The Ballad of the Banjo Player’s Brother – a poem

[audio:banjo poem.mp3] Download audio file (banjo poem.mp3)

The Ballad of Hapgood J Thoroughgood and Wendell P Boyd.

a poor young African American woman
of unfortunate circumstances
died in childbirth
but her identical twin sons survived
although they were both born completely

the two blue boys were adopted out
and one of them was raised by a rich family
where he was instructed in all the muse-ic arts
and became a banjo player,
while the other hapless soul
was used, misused, sexually abused
and exploited,
choked half to death
by the high wires
of his own heart
and came out at the other end
of childhood
as a liar
and a robber
and a poker player.

now the beautiful blue banjo player
fell in with a Baton Rouge portrait artist
who composed, or perhaps the word is channeled
huge canvasses of feminine landscapes
with Rockie mounted breasts and buttocks
and Arid-zoned sparse blue skies
peering down on deep hidden Virginic canyons
that concealed lush foliage and running water.
while the sun shone overhead
and squirted breast-milk into the sky.

but the wayward blue banjo-less bastard had a hollowed-out shoe
where he kept cocaine wrapped in cellophane
and a ratty old musical instrument case
that he stole
from a dead man
in a car
and kept only to conceal
his double guns
and a pack of marked cards;
the tools of the trade he needed to ply
if he wanted to stay high.

and by a quirk of fate if you think Providence makes mistakes
or perhaps by design
if you see in the creation a plan or discernible meaningful narrative line.
the blue banjo player and the gambling thief
with faces like Krishna
and lives like two ply twine ripped asunder
walked across the same hot baked pavement
on the same southern afternoon
and time like a curly piece of rope
that ripped apart screams to be once more entwined
placed them next to each other like a thunderclap
though no light illumined their eyes
and they walked back to back across the same street
without seeing each other
and the glimpse they never caught was like seventeen wasted years
and the darkness of their ignorance of the other’s existence was like a million days and nights of held back orphaned tears

(howl in wolf’s voice) pain pain pain

(bark like a dog) loss loss loss loss

oh where is the river that will join cleaved souls ?
and wash their hearts and and fill in the holes
and end the suffering of two wee blue boys
named Hapgood J Thoroughgood and Wendell P Boyd

yes two blue brothers
born of the same mother
walked past each other
but in a tunnel
and no light shone
on the face
of the five stringed one
and no sound came
from the case
of the two gunned bum

and the banjo player
disappeared up an alley
jumped the fence
and climbed the fire escape
where SHE
hid a key
to let him do
his thing
in her STUDIO

while the broken hearted thief
stood on a corner in the sun
holding a banjo case
that contained two guns
and people looked out
from among the crowd
at the face that was blue
yet somehow white
as a shroud

yes all the people watched
the blue man go by
and no one knew
that his musical instrument case
was a disguise
and the banjo players lover
who painted earth portraits
came out of a bus
that stopped at the corner
and saw who she thought
was her man as he stood
on the street
where his brothers
from another ‘hood
had arranged to meet
the man with two guns
and rob some place cheap
for some trifling sum

and she smiled
as she walked
to the man
who she chose
to loosen her robes
and take off her clothes
and she remembered his smile
and the sound of his pick
as it plucked and it strummed
on the strings that it hit
and she shone like a flame
and she grew like a fire
as her heart saw the face
of this blue faced plier (player)

and mistakenly roused
she kissed the strange face
but the man with two guns
in a banjo case
swung that box hard
and collected her head
making two red scratch marks
on the side of her face
and a bruise that grew yellow
on the side of her head

the woman went down
and the man walked off
and a car pulled up
and the robber got in
and they drove him off
to the place
where they stayed
and discussed the details
of a deal they had made

and that afternoon
at around half past four
three hoods with two guns
in a case
and a Ford
held up a bar
and stole the proceeds

and the brother with a face
that was blue
and a scar on the heart too great to conceal
like a fool lost his cool

and fired his guns at the living and dead
till no one was moving and the walls were blood red
and parts of the customers some ear-rings, a nose
a plastic bottle and a piece of garden hose
lay floating like fruit punch in a bowl at new year
a macabre champagne of blood and of beer

twelve lost souls on an afternoon
some unemployed and some on the run
were taken in passion by a man in the night
and one old woman
who died of fright

bad blue boy
thinks his gun is a toy
and the cowl that he wore on his blue colored head
was as white
as the sheets that cover your bed
and the scowl on his lip and the scar on his heart
were connected like fire and an anvil at night
and the iron he beat
and the hammer he raised
were himself and his past
as he tried to be free
and the pain that he caused;
mistakes that he made
were made known to his self
by a voice in his sleep
and the voice spoke of grace
of grace and a creed
of a time and a place
to be saved; to be freed
yes liberty as freedom
from pain and from chains
that bind men to things
to mistakes and to shame
liberty freedom
salvation and grace
these were the things
the blue boy would face


