The_dancing_lesson_thomas_eakins

“You gon play that banjo or just pick at it?”

Jim had been picking around on his Grandpa’s banjo for a few minutes, trying to recall the new 3-fingered pattern his Grandpa had showed him a few days before. He ignored his little brother’s pestering and tried to picture his Grandpa’s fingers on the fretboard. They were firm fingers, firmer than most men’s his age, but the skin on them was wearing thin from having been stretched so tight for so long. His nails were long and jagged too, a trait that helped him pluck the strings a bit louder. Jim had thought about letting his grow out as well, but the feeling of the strings rubbing across his nails felt uncomfortable to him, so he was learning to be content with having callouses on the tips of his fingers, which were still soft and sensitive to the touch, unlike his Grandpa’s.

“Come on Jim,” said Jim’s brother, Edgar, who was sitting on a bench across from him with his head in his hands. He had been tapping his bare feet on the ground for a while now, trying to find a consistent rhythm in his brother’s playing, but to no avail.

“What do you want, Eddie?” asked Jim.

“Play something I can dance to,” said Edgar. “Something fast.”

“Don’t know nothing fast.”

“Yeah huh.”

“Said I don’t. Now hush.”

The boys’ Grandpa was leaning up against an old rickety chair, waiting for the heat of the day to wear out. He too, it seemed, was working out a rhythm in his head, for he was rocking the chair back and forth against the two shorter legs.

“Paw, tell Jim to play something fast.”

“Jim,” said their Grandpa, his voice quiet and raspy, “play yo brother something he can move his feet to.”

“Don’t know nothing.”

“Yeah you do. You know Possum Trot.”

“Don’t like playing Possum Trot,” said Jim with a bit of a whine.

“How come?”

“Don’t know.”

“Don’t know?” said his Grandpa. “Don’t know ain’t no answer. Now how come?”

Jim picked around for a second.

“Boring,” he said.

“Boring? Ain’t nothin’ boring bout that song, boy.”

“But it’s a claw-hammer song.”

His Grandpa shook his head and blew out a whistle.

“What’s wrong with claw-hammer?” he asked.

“He don’t know how,” said Edgar.

“Ain’t true!” shouted Jim. “Just don’t like playing it’s all.”

Their Grandpa raised his eyebrows and shook his head again.

“Don’t see what there ain’t to like bout claw-hammer,” he said.

“Just boring’s all.”

“Ain’t nothin’ boring but you, boy. You just don’t know how to enjoy it’s all. Now gon and play it.”

Jim sulked his head for a moment. He strummed a few strings and fiddled around.

“Come on, Jim!” said Edgar.

“I’m playing it, hush!”

Jim put his thumb on the third string from the top and plucked it, plucking the string beneath it on his way down and pulling on the string beneath that one with his pointer finger, slowly at first. The strings came out in a bum-ditty pattern that slowly went from three separate notes to one smooth rhythm.

Bum-ditty Bum-ditty Bum-ditty Bum-ditty.

Faster and faster.

Bum-ditty Bum-ditty Bum-ditty Bum-ditty.

Edgar jumped up and started shuffling on his toes, shifting his weight back and forth with the rhythm and lifting his hands up and down as he did so. His Grandpa smiled and laughed to himself. His eyebrows slowly came down and rested just above his eyes, leaving them open just barely in a squint. He closed them once or twice, but mostly he just let them glaze over as he watched the young boy dance.

“Sing it, Eddie.”

Edgar jumped right in and sang out every word in his young, smooth voice.

Possum trot, possum trot

Possum possum’s all I got

Got no money, got no cot

All I got’s that possum trot

Possum trot down the road

Chase that possum chase that toad

Keep on pulling on the goad

Chase that possum down the road

Momma momma what you got

Cooking there up in that pot?

Stomach’s tied all up in knots

From eating all that possum trot

Possum trot possum trot

Possum possum’s all I got

Got no money, got no cot

All I got’s that possum trot

“Yessirree,” said the boys’ Grandpa. “You gon be breaking hearts pretty soon, you keep them moves going. Them girls’ll be chasin’ you for too long.”

“They already chasin,” said Edgar, out of breath. “Can’t keep up.”

His Grandpa let out a whoop and clapped his hands, and even Jim smirked as he sped up the plucking to keep up with his brother’s dancing.

At length, their Grandpa looked over at Jim and watched him play for a moment. His right hand bounced in a smooth motion with the music, plucking the strings in a rhythm that would’ve been thrown off had Jim stopped to think about where his fingers were going. Instead, they kept on plucking with little effort on his part, while his left hand danced around the neck, pressing down on only a few certain strings that made the instrument shine. The boy, though he claimed not to enjoy it, had gotten quite good at playing claw-hammer, and by the present look in his eyes, he appeared to be coming around to it. It made him smile to think of how he had fooled Edgar into believing it was more complicated that it actually was. Once he had learned the pattern, speed had come rather quickly. Edgar, however, whether he knew the fact or not, did not appear to care, for he was still bouncing on his toes. Soon, he got the gumption to sing once more, and with that same youthful tone, he sang out the words again, paying little mind to the sad lyrics that accompanied that joyful tune.

Possum trot possum trot

Possum possum’s all I got

Got no money, got no cot

All I got’s that possum trot

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