What? No official state instrument? It has to be banjo

Friday, March 19, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 12

Bill Steber, right, and friends with the instruments they have mastered.

-- Photograph Provided

Tennessee lawmakers, for all their zeal to create official state whatevers, have somehow neglected an obvious category: A state musical instrument.

Shame on them.

“Country, bluegrass, blues, Southern gospel and rock ’n’ roll all trace their roots directly to the Volunteer State,” the Tennessee Historical Society states.

Moves are afoot this session to select a 10th state song and a fourth state poem, along with yet more (misguided) efforts to make the Bible the official state book and ladder the state tool. But nada for a musical instrument. Zip.

With the help of one of my musical heroes, I propose a remedy for this glaring oversight.

Granted, not many states have seen fit to designate official instruments. But some have designated two. Hawaii, for instance, selected both the ukulele, as a modern example, and the pahu, a type of Polynesian drum, as traditional.

Kentucky chose the Appalachian dulcimer and the “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ. Dulcimer, OK, I get it. But pipe organ?

Oklahoma has both the fiddle, for music, and drum, for percussion. The fiddle is also the choice for South Dakota, Missouri and Arkansas, which makes it the front-runner. It is perhaps telling that no state has selected the violin.

Two states, Texas and New Mexico, picked guitars. Louisiana selected the diatonic accordion, commonly known as the “Cajun” accordion. As a zydeco fan, I applaud this.

And I would normally, at this point, suggest some fitting possibilities for Tennessee lawmakers to consider. The catch is that I have zero talent with musical instruments. My wife reckons me as a more than fair whistler, but I don’t think puckered lips qualify.

And so I turned to an expert for advice, musical hero Bill Steber.

Full disclosure: Bill is also quite a noted photographer. Years ago, as Tennessean staffers, he and I chronicled the scenic wonders of the Natchez Trace and the musical attractions of Branson, Missouri, among other collaborations. But our more recent relationship has been as performer (him) and audience (me).

I asked him to describe his musical style.

“Acoustically with the Jake Leg Stompers, I play Chicken-fried, pre-war, hokum-billy jug band music, which is to say, anything we want to so long as it was recorded before WWII,” he responded via email.

“Electrically with the Hoodoo Men,” his other musical group, “I play Mississippi to Memphis ’Lectrified Bacon Grease Corn Liquor Butt Shaking Gonna Boogie Till The Police Come Pork Chop Samich & a Side Of Hog Maws with Hot Sauce Juke Joint Blues,” he wrote.

Bill actually wrote everything starting with “Mississippi” as one word. He is not bound by conventional rules.

As to instruments, he lays claim to playing with “a modicum of proficiency” the harmonica, guitar, ukulele, saw, Diddley bow and kazoo. Others, “to a more limited degree of proficiency,” include mandolin, tenor banjo, dulcimer, jug, autoharp and nose whistle.

I thought maybe he’d made up Diddley bow and nose whistle. He didn’t. He also allowed that there might be others he was forgetting. Among the instruments that he doesn’t play but wishes he could are clawhammer banjo, fiddle, piano and trombone.

I asked about his favorite instrument to play, and why.

“Ukulele,” he said, “because it’s hard to not be in a good mood playing the uke. It’s a humble instrument, easy to learn, with a surprising versatility and musical power despite its reputation as a novelty instrument.

“If you ask anyone of my generation to name a ukulele player,” he went on, “they probably can’t name anyone other than Tiny Tim (a deeply underappreciated artist, in fact). There’s not a lot of expectation for serious music being created on a ukulele, but it’s the key to so much great early 20th century pop and jazz music.”

Personal preference aside, the ukulele is not his choice for what Tennessee should honor, however. That would be:

“Banjo, no question,” he said. His supporting arguments:

“It is perhaps the only truly traditional American instrument. And it is the only instrument in American music with purely African origins that simultaneously bridges the cultural and musical gap between the European (Scots/Irish) tradition and the African.

“It is part of antebellum black plantation music, was a primary instrument of minstrelsy (which is the common origin of both country music and blues) and went from being a quintessentially African American instrument to being primarily associated with rural white music (paddle faster, I hear banjo music).

“And now, a younger generation of Black musicians are working hard to reclaim the instrument to its origins.”

Drop a “Whereas” in there every now and then and, I suggest, you’ve got the wording for a pretty fair joint legislative resolution. Get to it, lawmakers. The public welfare requires it.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com