Muscle Memory with a Pitchfork and Banjo



We are the music makers,

and we are the dreamers of dreams…

Arthur O’Shaughnessy

I keep my nails lopsided—long on the right hand, short on the left—just in case I find the time and gumption to play my banjo again. This house has never heard the bum-ditty of that spunky instrument.

The banjo has waited in its case through our construction dust last winter, hidden in the closet through a busy summer, and has been tugging at me this fall and winter. Finally, one late February day, I unzip the case.

I lift its perfect, round face into the light, imagining the words encircling the head of Pete Seeger’s banjo: This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender. The time seems right for music. I wonder if I can still play it.

Photographed from Pete Seeger’s How to play the 5-String Banjo

My return to banjo stumbles along, but my fingers surprise me by how much they remember. I play clawhammer style. A left fingernail strikes a string, lifts, then strums, A high pluck of the thumb on the fifth string punctuates each strum. It’s an old-timey, sing-along sound that brings me pure delight as I create it.

Callouses form again on my left fingertips where they press the wire strings. Sometimes my hands even act independently of my brain, as if by instinct. But this is different from the instinct. Instinct drives my chickens to scratch forward, then step back and dart their beaks to the ground. My banjo-playing movements are learned with meticulous repetition. Once taught to my confused, unwilling muscles, this music-making seems to have entered my cells.

Our bodies store memories. The smell of your elementary school. Stubble on an unshaved cheek against your lips. A dog’s ears in your hands. Mint tea from the garden—sweet on your tongue, cold down your throat.

As spring approaches, callouses form again on my palms. I lever a pitchfork into two-feet of hay and petrified sheep turds that linger in a small corner room of our barn. The shove, pry, lift pattern plays old scenes in my mind of other places I’ve used a pitchfork or a shovel. Sweating in stalls as a teenager so horse-crazy I felt honored to handle their feces. Turning compost in our red dirt garden in Alabama. On this farm, I push wheelbarrow loads to the garden, where the well-cured manure will fuel our vegetables.

We are always teaching our bodies something, whether or not it’s what we want to learn. I have learned to ride a bicycle, to drive a car, to tie surgical knots. I have learned to carry my shoulders high and tense and to bite my fingernails (must resist…need them for the banjo).

Movements repeated, like my fingers across this keyboard, become unconscious. We cannot unlearn them, although they can fade with disuse. I wonder what other actions I repeat without realizing that I’m coding them into my body.

Maybe one day I will play the banjo as fluently as I ride a bicycle. It will keep me company and make me laugh. It will invite other voices and their own harmonies. The banjo has no agenda. It offers me no guilt or frustration, only song. It takes my moods and stress and fears and creates something more hopeful. My banjo needs its own slogan—one that rings true for me. Maybe: This Machine Digs Into Shit and Turns It To Fertilizer.



4 thoughts on “Muscle Memory with a Pitchfork and Banjo”

    1. Thanks! Pete is one of my heros.
      [Yes–birthday banjo! At 35, I promised myself a banjo when I turned 40. Decided life was too short and found one on craigslist that summer. No regrets.]

Comments are closed.