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.