I found out yesterday that the man who wrote “Dueling Banjos,” Arthur Smith, died last Thursday at the age of 93. It was one of those moments in which you realize someone has made your life better in a specific and meaningful way, yet you never even knew that person’s name. Now I do, it’s Arthur Smith, and even though it’s too late, I’d like to say thanks.
I don’t remember hearing the song for the first time, nor do I remember sitting down to learn how to play it, but somewhere along the way I worked out a crude, one-guitar arrangement, switching back and forth between octaves to mimic the sound of a second instrument. I played that version roughly a hundred times in the two years bandmate 4eva Doug and I had a regular Thursday night gig at Curbside Cafe in the Fan. I’d just graduated college, and those were two of the best years I’ll ever have. We didn’t even get paid for the first year (unless you count free alcohol, in which case we were paid like investment bankers), but our friends would come and we’d spend three or four hours playing the songs we wrote — even the silly ones — and the cover songs that we loved and knew at least a few chords of. Some of those covers turned into rituals that made those Thursday nights totally distinctive — rituals those nights would eventually feel incomplete without. “Dueling Banjos” was one.
It also came to my rescue once. I was at Mrs. YHT’s aunt and uncle’s house in Harrisburg, PA for my first Thanksgiving with her family. When dessert was winding down, the topic of my band came up, and next thing I knew, a guitar was unearthed from the basement, setting the stage for me to play something. It was a tricky situation, because I’m not crazy about my singing voice and was feeling self-conscious about serenading a room full of future in-laws. Just playing chords felt a little weird, so I tried to think of something instrumental that would work. “Dueling Banjos” did the trick.
It doesn’t matter when or why I’m listening to it, “Dueling Banjos” puts a smile on my face. I know it makes a cartoonish impression on some. I’m not immune — when I see someone (or myself) doing something super-rednecky, I’ll often mock/celebrate it by humming “deedle ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding” out loud or in my head. It certainly is hard to extricate it from the canoe-paddling, pig-squealing, rural nightmare of a movie that made it famous. But “Dueling Banjos” has brought me so much joy over the years — real happiness derived from hours and hours of recreating it — and I wish I’d thought to thank Arthur Smith before he passed. So I’ll say it now. Thank you.
I listened to the vinyl copy pictured above in tribute last night, but the version I fell for is from the Deliverance soundtrack, and it’s posted below. I hope it puts a smile on your face as well.
[Update: About 30 minutes after publishing this post, I found a super-clean copy of the Deliverance soundtrack at Goodwill. Goosebumps ensued.]