yeeee - HA!


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.


The Singing Swinging Banjo


I found "The Singing Swinging Banjo" in a used vinyl-record store in Minneapolis. Released in 1959 on the cheap, short-lived Riviera label, the album consists of studio musicians slogging through bland, quasi-Dixieland renditions of standards such as "Buffalo Gal," "Grand Old Flag," "Saints Come Marching In," and "Clementine."

But of course, I bought the album for the cover. The clerk at the counter shook his head, saying "A lot of records have a hot chick on the cover to get people to buy. What were these people thinking?" That's pretty much what I wondered — what were they thinking, how did this cover photo look to people in 1959? Today, it seems like the queerest thing I've ever seen in my life, but in 1959, could the record company or its customers have missed the sexuality-related content in the photo?

Of course, the cover photo must be from Mardi Gras in New Orleans. (For one thing, the banjo is a Weymann Style 6, suitable for early styles of New Orleans jazz.) I believe that some people — especially back then — thought of Mardi Gras as a mere costume party, and its drag queens as something like the war-time skits in which soldiers wore drag, and this may have "protected" them from an awareness of the sexual context of the photo. But don't kid yourself — even during skits in WWII, people knew what drag was about. In any case, this is the basic problem in trying to see this album cover through 1959 eyes — what would have been consciously known, what was unknown, and what was known but repressed?

(Incidentally, let me point out a couple of details that may be difficult to pick out. Yes, that's a lighthouse motif in the middle of the structure like a peacock-tail attached to his back. It's hard to see here, but there are two seagulls made of gold glitter flying next to the lighthouse. Note the roiling seas at the foot of the lighthouse. Also, notice that the strap around his neck holding the banjo is made of the same silver-blue satin material that makes up the rest of his costume. Somebody really thought this through.)


Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of about three or four posts on banjos and the psychoanalytic idea of repression ... yes, really.)


Fiddlin' Banjo Crap


Martin Mull memorably quipped that he once looked up "folk music" in an encyclopedia, fervently hoping that the first music made in America "wasn't that fiddlin' banjo crap." I was really amused by it as a kid.

Decades later, I started studying up on folk music myself and found that there's a riveting, convoluted, and ultimately mysterious story to be told about fiddles and banjos — two instruments joined at the hip. I may not be the person to tell this story (quite yet), but it's clear that the fiddle and banjo have sustained a long marriage that has had its ups and downs.

Soon after this relationship first dawned on me, I attended a banjo Q&A session conducted by Mike Seeger and my own (long-suffering) banjo instructor, Rachel Nelson. I was just about to raise my hand and ask about the brotherly fellowship shared between the banjo and the fiddle, when another guy raised his hand and demanded to know why some people seem to think the banjo is nothing but the fiddle's lowly, bootlicking lackey. Seeger and Nelson looked like they might have preferred my phrasing of the question, but it made me realize I had more research left to do.

The start of this mutual tradition is unknown — folklorist Cecelia Conway is unable to trace the pairing back much further than minstrelsy, around 1840. But certain areas of Appalachia (Virginia and North Carolina, I think) have such an old, rich, complex, multi-racial tradition of fiddlin' banjo tunes that it couldn't have originated with the Northern, pop phenomenon of minstrelsy.

The banjo has sometimes been the fiddle's rhythm section. Listening to the 1920's recordings of Charlie Poole, the banjo played second fiddle to the fiddle, yet was crucial to Poole's sound. But in the case of the Skillet Lickers, the banjo is barely audible amidst sometimes three or more fiddles.

Certainly, a great solo banjo tradition was captured in 1920's recordings of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley and others. But the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music — hugely influential in the post-WWII folk revival — included a marathon of seven solo fiddle cuts, and I wonder if this spotlight on the fiddle in such a prominent document may have left some mark on the post-war relationship between the two instruments. Two of the finest living clawhammer banjo players — Ken Perlman and Mac Benford — each developed their distinctive styles by replacing the fiddle with the banjo, using the clawhammer stroke to coax out their instruments the complex melodic lines usually played by the fiddle. They clearly saw some need to give the banjo its own place in the sun, unshadowed by the fiddle.

The banjo originated in Africa, and the fiddle is the classic folk instrument of the British Isles, so their pairing is sometimes said to be a microcosm of what makes American music such an intense mixture. But at the Black Banjo Gathering, a presentation on African banjo ancestors included slides of African fiddles, constructed almost exactly the same way that early banjos were constructed, only much smaller. So perhaps the banjo and fiddle did not marry for the first time in America — perhaps it's more accurate to say that they were separated at birth.

