-pearl between the frets and around the scroll!”
“It’s a curse,” said my mother, putting her hand to her forehead, “a taint.”
“A what?” I asked, thinking I had misunderstood her.
“A pollution of the blood,” said my mother, “like leprosy. It has to be from the blood, there is no other possible explanation. With the utmost care and during your entire life, I have refrained from giving you even a hint about this vice of your father’s.
“I never let your Grandmother Biden or anyone else mention it to you for fear that it might awaken a dormant strain and encourage you to emulate him. But it has all been in vain. You may as well know now. Your father was considered, in banjo circles, to be one of the very best banjo players in America. Such was his talent that manufacturers would actually send him new models for nothing, just to get his opinion and endorsement of them.
“Your father always enjoyed playing a piece on the banjo for me, always a long one, and at the beginning of our marriage, I could stand it. Then as time passed, he was no longer satisfied with just plunking out a piece once, but immediately after finishing it, he would plunk it again in several different keys.
“Then I would get it with variations and countermelodies woven in – but still the same piece. He would wind up by plunking it behind his back in a sort of contortionist’s grip. One night he actually gave the finale while swinging by his knees from a trapeze he had strung up between the sliding doors.
“If any more loathsome instrument than the five-string banjo has ever been invented during the entire history of music, I have yet to hear of it. I thought I had suffered from that miserable thing for the last time in my life, but you can’t get away from heredity! So tune up your banjo, then go down to the corner and get me some poison.”
My First Instrument Making Experience, 1963
With Chuck Young, a friend from the Folk-Song Society at San Diego State College, I built my first musical instrument: an Appalachian dulcimer, along with a fretless banjo neck which I put on a banjo-mandolin pot I had. Chuck, who I often called Charles Thomas because I loved the Early American aspect of his name – Chas. Thos. Young – had access to his father’s workshop in the garage and we each decided to build an instrument. Recently, Chuck, now Charles T. Young, Professor Emeritus of Geophysical Engineering at Michigan Tech, sent me these pictures. Wow.