The Terrible Three

I thought it was hilarious. Barry was not amused.

Barry’s my fellow musician on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat. He plays the banjo. A lady from Canada came up to us after a sweet hour’s gig and said, “Do you know how you tell when the stage is level? The drool came out of sides of the banjo player’s mouth.” Then she laughed, I laughed, and Barry grimaced. He’s a sensitive guy.

We like to announce on the boat that we play the three most hated musical instruments in captivity: the banjo, the accordion, and the bagpipe. I don’t understand this at all except to venture that the prejudice is based on the fact that all three are rather loud.

(Did you hear about the accordion player who was returning home from a late night gig, had stopped for coffee, and heard a crash in the parking lot? He ran out to see that his car window was smashed and someone had given him another accordion.)

(What’s the definition of perfect pitch? You toss an accordion into a dumpster and it hits a banjo.)

I think these things are funny. Barry has a forced, customer-pleasing smile and sometimes his face hurts after a three-day cruise. (What does a banjo player say when he’s wearing a three-piece suit? “Yes, your Honor.”) I thank the passenger then steal his joke immediately. (Why does everyone hate an accordion immediately? Saves time.) Some of them are pretty good. (What’s the definition of a gentleman? A man who knows how to play the bagpipes but doesn’t. Why did the accordion player cross the road. . . I thought while I was accelerating.)

The neatest thing about playing the squeezebox is that someone in every audience has an aunt or uncle who once played the thing. The fact that nearly all these musicians are now dead does give me some pause and make me more careful crossing the road. But the instrument truly is a delight to many people of the Lawrence Welk generation. It brings back memories of days before you needed electricity to make a little music. I own about fourteen of the rascals but none of them have wires attached.

And what the heck is wrong with the banjo, the closest thing we have to a truly American instrument although its primitive roots lie in Africa? I play a four-string tenor banjo or what I call Banjo-for-Dummies. I had a friend tune it so my left hand doesn’t have to do any thinking. There are better ways to play it, but only other banjo players in the audience catch on to my lack of ability. Barry’s the master of the five-string banjo along with a dozen other instruments. The sound of him on the deck above me oozing through the audience playing, “Rocky Top,” or “Gentle on Mind,” is a pure delight to my ears. In fact, we once played a duet of “Rocky Mountain Breakdown” on the banjo and the calliope. I looked it up in the Guinness Book of World Records, and unfortunately there was no category for that. Silly British snobs. (What’s the difference between an onion and a banjo? No one cries when you cut up a banjo. The difference between a South American Macaw and a banjo? One is loud, obnoxious, and noisy; the other is a bird.)

Okay, there may be some truth in the bagpipe being an overpowering instrument since there is no volume control. It’s either complete silence or blow-your-hat-off. I only play it as the passengers are climbing aboard the boat from Starved Rock, at a safe distance, and we often have a bulbous and glad-hearted captain who does a little jig in the pilothouse whenever he heard the pipe’s drones start up. I’ve often thought about taking my pipes to the Lodge itself to serenade the guests as they make their way to the cabins after dark, but Starved Rock still averages one fatal accident a year and I’d had to add to their statistics. (Did you hear about the joke invented by a drunk Irishman? It’s called the bagpipes and the Scots still haven’t got the joke. Why do bagpipers walk when they play? Get to away from the noise.)

Barry and I will continue with our three most obnoxious instruments when I return to the boat. In fact, he wants us to start working out orchestra arrangements for banjo an accordion, and suggested that we start out with Beethoven’s Fifth. I told him I didn’t drink.

(How do you make two accordionists play in time? You shoot one of them.)

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