My Dog Has Fleas: Review of the Ukulele Gala

For the little world of public radio, Minnesota Public Radio is a far-flung empire, built in no small meaure on A Prairie Home Companion. So when MPR held a Ukulele Gala, presided over by the hosts of "The Morning Show" (an excellent, eccentric, eclectic music show on one of MPR's several stations, 89.3 The Current), it seemed like a good bet to me. The show was held at the venerable old Fitzgerald Theater, home of Prairie Home and a gorgeous place to see a concert — ornate and amazingly intimate.

I can't say I was very disappointed, exactly. I've been spoiled recently by attending some transcendent gatherings of some of the best banjo players in the world, and I had imagined that a good cross-section of brilliant ukulele players would not be hard to assemble, if you know what I mean. What we got for our $31 a head (before Ticket Master) was two very entertaining local ukulele players and one flown in California, along with some dubious sketch comedy by The Morning Show's hosts.

The audience itself was a good show — acres of Hawaiian-print silk, a Tiny Tim impersonator (with latex nose), many child ukulele students, a guy with yarmulke over here, some nose rings and tattoos over there. Dozens were armed with ukuleles of all vintages, shapes, and sizes. Fifty ukulele-playing Minnesotans onstage and sawing away at Aloha Oy is not something you see every day.

As for the professionals, local musician Kari Larson is one of Garrison Keillor's "shy persons" and has a meager stage presence. But she earned great respect with some riveting instrumentals, most memorably a sweet, melodic piece exploring some variations on "When I'm Sixty-Four" and a ukulele/church pipe-organ duet on "Baby Elephant Walk." Again, not something you see every day.

The Mullet River Boys, a local group that's been known to play at a little pizza joint just up the street from my apartment, were unquestionably the Gala's highlight. Hearing them was like finding 20 bucks in an old jacket. They made me wonder once again just how many thousands of virtually anonymous musicians there are across America who are profoundly more talented than anyone you will ever see on Amerian Idol.

Their repetoire is all over the place but well-chosen, drawing from early jazz, Oldtime string-band, vaudeville, and minstrelsy. There are shades of Oliver Hardy in frontman Jack Norton, who claims to have known Tiny Tim during childhood and who today plays one of Tim's ukes. Sideman Jed Germond is more of a Stan Laurel, an exceptional jazz violinist, and a solid tenor banjoist. The third Mullet River Boy is a woman, Liz Draper, who, dressed in a high-collared long-sleeved white blouse, looked like The Church Lady, only sexy and with dreadlocks ... if you can picture that for a moment. She seemed to be a classically-trained but very versatile doghouse bass player.

Jim Beloff was the guy from California, which is apparently an epicenter of an ongoing ukulele revival. Not my cup of tea, Beloff is an amiable geek whose repetoire is deeply rooted in Tin Pan Alley, which I'm afraid still seems like an oxymoron to me. I'm working on it. His originals were built around themes I would have rejected as bereft of real ideas (e.g., a trip to the dog park) and which he used mostly to mine rhymes (e.g., "bark"). When he and his wife Liz began singing duets with much simpering drama ("Love is a Many Splendored Thing," for example) my own wife Jenny leaned over and whispered, "Waiting for Guffman."

I did very much appreciate the Celestial Monochordy quality of writing a love song around a "sheetmusic moon" of the kind you see on old piano-bench songsheets.

The show ended with an all-cast audience sing-along of the ukulele national anthem, "Has Anybody Seen My Gal." I left the theater thinking of the contrast between the Mullett River Boys and Beloff, remembering what Bob Dylan said: "Strap yourself to a tree with roots."

The Mount Graham Controversy, 1988


In the 1980s, I studied astronomy (actually, physics and mathematics was all it was) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I also did a lot of hiking and camping in the mountains and deserts of the southwest, compelled by the same love of nature that brought me to astronomy.

So, I found myself in the company of both astronomers and environmentalists on a daily basis. I thought nothing of it, since so many amateur astronomers prefer to see dark, clean skies than strip malls, and often have to camp in the wilderness to escape light pollution. Similarly, environment-conscious hikers and campers always seem intensely aware of the night (and day) skies they get to experience.

But then came the Mount Graham controversy. In its early stages, the debate mostly revolved around a rare species of red squirrel that some feared would go extinct if a large observatory complex was built on top of the mountain. There was a lot to consider, and I tried hard to consider it. Unfortunately, I found no colleagues willing to help.

