Poetry 2013 / Volume 44

Artist’s Bio: the Banjo Guy on Fourth and Main — William Jolliff

It started out as shtick, a beggar’s gaff,
something to set him apart from the poor
who only hold out hats or wear their signs:
Need Gas, Need Food, Out of Work.

A good gaff demands a little respect—
it offers something back for compassion.
So he lifted the banjo from a guy who,
asleep or out drunk, wasn’t using it.

The next day he was whaarriinnging away
and noticed his take increased with volume.
Nice. So he went in the internet room
of a library and looked up how to tune.

Then some bills came in with the quarters,
clearly cause and effect. No doubt about it,
he was on to something good, and this:
he began to love his own weird racket.

Unencumbered by pride and blessed with long
days of hungry hours, he followed his hands,
random positions, stroking and picking,
and sometimes he got lucky. Real music.

Repetition and variation. The first rule
of all art. He noted what worked, the sounds
that gave him bliss, and he noted this, too,
that sometimes people smiled at him,

which no one ever does in a beggar’s
direction. And so he became a musician.
He kept his ears open, picked up a riff
from a street pro here, a young bum there,

and developed style since, as scholars
will tell you, style is based on necessity,
the very thing he had in spades: nights pass
but the need to eat or make art does not.

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