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Crowson: God Bless Bela Fleck


God bless Bela Fleck. He has reached the pinnacle of success in the banjo world. By that I mean that his is so well-respected by musicians of every stripe that he can speak the truth.

Here's what Bela Fleck, who is white, said when an interviewer asked for his favorite banjo joke. Fleck replied: "I plead the 5th. I don't enjoy banjo jokes. I'm constantly being told them and people seem to think I'm going to laugh... We're not the comedy instrument in the string bands anymore."

That's right. He said that right out loud.

Pathetically, I would have probably replied by telling some self-deprecating banjo joke. Then I'd maybe fake a little laugh. Meanwhile the interviewer would be rolling on the floor in hysterics. Deep within me another tiny piece of my self respect would crumble off and dissolve in a puddle of silent dispiritedness. Yes, we banjo players have been trained to tell banjo jokes.

You can trace the history of banjo ridicule at least back to the days of minstrel shows. Mostly white musicians would smear lamp-black on their faces, don clownish outfits, and play the banjo. The instrument had been wrenched away from African-American slave culture.

Here's a knee-slapper for you. Some historians say it was brought from Africa to be played on slave ships. Manacles slaves were forced to dance to it's music so their muscles wouldn't atrophy on the long voyage.

It's heartening to see African-American musicians reclaiming the banjo these days.

Thank you, Bela Fleck, for having self-respect. And for having banjo-respect.

Richard Crowson is not only a editorial commentator for KMUW. He's also a cartoonist, an artist and a banjo player.