By Khevin Barnes


Fifty four years ago I picked up a banjo that had been discarded by my older brother. I was in Jr. High School and he was four years older than me. I suppose he just got tired of it. This was the musical era that included The Limelighters, The Kingston Trio and Pete Seeger. The sounds of the banjo seemed to be everywhere in the folk music decade.

As kids, having a banjo in your room was a cool thing. Learning to play it on the other hand, was a long-distance dream that most young people would probably pass on in order to learn football or hockey. I never liked games where people chased me or cursed me or knocked me down. So I decided to play the banjo instead. I began to listen to music and learned to hear something that invigorated my soul, well beyond what the notes and lyrics were saying. It was a new and eloquent language and nothing like the four years of Spanish that children like me were required to learn in California schools.

I did those four years in Spanish class, and many decades later I can still only say “Where is the bathroom” and “What is your name?” in the Spanish language. But I can play hundreds of songs on the banjo. I didn’t know it at the time, but that instrument in my hands had long ago evolved from a stick and a hide stretched over a dried gourd. Africans have been playing a string attached to a drum since the dawn of time. Nobody knows for sure what the origin of the first banjo was, but it most certainly was played by the indigenous people of the African continent. By the time it made its way into my hands, a fifth string had been added to the original four enabling the unmistakable rapid picking of bluegrass music as we know it today. I always felt an intrinsic, almost spiritual connection with those people, slaves most likely, who brought the banjo to America and to me, and sang the songs of hope and heroism while being held captive in our so-called land of the free.

I was a young white kid growing up in Riverside, California. I don’t remember a single black kid in my elementary school but there were lots of Mexican students. One young Latino boy was called “Ronnie”. He was the first human being I remember who ever scared me. Almost daily he would appear in front of me between classes, a cool and intimidating troublemaker; fists held high in a boxing position; uncommonly large, white teeth clenched tightly as he challenged me with the same question I’d heard a thousand times before.

“What did you say white punk?”

“I didn’t say anything, Ronnie”, I would invariably answer.

“And you best not”.

He would take several percussive jabs at me, but never connecting a punch. It was all for show. And I hated it.

His best buddy was always with him. They called him “Slaggo”. He never said much, but constantly stood at his side. He was an overweight Hispanic kid who didn’t show much emotion, but Ronnie served as a kind of guardian to him from what I could tell.

The smartest thing I ever did was to befriend Slaggo on the rare occasions I saw him by himself. And from that point on, although Ronnie never stopped harassing me, Slaggo always made him stop. He’d say things like “Don’t waste your time on this little guy”. Those words were music to my ears. I didn’t know it then, but this was my first encounter with racial injustice, and it was directed toward me.

Sometime in my early twenty’s I formed my first professional band. The banjo carried me through a life of music and performing. During the lean years I would often hock my instrument at the local pawn shop, getting enough money to buy food for a week or two until my next paycheck arrived. The banjo became my lifeline in more ways than one.

In 1970 my roommate Henry and I decided to hitchhike from Oregon to North Carolina to participate in the Union Grove Old Time Fiddler’s Convention. It was a four-day festival, the equivalent of a “Bluegrass Woodstock” that drew one hundred thousand people from all across America. Unbeknownst to me, North Carolina was a state that had a good deal of racial prejudice in its history. A significant occurrence in North Carolina that became a national event and helped to propel the Civil Rights movement forward was known as “The Greensboro sit-ins”.

In 1960, just ten years before my hitchhiking adventure, thousands of college students were brought into the movement when four African American students in Greensboro entered a downtown Woolworth store, made some purchases, and sat down at the lunch counter. They were denied service because they were not white, but the students refused to leave. They remained until the store closed, and they returned the next day with more students. The cause gained momentum and then the sit-ins quickly spread to major cities across North Carolina and throughout the South which led to the Woolworth department store chain removing its policy of racial segregation in the Southern United States.

Henry and I were unaware that racial discrimination was still festering in the back woods of North Carolina when we arrived. Additionally, we were ill prepared for our adventure with just backpacks and a bit of money that had been donated by my friend’s aunt. I carried my banjo in a softshell case on my back, and Henry carried an autoharp. We literally played our way across the country as nearly every car or truck that picked us up asked for a song.

