An Open Letter To Steve Martin

Dear Steve,

A while back, I saw you on some pointless awards show working your way through a banjo solo you had composed.

The audience thought your performance was a joke. After all, you used a similar serious stance for the Flyzinni skit. As the song meandered on the crowd began to giggle anticipating the punchline.

Watching you set your jaw near the end of the performance, I turned to my dad and said, “Oh God. He is going to buy himself a music career.”

I am not psychic. Being almost deaf, I can read people like an open book.

Not long after that, you bought yourself a bluegrass band. Since you are rich and famous, NPR and other news outlets hailed you as a master. Your actual skill level is somewhere in the dedicated hobbyist level. Alas, the rules change when you have money.

You got the acclaim you desired. The Jerk was now a serious musician – but it wasn’t real, so it was not enough. To stay in the spotlight and shape yourself into a banjo god, you handed out a trophy, attention and money to your pals once a year.

None of this is any of my business. I don’t care about you or what you do with your money – but you got your fingers into the heads of my students. Year after year I have students excitedly carrying on about your expertise.

I have already experienced this sort of thing once before. I was teaching adult Modern Arnis classes when I was fourteen. Every week I had to explain to somebody that what they see in movies is nothing like a real fight. That, despite what they see in Chuck Norris movies, karate lessons will not give you the power to drive a buried truck out of a grave like Lone Wolf McQuade.

Don’t get me started about The Karate Kid. To this day, the sight of a headband makes me want to punch people.

You are in a position of great power. Instead of moving the craft forward you continue to build statues of yourself. Instead of handing out checks, you could provide instruments to elementary schools. Create a platform to make lessons freely accessible.

I am not risking anything by saying this. I will never be in danger of consideration for your meaningless trophy. This is for my students on the off chance they will realize that true masters (and that ain’t me) are usually found outside the spotlight. The greats are off somewhere practicing like mad for love of the art and nothing more.

You have resources to do so much good, and you waste it all on self-promoting clowns. Hell, I have nothing and there are jams and family singing groups all over the wold happening because my father and I helped them get going. You could be equipping folk musicians to get out there to fight for justice and sing for peace. There is such potential, and it goes nowhere. There is so much pain in the world right now, there is so much you could do.

When the coronavirus epidemic is under control, you should stop by Crisfield for a visit. I am nobody of importance. My art collection is nothing more than works created by my students. My playing skill is about right for somebody who can’t hear. I will never be famous. Hell, I have refused to perform on stage since the late 90s. That said, jamming with somebody unimpressed with you may be enough of a physic to help you realize that the banjo was never meant for the stage.

The banjo came about in the worst possible way. For most of its history, the banjo was the instrument for and of people who had nothing. A funky composite of scraps of wood, wire and the burning desire to make music. Our songs were passed on in the oral tradition out of love. The art is not in memorization. It is an improvisational language or tones that changes with every song. It enhances with every friendship and goes on and on no matter what the fools do in the spotlight.

You may be rich and famous, but this old-timer sees through you. Stop preening and go do some good. The banjo is not here to serve any individual. It is the voice of the people, and right now we need you. Get to work!

Joseph Patrick Costello III
Crisfield, Maryland