Over two decades ago, an Ohio man bludgeoned his wife to death with a banjo (two banjos to be specific — he broke the first one). According to the Cox News Service report, neighbors were shocked. Other than playing “Fox on the Run” over and over again while attempting to sing all three parts of the harmony by himself, the man seemed normal.
Still, this senseless tragedy set into motion a series of events in which quick and decisive government regulation solved the national epidemic of senseless Bluegrass violence.
According to a recently produced public television documentary, it was a sad time in America’s history when banjos were readily available to any person that happened to wander into a music store. It’s hard to remember such a time, but at one point in our history banjos were not registered. No identification was required to purchase one. No musical aptitude checks were performed on potential owners.
The documentary has to be viewed in the context of the early ’90s, when America’s views toward banjo ownership were different. The movie “Deliverance” was still part of the nation’s psyche and banjo pickers like John Hartford and Grandpa Jones were actually seen as “role models” people wanted their children to emulate.
In response to the senseless Ohio tragedy, Congress (as Congress is prone to do) sprang into action and passed legislation placing a five-day waiting period on the purchase of all banjos. During the waiting period, the government began to check the musical background of all potential banjo owners. Likewise, people wanting to obtain a banjo now had to wait five days to “cool down” their passion for pickin’.
Caught up in the anti-banjo mood, many state legislatures followed the lead of the United States Congress and enacted proactive legislation banning the possession of banjos within 500 feet of schools and churches.
Of course not everyone was entirely happy about the anti-banjo movement. Claiming their constitutional right to play the banjo, conservatives were outraged by Congress’ action. The NRA (National Reel Association) sent out fundraising letters claiming that when banjos were banned only criminals would have banjos — its president threatening that they’d get his banjo when they pried it from his cold dead hands.
Conservative state legislatures thumbed their noses at the federal action and passed legislation allowing people to openly carry banjos concealed in gig bags.
Liberals, on the other hand, felt the federal action did not go far enough and pushed to extend the waiting period to all Bluegrass instruments. They complained about loopholes that allowed people to purchase used banjos at yard sales and flea markets. Under pressure from his major contributors, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order banning the importation of banjolins (an instrument strung like a mandolin, but with a banjo face).