A Banjo Poem

James Still (1906 – 2000) was a friend of my family for over fifty years. He published his first book of poetry, Hounds on the Mountain, in 1937. He shared the Southern Writers Award with Thomas Wolfe (You Can’t Go Home Again) after the publication of his novel, River of Earth, in 1940.

Still's Wolfpen Poems was published in 1986 and contains a poem entitled Banjo Bill Brewer. I knew after reading the poem that it was written about Banjo Bill Cornett. I asked James about this, and he confirmed that the poem was indeed about Banjo Bill. James got to know Banjo Bill quite well when they worked together on a project in Knott County during the 1930s. James titled his poem Banjo Bill Brewer because Banjo Bill was alive when the poem was written. I encouraged him to title the poem Banjo Bill Cornett, and am pleased that it is so titled in his posthumous poetry collection, From the Mountain From the Valley, published in 2001 by the University Press of Kentucky.

James also gave me permission to quote the poem in its entirety in my article, The Banjo in Appalachia, in the October 2000 issue of the Banjo Newsletter.  James Still’s poem captures the essence of Banjo Bill Cornett’s relationship to his music, and helps explain why he continued playing his old-time music after the culture that supported the music had collapsed.


Singing he goes, wrapped in a garment of ballads,
And his songs are his own, and his banjo shaped
By his own skilled hands. This is his own true love
He grieves, these his winding lonesome valleys
Blowing with perished leaves and winds that starve
In the chestnut oaks, and these the deaths he dies.
His voice is whispering water, the speech of a dove.

The banjo is a part of him, his waking and his sleeping;
It is his bread and meat. Here his heart’s peace lies.
It is his tongue for joy, it is his eyes for weeping.

Banjo Bill Cornett was a well known banjo player in Knott County, Kentucky. He was a candidate for the Kentucky State Legislature in 1956, the year I first voted. I promised Banjo Bill I would vote for him if he played a banjo tune or two for me. He did – I voted for him – and he won the election. Banjo Bill was a conscientious legislator. He did a good job for Knott County and for Kentucky.