(With apologies to the singer of the “Song of the Banjo”.)
I’m a homely little bit of tin and bone;
I’m beloved by the Legion of the Lost;
I haven’t got a “vox humana” tone,
And a dime or two will satisfy my cost.
I don’t attempt your high-falutin’ flights;
I am more or less uncertain on the key;
But I tell you, boys, there’s lots and lots of nights
When you’ve taken mighty comfort out of me.
I weigh an ounce or two, and I’m so small
You can pack me in the pocket of your vest;
And when at night so wearily you crawl
Into your bunk and stretch your limbs to rest,
You take me out and play me soft and low,
The simple songs that trouble your heartstrings;
The tunes you used to fancy long ago,
Before you made a rotten mess of things.
Then a dreamy look will come into your eyes,
And you break off in the middle of a note;
And then, with just the dreariest of sighs,
You drop me in the pocket of your coat.
But somehow I have bucked you up a bit;
And, as you turn around and face the wall,
You don’t feel quite so spineless and unfit–
You’re not so bad a fellow after all.
Do you recollect the bitter Arctic night;
Your camp beside the canyon on the trail;
Your tent a tiny square of orange light;
The moon above consumptive-like and pale;
Your supper cooked, your little stove aglow;
You tired, but snug and happy as a child?
Then ’twas “Turkey in the Straw” till your lips were nearly raw,
And you hurled your bold defiance at the Wild.
Do you recollect the flashing, lashing pain;
The gulf of humid blackness overhead;
The lightning making rapiers of the rain;
The cattle-horns like candles of the dead
You sitting on your bronco there alone,
In your slicker, saddle-sore and sick with cold?
Do you think the silent herd did not hear “The Mocking Bird”,
Or relish “Silver Threads among the Gold”?
Do you recollect the wild Magellan coast;
The head-winds and the icy, roaring seas;
The nights you thought that everything was lost;
The days you toiled in water to your knees;
The frozen ratlines shrieking in the gale;
The hissing steeps and gulfs of livid foam:
When you cheered your messmates nine with “Ben Bolt” and “Clementine”,
And “Dixie Land” and “Seeing Nellie Home”?
Let the jammy banjo voice the Younger Son,
Who waits for his remittance to arrive;
I represent the grimy, gritty one,
Who sweats his bones to keep himself alive;
Who’s up against the real thing from his birth;
Whose heritage is hard and bitter toil;
I voice the weary, smeary ones of earth,
The helots of the sea and of the soil.
I’m the Steinway of strange mischief and mischance;
I’m the Stradivarius of blank defeat;
In the down-world, when the devil leads the dance,
I am simply and symbolically meet;
I’m the irrepressive spirit of mankind;
I’m the small boy playing knuckle down with Death;
At the end of all things known, where God’s rubbish-heap is thrown,
I shrill impudent triumph at a breath.
I’m a humble little bit of tin and horn;
I’m a byword, I’m a plaything, I’m a jest;
The virtuoso looks on me with scorn;
But there’s times when I am better than the best.
Ask the stoker and the sailor of the sea;
Ask the mucker and the hewer of the pine;
Ask the herder of the plain, ask the gleaner of the grain–
There’s a lowly, loving kingdom–and it’s mine.