A Banjo Essay

Allan M. Trout was a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. His column was the first item I read in the Courier-Journal ca. 1950. This essay is included in Greetings from Old Kentucky, a collection of his columns published in 1947 by the Courier-Journal.

Mr. Trout's columns describe events in a world and time in Kentucky prior to strip mining, black water spills, polluted water wells, polluted streams, decapitated mountains, oil and gas wells, and pipelines.

The location of the incident described in the following essay is McKee in Jackson County, Kentucky. It was a tradition at one time in Kentucky for musicians to play in the county seat near the courthouse or jail during special events.

Ah, the Glory of the Mountains!

Talk about the glory of the mountains! Ah, friends, it lies deeper than bright sunshine on corn in the shock.  It lies deeper than the soft carpet of leaves nature weaves, then gently spreads in the cove and up the hillside.  It lies deeper than the red of bittersweet, the scarlet of sumac, or the gold of pretty maples.

On one morning of October 29 I was sitting on the back row in the circuit courtroom in McKee.  Up front, Congressman John M. Robinson, of Barbourville, the tall sycamore of the Cumberlands, was making a political speech.  Mr. Robinson was talking about the God-blessed privilege of living in the mountains, where the air is clean and friends are true.

I looked out of the window, toward the jail in the corner of the courthouse yard. I saw an old man sitting on the front bumper of an automobile parked at the curb. He was picking a banjo and patting his foot, picking a banjo and patting his foot for the boys in the Jackson County jailhouse. In that old man's foot I suddenly saw the glory of the mountains. And in the sad little tune from his banjo I heard the glory of the mountains.  Because I knew the old minstrel with his lay was proclaiming the God-blessed privilege of living in the mountains with more eloquence than Mr. Robinson, I left the courtroom and descended to the courtyard.

Uncle Laney Gibson, 74, of Green Hall, showed two front teeth encased in gold when he smiled at me.  He had on an old green hat, a rumpled gray suit, and a hickory shirt. He held forth his banjo for me to admire.  It was a square box made at home, with the bottom of a lard can tacked on for a head.

"I wouldn't swap hit to ary banjo I ever saw,"  Uncle Laney said.  "Hit makes the sweetest music of ary box I ever undertook to pick."

Uncle Laney said he was feeling puny that morning, but came to town because he heard there was a speaking and he allowed a little music would help out. He said he allowed it would cheer the boys up a little if he walked down to the jailhouse and played a few tunes for them while the speakers were at it in the courthouse.

Yes, friends, the glory of the mountains is that the soul of a man is free. Because a mountain man minds his own business, he is at liberty to come and go by his own leave.

If there is music in his heart, a mountain man is free to pat it out through his feet, or clap it out through his hands. He is free to sit under the jailhouse window and pick it out of a homemade banjo for the boys inside. That is what Uncle Laney Gibson did that morning of October 29 up there at McKee, in the friendly valley of Indian Creek in the headwaters country of Rockcastle River.