John Boston | From Banjos to Lullabies, I Hear America Singing

John Boston

Especially during these harsh political climes, I shouldn’t mention this in public, aloud. But, one of my best friends is a banjo player. Rodger’s a decent chap and doesn’t deserve the litany of cruel jokes aimed at his artform. Like: 

QUESTION: “How do you tune a banjo?” 

ANSWER: (pause, two, three, kick) “WIRE CUTTERS!!!” 

Rodger played Taco Tuesday Night at El Trocadero in Downtown Newhall. I’ve fumed over how many useless puddles of monkey diarrhea bubble about the country — politicians, lobbyists, TV pundits, whiplash attorneys and teacher union execs to name a few. Many rake in millions by making other lives miserable. Yet, nightly, in uncountable sleepy little honkey-tonks and dive beer bars around our country, small-time musicians blessed with God-given talent bring happiness, help others forget their woes. 

Most don’t quite make gas money. 

Being such a good friend with Rod, I really should know this. I think Rodger’s band is called DR. RODGER PHILLIPS & His Lower-Case Nameless Chimpanzee Kazoo-Playing Orchestra-ette Musical Helpers.  

How beat up is he going to get when the band reads that? 

Tuesday was such a sweet evening. Every man on stage? A master at his craft. Unasked-for comedy? Someone switched on the restaurant’s mariachi music during a set. Competing with bullfighting elevator music, it took 20 minutes to find either the kill switch or a ball-peen hammer. Yet, RODGER’S “Musical Helpers” played through. 

Every day, somewhere, a happy twang from a zydeco band wails in a Louisiana fish shanty or an Oklahoma church choir praises God. A drum chant from a forgotten Indian reservation pounds rhythmically as they have for 10,000 generations, or a lone guitarist by campfire, accompanied by distant coyote, float uncountable vibrations heavenward. This is America singing. 

It’s the 21st century. We’re surrounded by music, but, not much singing. You can instantly summon any song recorded on your smartphone. It’s different, sitting there, not multi-tasking, happy, stopped, just listening to someone sing. Or play. 

It’s communion. 

Remember “The Boxer?” Simon & Garfunkle? They played that song Tuesday in a sad Western tempo. It was no less heart-wrenching than when Paul Simon began composing on a plane. “The Boxer” started out with Simon feeling sorry for himself. He opened a Bible and the phrase, “workman’s wages” flew out. Garfunkle helped. The future hit grew, was honed, pruned, loved, nourished and became the anthem for humanity. Many of us relate to a life where you take hit after beating, climb to your feet and vow to God Himself you’ll never take another punch again. 

“…yet the fighter still remains…” Lie-la-lie…  

Taco Tuesday and this was America singing. 

One of my best pals forever was John Hobbs. Dear Hobbsie became a hall-of-fame musician. Of all his brash, impossible licks or truck-through-the-door solos, I’ll remember one song forever. It was just the two of us. Our senior year. I was sipping tea on the sofa. Hobbs was hopelessly in love with a local and fatal beauty. He sat at the piano, inventing the blues. There was no skin or skeleton, no piano, no barrier between — everything — and Hobbs’ dear, exposed heart. There exists a place, far beyond falling in love, that can only be reached by music. 

One rainy Santa Clarita day, my daughter and I sat at Peet’s Coffee. Homework for her. Feed the Deadline Beast for me. Nobody there except us, one barista and an elderly gentleman. He played the softest electric guitar. Without a single lyric, through light raindrops and his notes, he communicated a life, one that had seen so much, was nearing the end. Indiana and I stole glances at one another. The smell of fresh coffee. The rain. The aging guitarist. A never-forget moment. 

My daughter and I would have singing contests. In the truck, on the way home from school, it would start with one of us tauntingly crooning a tweaked lyric from Irving Berlin’s 1946 musical, “Annie Get You Gun.” 

“I can sing anything — better — than you can. I can sing — anything — better, than — you… !” 

“No you can’t…!” 

“Yes I can…!” 

Gauntlet thrown, the challenger offered a theme. Love. Wind. Ocean. Brown. The other would have to sing a song containing the chosen word. For example, “…the leaves are BROWN come tumbling down, remember, that September, in the rain…” 

I had the advantage knowing 800,016 songs. But then, my mutt daughter sang better than me. We’d each take an a cappella turn, then grade the other’s performance on a scale of 1-to-100. Frequently, I pulled the pickup over to stare daggers at her over my insult-of-a-grade, which Indy somehow found humorous. 

Lullabies? They fall under the category of America singing, don’t they?  

Years ago, there was this kid on the Hart football team. He also played bagpipes. Windows open, I’d be driving down
Newhall Avenue. I’d hear the unmistakable wail of the melancholy Scottish wind instrument. Alone, so out of place in the middle of Newhall Park, his bagpipes played a mournful dirge. I’d pull over, turn off the truck and rest my head. It was like eavesdropping, outside a church. 

Someone young and snarky wrote a while back that this isn’t the 1950s anymore. Too bad. 

When we were a village, surrounded by farms and ranches, Santa Clarita had a custom. On the full moon, during warmer eves of April to October, old pickups, buckboards and people on horseback slowly migrated to a hill overlooking Newhall. Accompanied by cow dogs, they meandered from faraway canyons, set up camp, made a fire and cooked dinner. After cleanup and setting up bedrolls, they’d get out guitars, violins, mandolins and, yes — even banjos.  

Then, they’d serenade.  

There wasn’t much in the Santa Clarita then. Sound carried for miles. You could hear songs and laughter. If you were close enough, or, better, there, you could marvel at the silhouettes of horses’ ears twitching against the backdrop of a bright full moon, rising in the east. 

It was America singing. 

John Boston is a local writer.

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