But the brother with the banjo
sat meanwhile in a room
and strummed and slid
and picked out a tune
and sang of his love
for the woman with paint
the woman he had met
on the upper Haight
she who carried him east
and south to these walls
of sea and of color
and of insights that scald

in arizona
beneath a burning sun
in mexican sand
with a horse and a gun
in a bovine desert
where the hamburgers lie
and texans speak Spanish
beneath a burning sky
he saw the marriage
of earth and art
understood history and freedom
and all that they are
and areas unknown and areas seen
were conjoined in the land
of a unified dream
and the blue man said “you”
to the woman
“and I
will walk this earth
and we will be
as adam and eve
on an endless sea
of time and life
which are not magazines
but direct transmissions
of all gods mad dreams”

and the woman replied
with a gallon of color
that she sprayed on the side
of the car that they’d hired
and painted a word
that no-one had heard
in that part of the world
for quite a while

“free” as the breeze that blows through the trees
“free” as the wind that dances with leaves
“free” as the fire that burns in your heart
“free” as desire that drives you to art

art is the language that we use when we speak
not for profit or purpose but to get something out
and the person who listens; the person who hears
is not of this world and its physical spheres
the whole thing is mental, internal, beyond
and the one who listens is god by the pond

so whisper and shout and get that thought out
express it, inscribe it on walls which have ears
celebrate all the things that there are
and dream and create as you drive in your car

the living land is a living song
and the water that nourishes
is tuning the keys
of an epic; a symphony; a piano; a sea
a living poem called geography

let me out let me out
said the thought in the mind
let me paint for the sighted
and sing for the blind
give me form and dimension
duration and space
write me loud in red
on some place
I’ll be read
yes, let me out let me out
said the song in the heart
play me loud
play me strong
let me live in your art

and the picker played
and the painter sang
and they sculpted and painted their car
which was a van
(a kind of a mini bus)
and they drove through the south to the river mouth
where a city of souls which spoke a French creole
welcomed them with work and grants and arms
that enveloped their chests and hearts and art
(and also of course shook their hands)

the woman got a studio
which was a place where she could go
and fill her canvasses with mountains and valleys
and fields to sow and the banjo player
who she called Joe
played on the corner
and in the park
and sometimes in bars
if he could get a gig

and their life was happy and their hearts were free
and their prospects and future glowed forth like a dream
till that twin blue brother on the corner one day
was mistaken for his double
by the woman with paint
and she arrived in the studio
with an angry gait
and shouted and screamed
and drove Hapgood out.

and he crossed the city
inhabited bars
sang songs of loneliness
passed out on a car
went back to the bar
and sat for a while
till the cops
with video footage
from the scene
where the crime of the twin blue brother
had recently been
committed with an action
so off-hand and cool
as if man in his root
was made for this task
to wield a gun
and call it a tool
and kill his brothers
with no second thought
and escape in a car
that someone had bought
or stolen one night
from a street by a park
not noticing paint
spattered there in the dark

the same car was used
irony and god

and the banjo player
mistakenly caught
taken from public
by men in a van
and handcuffed and questioned
and locked in a cell

and tried and found
with no artist in sight
guilty of murder and
breaking the law
for the alibi
that could have made a lie
of the video
the security camera made
was in the person of the artist
in her studio
and she was withdrawn
in a self built shell
disappointed and filled
with hatred as well

she thought her own true lover blue
had struck her face and
hurt others as well
and wouldn’t come forth
to the trial they held
in her heart now
the victims were equally dead.
and her liver opened a bar
with the bile that ran from
the kidney to the spleen
and a broken heart
and a broken dream
drank whisky and beer
in a body that had been
a temple of love
and thought and art
a temple of the living divine human heart

and broken and busted unable to paint
her world was a hell now
tubes of dried up acrylic paint
and broken old garbage
and parts of some sculptures
tangled and melted and covered in butter
were used on the pyre at the place where her heart
was burned at the stake and ended her art

a funeral pyre for a child with an eye
that saw the face of heaven and hell


You can find out more about the story of The Banjo Player’s Brother here.

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