The environmentalists I met saw visions of chemical and radioactive spills, noisy research, great tracts of asphalt, and throngs of tourists in a pristine wilderness. I tried to explain that telescopes just bend light with mirrors and today require only electricity, not photochemicals. They also like native plants around them to absorb image-blurring heat, and tourists are only marginally tolerated at a serious research facility. Mount Graham already boasted a road system, a Bible camp, and an artificial lake. Nothing of the sort was in the least bit interesting to the environmentalists I discussed it with — this information was greeted as evidence alright, but only of the fact that my heart was not in the right place. The facts seemed to prove only that I didn't care.

I will say that they were somewhat more willing to engage than the astronomy students I tried to talk to — at least when those students were in all-male groups. There was no hope of even suggesting that accomodations might be made for the observatory's impact on animal habitats, or that a better understanding of the ecosystem up there might be interesting, or that mutual education between astronomers and environmentalists might lessen the tensions over the issue. I mostly remember one very brief, bruising conversation in which it was suggested that the group go squirrel hunting.

I eventually stopped paying attention to the Mount Graham debate, mostly because I doubted a real debate was possible. Being somewhat wet behind the ears, I was shocked that my interests could be aligned with people who were so obviously wrong and unwise. It would be many years before I really came to accept that even your ideological brethren can be routinely hostile to the truth and to the common good. I came to accept it as a fact, but I still find it rather unpleasant.

Classifieds: Biosphere 2


Biosphere 2 was an attempt at creating a sealed-off, self-sustaining ecosystem of the kind astronauts would need for Moon or Mars bases, or for extremely long trips into deep space. The name implies that the Earth itself is Biosphere 1.

The $200 million venture was mostly funded by a Texas oil billionaire. With a lot of TV cameras aimed at them, the first crew was sealed up in 1991, but oxygen levels plummeted, crops failed, the isolated crew grew testy and weak, and no animals survived except abundant ants and cockroaches. It wasn't long before outside food and fresh oxygen were quietly brought in.

After a flurry of mission changes and lawsuits, the complex just north of Tucson is now up for sale:

"This is not all about the highest bidder," [general manager of company that owns Biosphere 2] said. "All things being equal, we'd certainly like to see an appropriate reuse of the Biosphere and associated buildings, but ultimately, it comes down to what the market will bear."

I gather that some good science came out of Biosphere 2, and its certainly better to fail in Southern Arizona than halfway to Alpha Centauri. Still, Biosphere 2 may be best remembered as an especially bizarre example of America's (and The American West's) doomed utopianism.

It's also a dramatic example of something I've mentioned before — the intimate and often troubling relationship between American space science and the mass media. I'll do some exploring of that long history in future entries of the Monochord.


My Ferret Has Ticks

Last night, we went to see the Ukelele Gala at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater. I will write up a full-fledged review of it soon. For now, one of last night's running gags reminded me of a little quip one of the Canote Brothers (Jere or Greg) made at the 2004 American Banjo Camp.

He was showing the audience how he had tuned his banjo-ukelele. (Seeing as the audience was composed largely of Oldtime banjo players, he wouldn't dare stick to a standard tuning.) He slowly plucked the strings, one after the other so we could hear the tuning, and said, "So instead of My Dog Has Fleas, he's got some other kind of bug."

Classifieds: The Yerkes Observatory

The Yerkes Observatory is for sale. Possibly one of the most beautiful observatories in the world, Yerkes is located on 77 acres of prime lakeside real estate in the charming resort community of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

To those who appreciate the history of astronomy, Yerkes is also one of their best loved shrines. Yerkes was the last observatory to be built during what I think of the first space race — a drive to build larger and larger refracting telescopes (those with a big lense in the front and a little eyepiece in back, like a sailor's spyglass). Finished in 1897, Yerkes hosted some of the greatest astronomers and telescope builders of its era — E. E. Barnard, Ritchey, George Ellery Hale, Otto Struve, Kuiper, Chandrasekhar, and the young Carl Sagan.

Apparently, the University of Chicago (one of the most richly endowed universities in the world) thinks the most promising buyer at the moment is a New York developer who'd like to (at best) make Yerkes the centerpiece of a gated community of oversized suburban mansions.

If I were a rich man, daidle deedle daidle daidle daidle deedle daidle dum ...

Banjos, Stars, and Creative Commons

How to play banjo

In elementary school, when we sang "This Land is Your Land" and the teacher told us about Woody Guthrie, it seemed like Guthrie must've been around before the USA was founded. He must've been a contemporary of ... of Paul Bunyan's. But to my great surprise, it turns out Guthrie had just died when I was 3 years old — and when he was only 55. I won't tell the whole story of how Guthrie came to hold such a mythical status so quickly — but if I were to tell it, it would mostly be a story about Pete Seeger. Seeger made building the Woody Guthrie myth into one of his major projects.

