Banjo: Pete Seeger, Claude McKay

January 29, 2014

Of course he played the guitar as well, maybe even primarily the guitar, but I’ll always think of him with a banjo, that humble instrument brought over by the slaves, its simple form cradled in his, looking like a part of him.

What’s written on Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”   What’s written on Pete Seeger’s banjo: “This machine surrounds hatred and forces it to surrender.”   Not the most law-abiding citizen: as recently as 2011, he led a non-police sanctioned Occupy Wall Street midnight march, two miles across Manhattan.

The banjo and the police — a great dissertation that has yet to be written.

And Claude McKay would be a key player there, not just the novelist but also the poet.   One of his early books of poetry, Constab Ballads (1912) ,written in patois, Jamaica  creole, speaks in the voice of of law enforcement —  the constabulary — not beloved of McKay, and that’s the point.   It can certainly be done,  but in the end I wonder how satisfying it is to write in this way — on the one hand, in dialect on the one hand, and on the other hand, ironized, self-damning.

When he turns to fiction, that formal contortion seems to have gone away.   His novel about the musical bums on the docks of Marseilles is simply named after its protagonist, Lincoln Agrippa Daily, better known as Banjo.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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