- Banjo BoyMasculinity, Disability, and Difference in Deliverance
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1. the backstory
I'm what you might call a "closeted" banjo player, so this may well be my coming-out paper. My parents were hippie folkies, and I grew up in the Appalachian region marinating in so much old-time string band music that around age twenty I literally picked up a banjo and just knew how to play it. Soon after learning I could play, I took my banjo to Merlefest, and I bought a bumper sticker that read "Have You Hugged Your Banjo Today?" and put it on my car. But then I sold that car and went off to graduate school in Boston and, well, I just couldn't play the banjo there. It's not even that no one played, some did, but they always seemed to do so with a strange enthusiasm, an academic interest that made me nervous. When I moved to western New York for work, an African American historian friend who had grown up in New York City told me he actually could not stand to hear banjo music, because it always made him think of lynchings. That too gave me pause.
Skating on the thin ice of being a North-dwelling southerner with a mild accent, I got to hear all the slurs about rednecks, white trash, and hillbillies. As a white southern Appalachian from a town called Boone, who had spent a lot of time on porches and a little time on food stamps, I was not about to tell anyone I also played the banjo. Everyone in my small New York town would keep paying a fortune to go see Béla Fleck, and I would just have to travel in the summers to my hometown in western North Carolina, where Doc Watson was from and where the tourist shops sell bumper stickers that read "Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjo Music."
It's a damn shame.
And it's about shame, damn it.
I'd like to say it's nobody's fault, but it is. It's James Dickey's fault. Or John Boorman's. Or both.
The "dueling banjos" scene in John Boorman's 1972 spectacular film adaptation of James Dickey's bestselling 1970 novel Deliverance is an iconic moment in American movie history. In the novel, the scene launches an increasingly unsteady communion between four urban outsiders and a series of increasingly dangerous mountain boys and men. As the film version unfolds into a violent "game" of kill-or-be-killed, the sporadic bluegrass score carries the dueling banjos scene forward, so that it echoes and intermingles with terrorizing incidents of violence, including the now infamous male-on-male rape. The "banjo boy" scene in Deliverance is pivotal for understanding how such a lasting legacy of hillbilly horror and banjo shame could have been instilled by one fictional crossing of America's monumental cultural divides.1 [End Page 64]
2. the scene
The banjo boy scene begins when the four city-slicker businessmen, Ed, Bobby, Lewis, and Drew, finally arrive at a crossroads called Oree after driving ever deeper into the mountains from their urban and suburban Atlanta homes for a rugged weekend canoe adventure. They stop in Oree for gas and to find a couple of local drivers willing to drop off their cars at an agreed-upon spot downriver. Dickey's narrator Ed calls Oree a "sleepy, hookwormy, ugly, and inconsequential" rural county seat, and yet it offers the modern necessities the adventurers require: fossil fuel and paid labor. An old man, described as looking "like a hillbilly in some badly cast movie," approaches, chats, pumps gas, and then, spying the...