Poem #47: The Banjo Player by Fenton Johnson

Estimated Reading Time: 3.5 minutes

A black and white photo of Fenton Johnson leaning on his right arm and looking towards the camera
Source: Wikimedia
Title: The Banjo Player

Author: Fenton Johnson

Source:  Poerty.org


 There is music in me, the music of a peasant people.
  I wander through the levee, picking my banjo and singing my songs of the cabin and the field. At
   the Last Chance Saloon I am as welcome as the violets in March; there is always food and
   drink for me there, and the dimes of those who love honest music. Behind the railroad tracks
   the little children clap their hands and love me as they love Kris Kringle.
But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman called me a troubadour. What is a troubadour?

There's an interesting question at the center of this poem that I rather like given my own exploration into popular culture studies and thinking about the often arbitrary lines we draw between high, middle, and low-brow culture.  Johnson seems to be raising some of those questions I'm often pondering within this poem.  The speaker is a banjo player who seems to light up and move children and adults wherever he goes.  His music moves people and it seems deeply embedded in who he is ("there is music in me").  However, the speaker faulters when he is called a troubadour.  The joke is that he sees it as an insult but it is indeed a compliment.

But for me, here is where it gets to be interesting.  Graphic designers and copywriters rarely consider themselves artists. They do work--often work that influences and even inspires people.  Yes, in the name of capitalism and exchange but so does the speaker--after all, he is met with food, drink and dimes.  That is, none of them, like the banjo player sees their work as something more and yet, time and again, when we look back at popular culture, we are quick to recognize the art of it.  Shakespeare was popular culture as was Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, and many others.  But now, we consider them literary geniueses. 

Thus, this woman sees the higher value of the speaker even if the speaker doesn't. He sees his work as for "peasant people" while she calls to higher culture.  It's ironic on two levels.  The first is that if we assume the speaker is Black (which we don't have to--though the language of "the cabin and the field" and children behind th railroad tracks suggest they're from the other part of town, mayhaps), then the idea of being a troubador--a term derived and contextualized in medieval Europe, often performing for (white) kings and queens is an interesting invocation by Johnson.  The second is that if we recognize this music as the birth of soul, jazz, and R&B in later decades (which we should), then we realize that in hindsight, the banjo player will indeed be considered a troubadour.

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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