What about the banjo?

A Springfield grade-schooler confronts American folk songs


When I was a student, I was introduced to the concept that the simplest-sounding phrases had irreconcilable and contradictory meanings that rendered interpretation impossible. No intellectual test was more demanding, and some of the more elusive texts torture me to this day with the taunt, “Explain me!”

I was in fifth grade. It was the 1950s, and we were obliged to memorize and sing great American songs as part of our preparation for life as civil servants with free parking spaces and pensions. We were a pretty pathetic choir, making a noise like that of a day camp full of the prematurely skeptical children of college professors. But our teacher was encouraging, and it was better than having to learn which national economies depended on jute, so I went along with the gag.

Until that dark day when I was introduced to Old Dan Tucker. You remember Dan. He’s the mighty man who

. . . washed his face in a fryin’ pan;
Combed his hair with a wagon wheel
And he died with a toothache in his heel.

At least that’s the version we sang. (There are others not fit for parents to read.) The song was typical of our repertoire. Someone with a brother-in-law on the school board had decided these kinds of songs were suitable because their nonsense lyrics would appeal to children’s sense of fun.

They didn’t appeal to this child’s sense of fun. It never occurred to me that we were supposed to enjoy these songs. Humor in the context of a public school lesson of that era was as much out of place as fart jokes in a sermon. So I struggled to make sense of them just as diligently as I did the mysterious economic importance of jute, with predictable results.

By my reading, the unfortunate Mr. Tucker was very poor, too poor to afford proper kit for personal grooming. (When I was a young man on my own, old jelly jars would serve as drinking glasses in much the same way.) Poverty also would explain the misdiagnosis of his foot problem; the American poor can’t afford good doctors.

Dan Tucker’s woes were of a different sort, but no less worrisome than those suffered by the young swain who sang “Oh Susanna!” You remember how it goes.

I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee,
I’m going to Louisiana, my true love for to see.
It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry.
The sun so hot I froze to death; Susanna, don’t you cry.
Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me.
I come from Alabama,
With my banjo on my knee.

Now, what was a bright 10-year-old supposed to make of this? I had problems with the banjo, for instance. I reasoned that if our hero came from Alabama with his banjo on his knee he must have traveled in a wagon or stagecoach or train, because otherwise it would have been hard to walk. But why was he bringing a banjo in the first place? Did they not have banjoes in Louisiana? (Maybe; there are lots of things they don’t have in Louisiana.) Was it meant as a gift for Susanna? Was she moved to cry for him because he was giving it up? This was touching if true, but it didn’t explain why, if he meant the banjo as a gift, he had it on his knee and not in a box. And how did he know her size?

As for the weather encountered by Susanna’s musical lover on his trip: Here was a character who insisted on the truth of two contradictory things at the same time. The grownup me would come to understand that politicians do that all the time. (Listen to the General Assembly on economics and you will see what I mean.) Kids however kinda count on the fact that black cannot be white (unless it’s Bill Cosby) and that it could not rain and be dry at the same time (unless you’re in Evanston).

When words were offered to mean things that couldn’t be true, I didn’t find it funny, I found it unsettling. When visiting Wonderland, Alice had insisted that one can’t believe impossible things, to which the Queen — who looked and dressed uncomfortably like the schoolteachers of my day — insisted that with practice a person could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. And so you can — as long as the words that describe them mean whatever you choose for them to mean.

“Oh Susanna!” hinted that words might mean something deeper than I could understand, when in fact they usually don’t mean much of anything at all. No better education for a popular pundit can be imagined.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at [email protected].

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