The more you know about Pete Seeger, the more you realize he wasn't just "famous" or "influential," he really helped engineer what "folk music" means, and even the terms on which "the folk" themselves exist.

Anyway, here's the point. His book, "How to Play the 5-String Banjo" has been known to virtually every banjo player in the world for about half a century. Seeger mimeographed the first edition himself while on the road in 1947, working for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign. He refused to copyright it, believing a copyright would hinder the spread of banjo-playing.

More recently, a guy named Pat Costello has written some excellent and entertaining instruction books, and declared them part of the "creative commons." According to Costello, sales of his books increased spectacularly after the books went copyrightless. The books are worthy successors to Seeger's landmark book — and I think the writer of "This Land is Your Land" would have appreciated them as well.

Star map

A collection of fine star charts has also now gone online (here too) as part of the creative commons.

Steve Robinson: Astronaut Banjoist

Banjo Player and Mission Specialist, Steve Robinson

Believe it or not, the next Shuttle mission will send a banjo player into space. I mean, how monochordum mundi is that?

I wonder if he'll play us Well May the World Go (When I'm Far Away) from the launch pad. Anyway, check out NASA's official pre-flight interview with Steve Robinson:

I still want to be a musician and an artist someday when I grow up. I play music and I play guitar in a rock and roll band, and I play banjo and mandolin and bass and a pedal steel guitar.

Remember, in space no one can hear you scream "Yowza!"

Lisa Simpson Goes to Banjo Camp

My wife Jenny reports that the episode of The Simpsons that aired on Sunday, April 17 briefly showed Lisa Simpson wearing a t-shirt that said "Banjo Camp." I missed it because I glanced down to peel a shrimp. I would love a screenshot of it, if anybody out there can make that happen for me.

Also, if anyone would kindly explain to me just what's so funny, exactly, about wearing a t-shirt that says "Banjo Camp" ...

UPDATE (April 26, 2005)

It turns out that Lisa's shirt actually said "Band Camp":


"Banjo Camp" was merely wishful thinking on Jenny's part. Ah well, it could happen to anyone. Actually, it does explain a lot — of course, band camp is for dweebs, and so, is funny. But banjo camp? That would've needlessly alienated a key demographic, don't you think?

Banjos and Culdesacs

Flying into Raleigh-Durham Airport for the "Black Banjo: Then and Now" conference, I looked through the window, soaking up my first glimpses of North Carolina and dreaming of banjos. Then I noticed how much culdesacs look like banjos from the air:

Banjo culdesac

And then I thought ... "I've got to stop thinking about banjos before I go mad!"

"Culdesac" is also a term sometimes used to describe a website that has links only to other pages within the same site, and has no links to anywhere else on the web. So if you're just pointing and clicking at such a site, there's NO WAY OUT.

And so, maybe banjos really are sort of like culdesacs. Hmmm, yes ... food for thought ...

Taj Mahal: Banjo Detective

At the "Black Banjo: Then and Now" conference, historian Ted Landsmark said he often gives talks to groups of nice, middle-class, African American church ladies, who reverently listen to him talk about black history. He brings along the usual objects of veneration — quilts and talking sticks and all that.

Then he brings out the banjo.

He said you've never seen a group turn on anybody so quickly. He tried to impress upon the Black Banjo conference attendees just how disgusted these audiences are that Landsmark, as a black man, would even be seen touching a banjo. It never helps much to explain that, of all the material culture produced by African slaves in the New World, the most persistent and successful is the banjo.

Well, given this taboo, it's nice that Taj Mahal is taping a segment for the PBS series History Detectives in which he researches the possible authenticity of a banjo once owned, supposedly, by an African slave. Taj was chosen for the segment because he is a knowledgeable banjo historian and player — and is, of course, a famous black bluesman. The show was taped in Cincinatti and will air some time this summer.

The Banjo and Africa

I just returned from the conference, "Black Banjo: Then and Now," held in Boone, North Carolina. This blog will plunder my memories of it for months, no doubt, but for now let me tell you a story ...

I sometimes hand my banjo to somebody who's never held one before and invite them to "make some noise." They always do very strange things with their fingers. They might rest their thumb on the "drum" head, above the strings, and pick up with their index and middle fingers, like an electric bass player. Maybe they'll rest all four fingers on the head below the strings and pluck down on the strings with their thumb. Maybe they'll sit like a classical guitarist and use their thumb and all four fingers to pick the strings.

It's interesting to watch what they do, and it's immediately obvious that they have no knowledge of any of the banjo-playing traditions.

