Friday, October 18, 2013

Jesse James: The Banjoist


As a child, my parents taught me the art of whitewater boating and we often headed south into the wilds of northwest Arkansas to practice the craft on the Buffalo and Mulberry rivers. On one foray to the Mulberry river, we struck up a conversation with the person doing a car shuttle for us and ended up becoming friends with him for awhile. He would let us camp out on his property near the overflow of his lake where we could be lulled to sleep by the gurgling of spring fed waters. In the morning we would top off our water at one of the springs above the pond and head off again for another round of paddling.

One evening, our friend introduced us to a neighbor up the road, a man by the name of Jesse James. Jesse was an old timer to the parts and lived in a little ramshackle of a house surrounded by what most would call junk. I'm not sure what Jesse did or had done for a living but I saw what he did for subsistence. Out back was a bulldozer he had built from his junkyard and used at neighbors' request. He carved wooden chains from 20 feet logs of timber and a pocket knife. He also built banjos from the same junkyard and played them. Pretty much he could build anything out of anything, a good talent to have.

The evening we visited him, his wife and one son were there, a partial set of teeth between the three, and they offered to play us some music. It was an experience I'll never forget. At one point, Jesse asked if we wanted to see a trick and he began playing the banjo, made from an old pressure cooker, behind his back in the picture shown above. Eventually I must have grown tired and Jesse's son noticed for he asked me if I wanted him to play something more modern like a Hank William's song. Yes, that was an experience I'll never forget.

7 comments:

warren said...

That's awesome...I love to hear the mountain people (I don't how else to say it) around here play music. It's usually amazing!

roaring40 said...

That area has always held a fascination with me. It had a very odd settlement pattern. People crossed from Appalachia by-passing the bottomland a good 100 years before the river settlements. I'd often wondered why they went for the subsistence landholding. But the reality was the bottomland along the river needed the bufferzone of those mountains for the intensive couldn't occur if it was under any possibility of attack. It was a simple question of investment.
Basically what I'm saying is that fellows family could well have been in those hills since the time of the revolution or, before, well before.

Three Score and Ten or more said...

I met some people don't in the coal mine stretch of Southern Ohio that were made from the same cloth. I think my fascination with Southern Gospel and Bluegrass music comes from that period

Ed said...

Warren - I wish I could turn back time and listen to him again with more appreciation than I had back then.

Vince - I should do some research on him because he certainly was a character. I had forgotten about him completely until I found that picture.

3 Score - I'm sure they are out there still.

ErinFromIowa said...

What an awesome slice of Americana. Thank you for telling us the story.

Leigh said...

Now that's memorable! Also memorable is canoeing on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. Never did the whitewater part though.

Ed said...

Erin - You are welcome.

Leigh - As far as whitewater goes, the Buffalo river isn't much. Most of the time we put in at the Ponca low water bridge at high water and mostly saw class 1 or easy class 2 rapids. For more technical whitewater, you have to do the section above the low water bridge in very high water. I have only done that section once by kayak though I have walked it many times.