Banjo on My Knee

Learning to play the banjo can also cure loneliness

Photograph by Getty Images

The closest I ever got to country music as a kid was watching “Hee-Haw” and “Deliverance” – each of them, in their own way, incredibly disturbing. But something unusual happened to me about four months ago when I was hit with an overwhelming urge to learn to play the banjo.

I’m not sure exactly what compelled me. Maybe I felt it would transform my rootless, khaki-clad life into something more solid and interesting. More likely, I just thought it would be a good way to keep myself company. Whatever the reason, I went to a music store one Saturday afternoon and, after the owner showed me which side to play on (no lie!), purchased a banjo.

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I had a bit of advantage over other new pickers as I used to play guitar. If you could call it that. Whenever I’d start strumming, my dog would run into the bathroom, jump into the basket and pretend he was laundry. So I guess there was nowhere to go but up. I looked at the instruction book I bought, tuned up and started to learn the chords to “Oh! Susanna.” This time, I understood why my dog took off. That surprisingly loud, metallic sound, coupled with my low growly voice sounded like the first bluegrass version of “Enter Sandman.” But I kept plucking away. At some point, I looked at the clock. Two hours had flown by in the blink of an eye. Pretty good for easing a lonely Saturday.

Over the next few weeks, I pressed on and after countless hours, I became ... listenable. My dog even poked his head in the door. But something more important was also taking place. As an unmarried man, whose friends are scattered everywhere around the world, I spend much more time alone than I did when I was 17 (and I was pretty much a loner back then). And it’s entirely possible that as I age, this scenario may not change all that much. It dawned on me that I chose to learn the banjo so I’d feel less alone.

For you, it might be the piano or the clarinet or, if you’re one of those odd rural types, playing a washboard with spoons. It really doesn’t make a difference what your instrument of choice is because once you master it (and I use that term very, very loosely), it becomes a part of you, a wonderful part that begins to feel like an old friend.

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To say nothing about the wonder and pure joy of learning something new at this late date. I know a woman, Sally, who’s 59 and a bit of a recluse, who started playing the piano last year. After months of practicing and sending her cat running and hiding in the crawlspace, Sally started to get pretty good. She called me one day with the excitement usually reserved for kids who’ve just learned to read, going on and on about how she had learned “Claire de Lune” by Debussy. Soon after, Sally went to her first classical concert in years and was thinking of starting a quartet.

As for me, I see the tiniest bit of improvement every week. I can play “Turn, Turn, Turn” now, as well as “Sloop John B.” Mostly though, whenever I pick up my banjo – my age, my loneliness, my issues – all just magically melt away. When I’m strumming on my old banjo, my dog now sits quietly beside me on the bed.