My Idle Banjo


We’ve had family visits from out-of-state this summer, and we’ve celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. This has called for hauling out ancient video for the “entertainment” of one and all. During one of these forays into the past, my daughters were remarking about some video of me with a Christmas gift some years ago. It was a banjo—something I had long wanted to try. I can be very distinctly heard saying, “Now I’ll have to learn to play the banjo.”

I did make an attempt for several months, maybe even a year. And I enjoyed it. I made encouraging progress, up to a point, at which time I found I was simply “too busy” to keep at it. I continue to be proud of my banjo, carefully selected for me by my wife and children, if not my playing. But every time I glance at it now, or see another banjo (which isn’t often), or hear bluegrass music (which isn’t much more often), I get that guilty sensation and I half-heartedly remind myself to get back to playing (which would mean starting from the beginning).

As a result of this blog, I’ve made a number of friends in recent months. Today I learned that one of them, Carol Woodside, has a shared interest in bluegrass. I replied to a comment she left at one of my posts, then learned of her blog, Woodside Roots and Branches, where her home page makes it pretty obvious that she’s a fan of Earl Scruggs and company. (You should check out the blog and the related website.)

I can listen to Earl Scruggs, if I don’t get him in out-sized doses. I’m more of a Bela Fleck listener. But I don’t enjoy guilt, and it always mixes with the joy of listening. So I don’t listen much. All because of my idle banjo.

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Update

The Washington Pugilist, having read this post, recommended a book and a CD to get me back into the banjo groove. The book is Old and In the Way Banjo Songbook. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? It includes tablature for Jerry Garcia riffs. The CD is called Old and In the Way. At Amazon as of right now, this CD has 34 customer reviews, with an average of 5 stars. I’ve just added the book to my Amazon shopping cart. Thanks, my friend at The Washington Pugilist.

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Quotations: On Atheism


“I try not to believe in God, of course, but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double take. When things add up to more than the sum of their parts, when the effects achieved are inexplicable, then atheists like me start to get into difficult territory.” —Nick Hornby, Songbook

“Agnosticism is not a state in which the mind of an intelligent being can permanently rest. It is essentially a condition of suspense—a confession of ignorance—an abdication of thought on the highest subjects. Generally, however, under the surface of professed Agnosticism, there will be found some more or less positive opinions about the origin and nature of things all of them agreeing in this, that they negate the belief in God. It is not, in the nature of things, possible for the mind to remain persistently in this neutral, passive attitude. It will press on perforce to one or other of the views which present themselves as alternatives—either to Theism, or to Materialism and dogmatic Atheism.” —James Orr, The Christian View of God and the Word

“The number of reasonable atheist questions versus condescending atheist sneers that I have run across just directed at me in [sic] less than one in four.” —SF writer, and former atheist, John C. Wright

Quotes: On Art


“. . . there is a tremendous social responsibility that comes with any public act we do, and that includes creative acts, as well.” —Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

“. . . Mozart sits down at the pianoforte/And composes music which had been ready/Before he himself was born in Salzburg.” —From Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Creating the World,” in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001

“Form is an integral part of any art because art affirms order . . . .” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

Music Mania and Doing Good: Big Things Come in Small Packages


The iPod. The iPhone. Nifty little devices for packing huge inventories of favorite music. In the world of technology, small is BIG—at least some of the time. But today we find out just how BIG small can be. Apple, the people who invented the iPod and the iPhone, announced today that they are #1 in music retail in America. Wal-Mart has left the building; Apple is the new elephant in the room.

How big an elephant are we talking about? Apple has sold 4 billion songs (give or take) to more than 50 million people in this country over the past five years. Let’s do some math. Four billion divided by fifty million equals eighty. So, on average, American customers have purchased 80 songs from Apple. Since tunes go for 99 cents in most cases, that’s roughly $80 per customer, over five years. So $16 per year. Doesn’t sound like much, right? But fifty million customers cranks that figure up to nearly four billion dollars since Apple opened the iTunes music store. A nominal expenditure of financial energy on the part of a sufficient number of people yields an enviable cache of, well . . . cash.

Only 16% of all Americans achieved this result. Sixteen people for every 100 hundred Americans spent $16 on tunes each year for five years, and Apple garnished $4 billion.

Big things come in small packages, if you have enough small packages. But “enough” small packages can be a relatively small percentage of the total pool of possible contributors. In this case, Apple can generate an influx of $4 billion dollars from a relatively small percentage of Americans who love their music to the tune of about $80 each.

One lesson in this is that when enough people care just a little bit about something, and they show that they care with a modicum of energy, big things can happen. Apple has literally been banking on that.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most Americans, when they click for a new iTunes purchase, are not thinking, “I sure hope there are a bunch of other Americans out there doing the same thing; otherwise, this just wouldn’t be worth my trouble.” They act for a limited good over which they have considerable control. But because lots of other people do the same thing, Apple is a big winner.

How often do we consider performing some action that would produce only a limited good (something we value), but we refrain simply because the good we can produce by ourselves seems too puny to bother? What if we interpreted our action differently? What if we decided to act for the limited good over which we have some significant control? What if we forgot about whether anyone else cares as much as we do about realizing that good? If we all did that, maybe big things—good big things—would happen.

Having a new three-minute tune to tickle my tympanic membrane is a limited good. I’ll shell out 99 cents for that, now and then. Budgeting $16 a year for this is within reason for most Americans. We manage our music mania pretty well. But it’s only music, after all, piped in through our iBooks, iPods, or iPhones. Surely there are greater goods we could each achieve with the same modicum of expenditure. So what are we waiting for? What good thing would you do, if only enough other people would do it, too?

Tell you what. I won’t wait for you, if you won’t wait for me.

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