Seeking a Banjo for the End of the World

The Apocalypse was Coming, So We Turned the Music Up.

The apocalypse was coming, so we turned the music up. Tuesday, March 10, 2020 was one of the most tumultuous days of my life. The previous day gave no indication of what was coming — 66°F and sunny, Monday, March 9 was the kind of late-winter day in Ohio that the Germans have a word for: frühlingsgefühle. Frühlingsgefühle describes the joy of the first warm days when spring is coming and the cold season ends. Roughly translated, frühlingsgefühle means “spring feelings,” or sometimes “spring fever.” March 9’s frühlingsgefühle was a car-windows-down, radio-blasting kind of day, one that makes you forget winter ever happened. Then Tuesday came. Spring fever arrived … literally. 

I woke up that Tuesday morning in a cold sweat, my body racked with chills. I didn’t own a thermometer, so I couldn’t take my temperature. Outside, the weather deteriorated to 43° and rain. Auf Wiedersehen, frühlingsgefühle! I was set to host a house concert that evening, something I’d planned for months and invited a number of college students who attended my church to. But that morning, Kent State University sent an email notifying students that classes were canceled and campus would be shutting down for a short time to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Should I cancel the house show? Do *I* have coronavirus? Should we be worried?” I asked my roommate, panicking. But the musicians were already on their way from Nashville, and I’d been looking forward to the concert. So I swallowed some Tylenol and decided that I wanted the show to go on. And so it did. 

One song that stuck with me in the year since that house concert is from the artist J Lind, called “This Too.” “This Too” tells the story of a king who asks his men to find him a magic ring that “could serve him in both his misery and joy.” The king’s men find a wise man who helps them in their task, giving them a ring carved with these words “This too shall pass.” For years, “wealth and health and fame kept fear at bay,” until one day when the light falls upon the ring’s inscription and reminds the king of this prophecy: “This too shall pass.”

For not a stone would be left standing
And every mountain’d be laid low at last
But the king would bow as he greeted death
And he’d sing out loud with his fleeting breath
This too — This too shall pass”

When I first heard J Lind sing “This Too” on that feverish, apocalyptic day, I only wanted to hear its refrain, “this too shall pass,” through my own self-confirmation bias. Pre-pandemic life would surely be restored by Easter — for this too shall pass. Oh, dear! Had I listened closer, I would have heard that the full story of J’s song had more to say about my (pandemic) misery and (fleeting) joy. 

It is an uncomfortable truth that though the misery of this pandemic will likely pass, joy will not be fully restored. Pain, in some form or another, will be an ever-present companion as long as I am living, and the effects of the pandemic will likely linger for the rest of my lifetime. Though we can reduce COVID deaths by inoculation, I am reminded that death will still greet each and every one of us one day. This too shall pass. But the prophecy of “This Too” is not all bad news.

This is what the season of Lent is all about — reckoning with the reality of our own deaths while also remembering the dual meaning of this too shall pass. Though we must remember that one day we will die, we must also remember to look forward with hope to the promise of everlasting life because of Christ’s triumph over death. Death and sickness may rule this land now, but one day, life and the land will indeed be fully restored. Yes, the trumpet of the apocalypse will sound, but when it does, a chorus of voices from every tribe and nation is promised to follow. They will sing a new song.  

This is why I long for the return of live music. Martin Luther said, “Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.” For me, music is more than a medium; it’s a gift that takes me closer to God. Singing at church or attending a concert feels like a prelude to that mysterious new song promised in Revelation. Music triggers my memories, transporting me to places and ages past, or it fills my imagination with thoughts of somewhere I’ve never been but long to go. There’s another German word to describe how I’m affected by music: sehnsucht, often defined as “forward-facing nostalgia.” C. S. Lewis described sehnsucht as “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” 

Summer 2020, I experienced sehnsucht while reading a passage in Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow detailing a bluegrass jam session in Jayber’s barbershop. 

And then one or another of them would pick up his fiddle or guitar or banjo and begin to tune it, plucking at the strings individually and listening. And then another would begin, and another […] The music, while it lasted, brought a new world into being. They would play some tunes they had learned off the radio, but their knowledge was far older than that and they played too the music that was native to the place, or that the people of the place were native to. Just the names of the tunes were a kind of music; they call back the music to my mind still, after so many years: “Sand Riffle,” “Last Gold Dollar,” “Billy in the Low Ground,” “Gate to Go Through,” and a lot of others. “A fiddle, now, is an atmospheric thing,” said Burley Coulter. The music was another element filling the room and pouring out through the cracks.

Reading that passage made my eyes fill with tears. I wasn’t affected by those words just because I missed live music, but because, as Jayber reflects, I was reminded that the most affecting music is made when we are together. While music made by one man is certainly still beautiful, a song sung by many, informed by time and place and people, brings a whole new world into being.

Maybe this is why I bought a banjo last month. I practice it in the evenings in my bedroom, trying to form calluses on my fingertips. Sometimes it hurts. Some sessions are more rewarding than others. But most of the time, practicing my banjo brings me great joy. Learning songs on my banjo is my act of hope in this eerily apocalyptic season. I dream of playing it at church one day, plucking the strings to an old, familiar hymn while my community sings along. The thought fills my eyes with tears. I can’t wait. 

But for now, I must wait. We all must wait. We practice and wait for the calluses to form on our fingertips. We dream and wait for the band to get back together again. We sing and wait for the day when the dissonance of sehnsucht will finally resolve. This too shall pass. In this winter, we hope and wait for a spring of frühlingsgefühle — our joy made that much greater because we can remember that we’ve been brought out of the cold. And on that day, heavenly music — I imagine that of a bluegrass band: fiddle, guitar, and banjo — will pour out of those instruments and through the whole earth, finally filling in all the cracks. 

Featured image via Etsy.


2 responses to “Seeking a Banjo for the End of the World”

  1. B says:

    You might enjoy the lcms presidents banjo work, scroll down for a Mighty fortress

  2. Bryan J. says:

    Beautiful Grace. If you’re ever in Ligonier, you can come play banjo with us on Sunday Morning.

    Pre-pandemic, I kept my guitar locked away to keep it safe from my toddler and my dog. When toddler was having a tantrum the other night, I brought the guitar out and played “Wheels on the Bus” for him. He was enthralled, clapping and dancing along. And so I wept. Also: he kept wanting to put guitar picks in the sound hole, which was annoying but a joy for him so I just let it happen. Looking to put a wall mount up for my guitar now so I can grab it for him at a moment’s notice. Music is a great way to bypass the apocalypse, isn’t it?

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