But — in one incident after another, stretching back many decades — Oldtime banjo players hand their banjos to West African players of a Senegambian instrument called the akonting, and they immediately play clawhammer like they've been playing the banjo all their lives. Alternately, a banjoist will pick up the akonting and play like a master griot, much to the amazement of his West African hosts.

The banjo is an African instrument and clawhammer is an African playing technique. The instrument and the technique simply survived slavery and are alive and very well today in America, albeit generally in the hands of white Oldtime musicians. Knowing this fact, and fully imagining it, has been a profound shock and inspiration to me.

Banjo Spikes

Banjo Spikes

Banjo spikes are little L-shaped pieces of wire that old-time banjoists, especially, drive into their banjo fretboards, underneath the fifth string (sometimes called the short, drone, or thumb string). They use these spikes like permanent capos for the 5th string — just tuck it under the spike to raise its pitch, usually in combination with a regular capo on the other four strings.

So, here's the thing: They're called "spikes" because they're literally railroad spikes — used by model railroaders to hold down their HO-scale model train tracks. Banjoists have to buy them at hobby-train supply shops.

If you like your metaphors straight up, and no chaser, this is your poison: That banjo string is the lonesome old Long Steel Rail. Sometimes old-time banjoists die with a teeny-tiny little hammer in their hand, trying to beat that itsy-bitsy steam drill ...

For vivid, multi-page instructions on installing railroad spikes in your banjo, see Richie Dotson's

Lost Globe Just Misplaced


A guy vacationing in Naples has stumbled across one of the most desparately sought pieces of ancient scholarship, long thought lost forever when the great Library of Alexandria Egypt was destroyed around 400 AD.

Apparently, it had been right in front of millions of tourists for decades.

A statue of Atlas carrying the Universe on his shoulders turns out to have used the lost celestial globe of Hipparchus, the Greek astronomer who first discovered the precession of Earth’s axis, observed a nova, precisely calculated the length of the year, and invented the stellar brightness scale used today.

And he also made this newly-rediscovered, amazingly accurate star map, complete with celestial equator, ecliptic, and Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

Cooking with Banjos

Uncle Dave Macon

The round drum of a banjo is called the "pot" — you say your open-back banjo has an 11-inch pot, and so forth.

Obviously, I'm not the first to notice the cooking association. One of the best-known stringbands before WWII was The Skillet Lickers. It's like guitar "licks," except played on a banjo, which if you hold it by the neck, looks like a skillet.

The signature song of the great banjo songster Uncle Dave Macon was "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy". I like that the design of a 5-string banjo is "written into" this song's tune. The SKILL syllable is high and loud and you can easily play it by snapping the high 5th string. The word TIME in the rest of the line ("Keep my skillet good and greasy all the time, time, time") slides up several notes each time it's said, so it goes: "Keep my SKILLet good and greasy all the slide, slide, slide". The melody seems to spring naturally from the design of old-time fretless banjos.

There's also an old banjo tune called "Sugar in the Gourd," which may refer to the fact that banjos used to be made from gourds, and there's a great sweetness to the sound of a gourd banjo.

Of course, all of this might be sexual innuendo, as well.

World's Largest Banjo?

Biggest banjo
I know what you've been thinking: "When is he gunna tell me about the world's biggest banjo?"

Well, unreliable sources claim that an object in Branson, Missouri is the World's Largest Banjo, but I doubt it's a real banjo. To qualify as a true banjo, you need vibrating strings and you need these vibrations to be transmitted to a membrane via a bridge for the purpose of amplification. A website describing Branson's disturbing monstrosity makes me suspect that what they have there is a mere sculpture of a banjo:

Largest banjo
"The neck holding five fiber optic strings is 47-feet long. A true replica of a collectible Gibson banjo, the huge fiberglass shell has a sturdy frame of over 3,000 pounds of steel."

Perhaps Gibson's factory in the Opry Mills Mall in Nashville (top) holds the record instead. The search continues ... By the way, see Cecilia Conway's book for an extensive analytical treatment of the features that constitute the essence of a banjo.

John Johanna's Telescope

There's nothing explicitly about science in the songs on The Anthology of American Folk Music, even though I've named this science/music blog after an illustration on The Anthology's cover.

The closest thing to an exception I can recall is Kelly Harrell's "My Name is John Johanna," a song about what a rotten place Arkansas is ( ... alleged to be). After listing the horrors he witnessed there, the singer vows that if he ever sees Arkansas again, it'll be through a telescope.

It's a funny line to me, I suppose partly because I'm used to thinking of telescopes as a way of overcoming distance, not of enforcing it.

For lyrics, see Page 1 and Page 2.