When I think of Pete Seeger, who passed away early this morning at the age of 94, in my mind he is never empty-handed. Always, always, always, he carried with him his banjo.
He was just 27 years old when folklorist Alan Lomax asked him about his odd choice of instrument in an interview.
"Hello there, Peter," Lomax says.
"Howdy," Seeger replies.
"Mighty nice music you're making, Pete."
"Oh, I'm just warming up."
"What's that funny looking guitar you're playing?"
"Oh this isn't a guitar. This is a banjo," says Seeger.
"Well tell me: Is the banjo something new?"
"New? It's about as new as America is."
And age wasn't all that the banjo and America have in common. The banjo is an instrument whose history reflects the nation's: It was born in slavery, gained popularity on the minstrel stage, and, eventually, in Seeger's hands, turned against its own past, becoming a "machine [that] surrounds hate and forces it to surrender"—at least, that was the proclamation written upon its head.
Seeger himself first fell in love with the banjo at age 16, when he attended a folk festival with his father in Asheville, North Carolina. At the time, the banjo was thought of as a "white" instrument, the province of poor Appalachian farmers. But, as Seeger explained in the interview above, the banjo hadn't always been that way. "You see," Seeger tell Lomax, "American negro slaves made the first real banjos, a couple hundred years ago, out of ol' hollow gourds and 'possum skins I guess."