We arrived in a little town called “Love Valley”, which had been aptly named after a “Woodstock-like” music concert was held there some years before our arrival. Now it was just empty farmland. Under a roaring lightning and thunder storm, we pitched our small tent in what we hoped was an empty grove. Before long our tent had an inch of water on the floor and we huddled together, trying to keep our beloved musical instruments dry.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by headlights from a car that had pulled up close to the tent. Henry and I heard footsteps splashing outside and suddenly the tent flap was pushed open to reveal the face of a small child peering inside.

“You fellers are going to drown out here. My Mom says you’re coming to live with us”

And it all happened just like that. There was no conversation or explanation. Henry and I looked at each other in disbelief, but figured we had no choice. As far as we knew, we were camped on someone’s private property. We grabbed our packs, the banjo and the autoharp and slogged our way to the waiting car.

Miss Medlin was well known in Love Valley. Divorced with three young kids named Tammy, Tony and Chris, she had purchased an old motel that had six small rooms, and turned it into their home in the woods. She worked in a local restaurant at night and during the day, all three children were home-schooled. It was the 10 year old girl who showed me how to load and shoot a shotgun.

Henry and I each took one of the remaining small rooms of the former motel. Miss Medlin knew we didn’t have much money, so she appointed me as the cook, while Henry was to supervise the kids when she was at work. And of course, we were required to play our music after the evening meal. Once the bluegrass convention had ended, we stayed on for another month, and during that time we learned how to douse for water, how set off a stick of dynamite to dig a hole, how to skin a possum, how to pan for gold and how to identify the wild herbs that would mend a sore throat. I picked and strummed the banjo until my fingers were raw, teaching all three kids to play a tune.

One night Chris, the oldest boy who was twelve years old, told us that he was taking me and Henry to a secret place in woods. He said that we should bring our instruments, and after a short drive on a deserted dirt road we arrived at what appeared to be a large log cabin. It was pitch black in the forest but the windows of the cabin were filled with light. There were old cars parked under the trees. Lots of them. I was nervous about the place. I wondered if it was a drug lab of some sort.

But then, from within the cabin came the most wonderful sound I had ever heard. Banjo music, guitars, a piano, a harmonica and voices—lots of voices. The music was filled with a joyful spirit that called out through the darkness; a most inviting sort of ruckus that beckoned us to open the cabin door and connect with the celebration inside.

Chris knocked on the door; four quick raps followed by a pause, then two more. It was obviously a code of some sort. A peep hole in the door slid open and suddenly half a dozen very black and very welcoming hands reached out to the three of us, and pulled us into the light.

The sight of thirty or forty black people, finely dressed, laughing loudly, dancing to the glorious music and smothering us with as many handshakes and hugs as we could bear was an image and an impression that has been with me for all these years. Chris had to explain it to me, but I finally understood that we were standing in the middle of a hidden, underground, black’s only nightclub in the shadows of a remote forest. We were three white kids, innocently embraced by love; accepted and as yet undamaged by racial heartlessness, and in some inexplicable way, I felt like I had come home. This was the place where the music I loved and played was born and cherished. These were my people. We laughed and sang and danced until the sun came up.

Today I am seventy years old. I still play the banjo and it rings with a music that speaks of my brief time on Earth and the centuries that came before me. I hear the sounds of the African Serengeti in the strings, and I feel the pain and hardship of a long voyage to America in the songs.
For me, it took a fleeting visit to that secret place; less time than a fast lick on the fretboard of my banjo to catch a glimpse of a common tune and a shared voice that, like a chain of humanity, connects all of us. In music there is a poetry that embodies every tearful eye and every expression of promise and potential that we’ve ever dared to hear. Music is color blind.

And people everywhere, even those who are tone deaf, if they but listen, will always have access to the celebrations and the sorrows, and most importantly to the songs in those secret places.

Khevin Barnes is a 5-string banjo player living in Vail.

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