The Most Popular Parlando Project Piece for Spring 2018

I’ve already mentioned in this count-down that I’m sometimes surprised at what Parlando Project pieces are the most listened to. It’s not just that it isn’t always the best-known poems, a surprise factor that I’ve already mentioned, but that it sometimes isn’t a performance that I think I pulled off well.

Such is the case with the repeat number one in this countdown covering activity this past spring: Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player.”  My personal discovery of Fenton Johnson goes back to reading James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Fenton Johnson’s work included there immediately stood out for me in its range of expression, from the hymn-like “God Is In the All Time”  through the startling confrontation of spirituality with reality in “A Dream,” to the frank and compressed expression of despair in “Tired.” I vowed to do my best to present Johnson’s range here.

Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson

Which lead me to perform “The Banjo Player.”  It’s frankly a humorous piece, though if one pauses after the laugh, there is a serious point being made. Explaining jokes always risks creating more comedy, but the serious point embedded in the joke here is that the banjo playing songster in the poem knows something of his value, but he still feels like he’s a failure because an otherwise uncharacterized woman called him a troubadour, and he’s not even sure if that’s a compliment.

That problematic name for the banjo player is the only way we can characterize that woman who spoke it. Is she, like Fenton Johnson himself, a member of the Talented Tenth, Afro-Americans who had gone to college and who had been charged in the early part of the 20th Century to “raise” the race with their achievements? Or is she a white Modernist admirer of para-literary poetry? We can’t say for sure, and since either is meaningful, the poem works either way; but I lean to the later if only for the word she used.

As so often with Modernism, you can trace something back to Ezra Pound. Just as the Pre-Raphaelites before him, or some hipsters today, Pound looked to the past to find models for a changed, modern future. One source he used was classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, but another was medieval European troubadour poetry.

So even at his lightest, Fenton Johnson makes a sophisticated point here, one that he reinforces by using a location, “The Last Chance Saloon,” in both “The Banjo Player” and his now most-anthologized poem, “Tired.”  In the former it’s a place of some solace, in the later it’s the place were the absence of dignity is numbed.

Returning from those more important points to my issues with my performance of “The Banjo Player.”  I tried to cop a little of that Afro-American banjo tradition. It just seemed the inescapable choice for this. I think I failed, if only because I’m not a banjo player. Such things may be inevitable with the production schedule I’ve practiced with the Parlando Project this past couple of years (something I’ll talk about soon), but to be honest, I’m slightly embarrassed that this piece is listened to so much.

But that’s because of me, not Fenton Johnson. Below is the gadget for my performance of “The Banjo Player,”  but consider listening to some of the other pieces I’ve presented using the words of Fenton Johnson too.

And the most popular piece here last season was…

Musician jokes have a cruel streak, though most musicians love them.

 

“How can you tell if there’s a drummer knocking at your door?”

“Because his knocking speeds up and slows down, and he doesn’t know when to come in”

 

 

“Did you hear about the banjo player who played in tune?”

“Neither did I.”

 

 

“How do you get an electric guitarist to turn down?”

“Put sheet music in front of him.”

 

 

Here’s my favorite. A doctor, a lawyer, and a musician each win 100 million dollars in the lottery. The doctor is all smiles and says, “Oh, this is great! I don’t have to worry any more about arcane billing codes and insurance bureaucracy. I can just treat my patients!”

And the lawyer claps his hands on hearing, and says, “I’m going to just take all my cases pro bono and never again have to represent someone just because they can hire me.”

The musician though is downcast, he says, “Well, I guess I can keep gigging until the money runs out.”

The most popular piece for the Parlando Project this past Winter was Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player.”  Johnson’s poem is essentially another musician joke, but one elaborated with some telling details observed from Johnson’s early 20th Century life.

The banjo is an African-American instrument, something often forgotten in my time until a few folklorists made efforts to set things straight. Fenton Johnson, born in 1888, just one year after Papa Charlie Jackson, knew that world before the guitar picker became the bluesman.

PapaCharlieJackson_GetAlong

Hype-man ad copy circa 1924 for the first ever to record self-accompanied blues .

 

Yes, he’s poking a little fun at his banjo player, but Johnson’s real case is for his value. It was a cold 20 and icy this March morning, and Johnson says the banjo player’s music is welcome “as the violets in March.”

And the section where I do a bit of a sticks and harmonica breakdown is the heart of the poem: children, who won’t even be able to pay the banjo player dimes like the adults in the saloon, love him like Santa Claus.

Here’s an irony darker than the joke of the banjo player who doesn’t know what a troubadour is. Fenton Johnson, Chicago’s pioneering Afro-American modernist poet had a life a bit like those three in the lottery joke. There was no 100 million, but he was born into an Afro-American family that had somehow accumulated some wealth. He was able to attend college. He dressed well, drove his electric motor car around the city. Like our joke’s doctor and lawyer, he wanted to use his good fortune and talents for good, to raise the status of Black Americans, the present task then for the early 20th Century “Talented Tenth.” And so, he established literary magazines, hoping to start a Chicago variation of the Harlem Renaissance, to promote the arts. But he was also like the musician in the lottery joke. Slowly, as literary magazines often do, those enterprises drained his efforts and his finances. He spent the last half of his life living on diminished means, his pioneering verse forgotten by all but a handful in Chicago.

There’s probably a good novel, play, or movie in Fenton Johnson’s story, but here at the Parlando Project we ask only that you listen for a few minutes to the compressed expression of poetry and some music, best as I can make it. The player is below.

 

Well that’s it for our look back that most liked and listened to pieces this past Winter. I’ll return soon with some new audio pieces.