By Wayne Erbsen
Maybe you’ve heard the one about the banjo player who always sits in a level spot so the tobacco juice will run out of both sides of his mouth.
Or the guy who makes a perfect score by throwing a banjo in a dumpster without hitting the sides. He earned extra points for landing on top of an accordion.
Or what has 16 legs and 3 teeth? The front row of a banjo concert.
Or what do you call a banjo player in a three-piece suit? A defendant.
The fact is, people love making jokes about banjos and the people who play them. These banjo jokes have taken over where the moron, blond, lawyer, and Polack jokes left off. For the heck of it, let’s try to figure out why people get such a kick out of picking on banjo players. What is it about the banjo that makes it the brunt of so many jokes?
To answer this question we need to take a little trip back to 1843. At that time, minstrel music was just taking root, and it soon surged in popularity to became America’s first national musical obsession. Minstrel bands performed everywhere from concert stages in the north, to the gold fields of California, on the decks of Mississippi River riverboats, and in the camps of Civil War soldiers. At the core of minstrel music was the 5-string banjo. In time, the instrument itself came to symbolize an entire era of minstrel music.
To understand minstrel music and the banjo’s place in it, we must remember that minstrels were not just performing music. Instead, they were part of an entire stage show consisting of rowdy dancing, boisterous singing and playing, biting humor, and outrageous skits. Of course, minstrel shows were done in blackface with the performers wearing loosely fitting ragamuffin garments, oversized shoes, and slouch hats. With the banjo’s prominent place in minstrel music, it’s no wonder that the banjo was forever linked to the comic character depicted in the minstrel show.
When the movie Deliverance hit the big screen in 1972, it became an instant classic. Almost overnight, the faded image of the blackfaced minstrel banjo player was replaced with the stereotype of the banjo being the favorite instrument of low-intellect hillbillies. With its sordid past, it’s no wonder that the poor banjo continues to be America’s whipping boy.
Banjo jokes, although told in the spirit of fun, do reveal remnants of America’s ambivalent attitudes toward the banjo and those who play it.
A large number of banjo jokes paint the banjo player as stupid, or worse.
How do you get a banjo player’s eyes to sparkle? Shine a light in his ears.
Why did the banjo player cross the road? It was the chicken’s day off.
There’s not much difference between you and a fool, is there? “Just this here banjo.”
What did the banjo player get on his IQ test? “Drool.”
What is this? x x x Three banjo players cosigning a loan.
Why was the banjo player staring at the bottle of orange juice? Because it said “Concentrate.”
A man went to a brain store to get some brain for dinner. He asked the butcher, “How much for fiddle player brain.” “Two dollars an ounce.” How much for guitar player brain?” Four dollars an ounce.”
What about banjo player brain?” “One hundred dollars an ounce.” “Why are the banjo player brains so high?” “Do you know how many banjo players it takes to get one ounce of brain?”
Many of the attributes of the banjo itself have helped to make it the brunt of jokes. For example, the banjo is a rather loud instrument, especially when played with picks, which are used by most bluegrass banjo players.
What’s the difference between a banjo and a chain saw? You can turn a chain saw off.
Banjo played in bluegrass style is seen by many people to be highly repetitious.
What’s the difference between a banjo and an Uzi? An Uzi only repeats forty times.
Bluegrass music is typically rather sentimental, with themes of dead mothers, dying orphans and widows waiting for their lost sons to come home. Unfortunately for banjo players, the sentimentality of bluegrass music has splashed on them, making them seem overly sentimental too.
How many banjo players does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five. One to screw it in and four to lament about how much they miss the old one.
Banjo players are also considered purists who shun electric instruments.
How many banjo players does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five. One to screw it in and four to complain that it’s electric.
Bluegrass banjo owes its existence to one man, Earl Scruggs.
How many banjo players does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five. One to screw it in, and four to complain that Earl wouldn’t have done it that way.
Banjo players are often lambasted because they don’t earn much money playing the banjo.
What’s the difference between a run-over skunk and a run-over banjo player? The skunk was on his way to a gig.
What will you never say about a banjo player? “That’s a nice Porsche.”
What’s the difference between a banjo and a pizza? At least a pizza can feed a family of four.
How can you make a million dollars as a banjo player? Start with two million.
What’s the difference between a certificate of deposit and a banjo player? The CD eventually matures and earns some money.
How do you get a banjo player off your porch? By paying for the pizza.
Many people think that all banjo tunes sound the same.
How can you tell the difference between all the different banjo songs? By their names.
Banjo players have frequently been accused of being less than stellar musicians.
How can you tell if there’s a banjo player at your door? They can’t find the key, the knocking speeds up, and they don’t know when to come in.
Because the banjo is a loud instrument, and bluegrass music demands a certain aggressiveness or attack, banjos players have been seen as show offs.
How is playing the banjo a lot like throwing a javelin blindfolded: You don’t have to be very good to get people’s attention.
By their nature, banjos easily get out of tune, so there’s lots of banjo tuning jokes.
What’s the best way to tun a banjo? With wire cutters.
Most banjo players learn either by ear or by tab, which is a shortcut way of writing down banjo music. Very few banjo players use standard musical notation.
Can you read music? Not enough to hurt my playing.
How do you get a banjo player to slow down? Put some music in front of him.
Because banjo are such notey instruments, it’s generally best for there to be only one banjo in a band or jam session.
How do you get two banjo players to play in unison? Shoot one.
The banjo has been perceived by some as a difficult instrument to play.
What’s the difference between a good banjo player and Bigfoot? There have been sightings of Bigfoot.
Despite the fact that banjos can be quite expensive, some people don’t consider that they have much value.
Joe: Yesterday my car was broken into. And I had my banjo in the back. Jack: Did they take it? Joe: No, but they left me two more banjos.
In some jokes, banjo players are depicted as being less than human.
How do you tell where all the pink flamingos live? There’s a banjo player on the front lawn!
Banjo players are like sharks. They think they have to keep playing or they’ll sink.
And finally, after all this research, I have firmly decided that there is really only one banjo joke. The rest are true stories.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instructions books for banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin.