Twenty-five years ago in Baltimore I heard Pete Seeger play the five-string banjo. I was seized with the conviction that I must do it too. I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University at the time and had little money, but poverty was no deterrent in the rush of such urgencies: I went to the pawn shops on East Baltimore Street the next morning and bought a banjo for eleven dollars.
I found an instruction manual in a used-book store for fifty cents. I was on my way. I applied myself to strumming and frailing and three-finger picking. I had neither the time nor the money for formal instruction, but in odd moments between seminars and papers, I worked at making the sounds and singing the songs Seeger had introduced into my life.
In the years following, the impetus of the first enthusiasm slackened. I repeated myself a lot. From time to time I would pick up another instruction book, another song book.
Occasionally someone would be in our home who played the banjo, and I would pick up a ...1