Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Ballad Of No-Banjo Burnes

No-Banjo Burnes had four possessions.  That is, of course, excepting his tattered woolen trousers, threadbare shirt, disintegrating coat and hole-pocked shoes.  And a hat.  And a few other ratty necessities.  Okay, he had only four beloved possessions.

He had the requisite hobo stick and bindle. 

He had a locket containing a picture of his mama. 

He had a pocketful of priceless lint.

And he had his banjo.

He loved his banjo, and rarely put it down.  A friend tried to tell him once that it was an expensive instrument, and its value could be restored, if only he would let someone clean and restring it.  Of course, hoboes were not a trusting lot, and Burnes refused to put it down long enough for anyone to do a thorough assessment.

The banjo had no strings, and its owner preferred it that way.  "Sounded like a damn banjo when it had strings," he would tell his fellow hoboes.  Since it had come into his possession, it had not been played, and as long as he had any say in the matter, it never would be.

No-Banjo Burnes was raised a child of considerable privilege in New York City, by gifted musician parents.  His mother was a mezzo-soprano who often performed at the Metropolitan Opera House.  His father was a conductor with the New York Symphony.  It was the roaring twenties, and the boy wanted for nothing.  His parents employed one of their peers, the world-class first violinist of the orchestra, to teach their son to play.  

Through six years of lessons, the boy never managed to master the art of plucking.  This was unacceptable to his mother, whose approval was the kid's only motivation.  She would scream at him to get his plucking right.  "It sounds like some kind of dirty old hillbilly banjo!" she would rail.  "I'll not have the sounds of banjo music coming from this penthouse.  No banjo.  NO BANJO!!"

The morning after an evening practice session with a string-plucking passage that had been especially banjo-like, Mr. and Mrs. Burnes were walking along Fifth Avenue, their sixteen-year old son sulking along about ten feet behind them.  Six stories above them, a team of burly movers lost control of a hoist, dropping a baby grand piano and crushing the musical couple to death with the thunderous sound of one massive, terrible A-minor chord.

His parents' holdings evaporated when the market crashed a few months later, and the road from there to No-Banjo Burnes' hobo life was a short one.  From odd jobs to the soup lines to rummaging through dumpsters, to following the tracks to warmer climes - all within about a year's time.

No one knew at what point (or how) he acquired his banjo, but anyone who didn't know that it was used exclusively as a weapon needed only be taught that lesson once.  He used it to protect himself from the worst of his hobo brethren (he even chased off Ol' Barb Stab-You-Quick, once), to kill small game, and to enforce his "No-Banjo" rule.

Hoboes, especially in the Appalachians and the deep south, loved banjo music, but word made its way through their ranks that it was not to be played in Burnes' presence.  When he heard it, he flew into great violent fits of rage, and his string-less formerly musical instrument would swing like Babe Ruth's bat, sometimes with deadly results, as No-Banjo would scream and spit and sputter, "No banjo!  Mother says no banjo... NO BANJO!!"

He enforced his intolerance for the sounds of banjos until one cold night in December of 1940, when he was beaten to death in his sleep, with his own non-musical instrument.


1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful, if not tragic, story! Poor No-Banjo Burnes. I feel bad for him. Sounds like he had a definite Mommy Dearest, but he carried her picture like any good boy would. *sniff*

    I loved this, Joe!