By Wayne Erbsen
Good News! I’ve discovered a way of increasing your speed on the banjo without resorting to harmful drugs or distasteful practicing. It doesn’t even require that you force yourself to change long-held habits of picking the banjo. After all, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, now can you? For some strange reason, this miracle solution to banjo speed has been omitted from all banjo instruction materials now on the market. The method, as you may have gathered from the title, consists of the venerable practice of chewing tobacco. Yes, that’s right folks. Chewing tobacco makes you perk up and pick. It gives you that uplifted feeling so necessary for proper pickin’ of the banjo.
You may have wondered why it is that banjo picking originated in the south. Every good banjo picker worth his salt is either from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, or has been influenced by someone who is a native of that region. Without going into a complete history of the culture of the south and its relation to banjo picking, we can at least point out a few salient points. Have you ever noticed at some of the southern bluegrass festivals how many of the best banjo pickers have a lump along the side of their jaw? Yes, friends, that’s how you can peg a tobacco chewer right off. It’s no accident that some of the best banjo pickers are also fine tobacco chewers. The same dexterity and precision so necessary for banjo picking is also a must for tobacco chewing. Chewing tobacco on a hot summer’s day seems to relax the muscles in the picking arm and help the player to pick better.
Readers from the south are no stranger to tobacco chewing. It is an old and respected activity in Dixie. However, those readers who live in other parts of the country (or the world, for that matter) may not have the faintest idea what tobacco chewing is all about. It is to those poor, deprived readers that we now direct our attention.
Before we get into the actual teaching of the art of chewing, the writer has an embarrassing confession to make. In all honesty, I must admit that I have not yet chewed tobacco and probably never will. Not being a native southerner, I was not born into it, so to speak. However, through careful research, and by using only the most scientific of methods, I have found out everything necessary to instruct the beginner in the art of chewing tobacco. Anyway, don’t they say that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach? Onward!
In researching this important subject, I have chosen two informants who represent a cross section of the banjo picking world. Ted White, a tobacco-chewing male, picks bluegrass, and Julie Gillespie, a tobacco-chewing female, plays old time banjo. We are certainly indebted to these knowledgeable experts for the time and effort they have put into researching this vital topic. We thank them for so generously sharing their art with us.
What follows is the step by step instructions you need to learn the art of chewing tobacco. Follow the instructions carefully.
1. If there are any good old boys in your locale, ask them for their recommendations on the best chew available. Chewing tobacco comes either in a plug of hard, condensed tobacco, or in a pouch of loosely stuffed tobacco. Either will do the job.
2. Open your favorite brand of plug tobacco by slicing three sides of the cellophane with your pocket knife. Try not to tear the cellophane unnecessarily. You will want to keep the plug from collecting pocket lint and from drying out. To open the pouch tobacco, just uncrimp the edge marked “open here”.
3. If you’re using the plug type, slip the plug about halfway out of the wrapper. Hold on tight.
4. Position teeth for a big bite. Take a bite. Each plug is good for about six bites, beginner level.
5. For pouch chewers, reach down in the bottom of the pouch, where the tobacco is moist, and grab a small handful. Scrunch the tobacco up in your palm and place “chew” in your jaw area. Place it either on the left side or the right side, depending on whether you are left-handed or not.
6. Rewrap the package and place it in your left rear pocket. The flattening out process adds cohesion to the tobacco.
7. Walk outside. The great outdoors is the best place to learn the art of chewing tobacco. Don’t be caught chewing tobacco in the closet. That is reserved for picking the banjo.
8. Commence to chew. The term “chew” comes from the jaw action which takes place from time to time to keep the tobacco wet and to rotate the tobacco. Find a nice shady spot and get comfortable.
9. Expectoration. Chewing tobacco awakens sleeping saliva glands, and you may be tempted to expectorate (spit) occasionally. Before expectorating, lick your right index finger and hold it up in the air to determine the wind direction and velocity. The cold side of your finger will tell you from whence the wind blows. If the weather conditions are favorable, go ahead and rare back and spit. If there is a sizable breeze, be prudent and spit with the wind or expectorate in a downward direction. Caution: Do not spit into the wind.
10. Important: Do not swallow any of the juice. If you should accidentally get confused and swallow some, there are two key phrases you need to have down pat.
a. Help! I’ve just swallowed some juice! b. Where is your bathroom?
After you’ve mastered these ten steps you’re ready to try chewing and picking the banjo at the same time. You might first want to practice chewing gum and playing at the same time to develop your coordination. When you have this down pat, you are ready to graduate to a chew. And don’t forget, a good chew will help you perk up and pick!
From the BANJO NEWSLETTER, June 1980