I started learning to play clawhammer banjo almost five years ago. I caught on to the basic stroke almost the instant it was shown to me, which was exciting since I'd never shown much musical aptitude before.
Soon after, I sat down at the dining room table and really played in the apartment for the first time. Immediately, our cat Ralph got up off the couch, walked directly over to me in a purposeful gait, and puked right in front of me. My first heckler.
I should note that Ralph always left the room as soon as he heard the voice of Johnny Cash. He was a very supreme cat and we miss him terribly ... but I'm sorry to say, his musical tastes WERE suspect.
Later, when I'd learned a few tunes well enough, I started frailing a little at family gatherings to entertain the troops. The instant I opened up my banjo case for the very first such concert, a boyfriend of a relative said, "yeeee-HA!" It was a sort of "stage" yeeee-HA! — at the volume of ordinary speech, but said in such a way as to suggest hollering very loudly. I just continued with what I was doing without acknowledging it.
But ever since, I've puzzled over why a person would say this, especially in this way. As when scientists say "So", I've wondered what it could possibly mean. I don't have an answer, but at least I can speak freely on the matter, now that the boyfriend has long ago been dumped.
First, it was not a sincere expression of joy, despite what's been suggested to me. I've expressed real joy with something like a yeeee-HA (a Shane MacGowen concert a few years back comes to mind), and my yeeee-HA's are entirely incomparable to his. Besides, would anyone issue such a yeeee-HA at the very sight of a piano or a trumpet?
No, this particular heeee-HA was not from anticipatory musical ecstasy — it was supposed to be joke. The best explanation I've heard for the origins of laughter is that it's a signal to a primate group that the sudden, unexpected, startling thing that just happened is OK — there's no danger, regardless of appearances to the contrary.
I think this heeee-HA was a joke intended to defuse a banjo-induced anxiety. It constituted a claim that, as an audience member presented with a banjo, he was not going to respond in the way the banjo supposedly demands. A possible way of responding — with a sincere yeeee-HA — needed to be invoked as a thing already refused.
The yeeee-HA sought to establish this fellow as a master of his own relationship with this banjo, but instead exposed the opposite. Karen Linn in That Half Barbaric Twang (which I haven't read yet), and Robert Cantwell in his chapter on Pete Seeger in When We Were Good, describe the banjo as persistently haunting and troubling the boundaries of social life:
The social connections of the banjo had been obscured by its repeated disappearances from popular music; it's marginality, its obdurate indissolubility in social meaning, gave it an eerily unlocatable quatity, a "signifier in isolation" ... As banjo music loiters on the edges of western musical categories, so it has tended to linger where sexual, social, and political boundaries are most ambiguous. [Cantwell, chapter 7]Cantwell almost makes me feel sorry for the guy. Meeting our family for the first time, as a suitor of one of "our women," he would have wanted to be perceived as being well within a set of recognizably "safe" racial, economic, and sexual categories. And here he's presented with a friggin' BANJO, of all things. A banjo of black-faced minstrelsy, of folksinging HUAC-interrogated commies, of Deliverance.
... but in fact, it was just a banjo of MINE. Perhaps I'm too unforgiving and I have too long memory ... on the other hand, perhaps this incident foreshadowed reasons that he would some day be dumped. I don't know.
Editor's Note: This is day 20 of my 28-day marathon. I'm trying to post an entry of The Celestial Monochord every day in February 2007.