My introduction to the banjo came before I was born. My father was a folksinger, and although his professional performing days were mostly over before I came along, he often sang for family and friends (or more often just to please himself). Most of his songs he accompanied with the guitar, but when it came to homeless tramping or trains he generally pulled out the banjo. There were just a few of these songs but they seemed so perfectly suited for me. The plucky tone of the banjo, along with my father’s rich baritone spoke to me of letting go of attachments and fear, of letting the wind and the rain and the rails carry me far from home. They taught me of the wistful longing of lost innocence and the sweet lullaby of a long journey, and the wonder of belonging to the wide, wild, flabbergasting world we live in.
Click to listen to a recording of my father singing “Hobo’s Lullaby”
That was a long time ago. I’ve had plenty of times in my life where I’ve done the opposite, where I tried to hide from my wild wandering self, times of fear and loneliness, denial, and clinging. I’ve fought change till my knuckles were bloody and I was exhausted. But somehow, when the time came, I’ve always heard the sound of the banjo and the train as a summons to let go and move on. I started playing the banjo at a time like that, a time where I was hanging on for dear life and at the same time afraid of where that life might take me.
My father wasn’t performing much anymore so he loaned me his banjo for a while when I said I wanted to learn. When I came back playing tunes he’d never heard before, he generously told me that since I could play it better than he could, maybe I better keep it. Doc Watson once told an interviewer that his first real instrument was a banjo his father made for him. Doc said “one day he brought it to me and put it in my hands and said, son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well… it might help you get through the world.” In a very real way, my dad did the same for me.
Over the years, I’ve generally kept the Banjo to myself more than my other instruments, I get it out when I’m feeling the wistful pull of the road, or when I’m feeling a little stuck, or need to connect with the wild untamed being I am inside. Recently I began teaching a beginning banjo class for the University of Utah. Although I’ve taught before, I was really struck while preparing lessons just how deep down the banjo was in my soul. I teased the members of the class that they should enter the novice division of the State Banjo Championship, and they in turn challenged me to enter the open division. It was something I’d never really considered too deeply before. I finally decided to give it a go. Knowing that my old-timey clawhammer pieces might not be quite what the judges were looking for I didn’t expect to win, but Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson had just died, and in some way, this was my way of letting them go. They are both on that last train over the River Jordan, and I guess, in that way all of us are just hobos passing through.
Peter still performs on the long neck open back Ode banjo his father gave him. He is the 2012 winner of the Utah State Banjo Championship and will be competing as the Utah Champion in the National Championships at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas later this year. He will also be competing on the Mandolin.
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