Classic Scene: Dueling Banjos

“Dueling banjos”

Deliverance (1972)

Directed by John Boorman

The Scene: On the way to a rafting trip: Ed (Jon Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Bobby (Ned Beatty), and Drew (Ronny Cox) stop by a rustic service station in the middle of nowhere. As Bobby and Lewis act condescendingly towards the locals, Drew strums a few chords on his guitar when he looks up and sees a strange and somewhat eerie child standing (Billy Redden) on the porch with an aged and crudely made banjo. Taking an interest in this young fellow musician, Drew strums his instrument a bit and the kid copies his tune. The continue this back-and-forth, starting with simple strumming/picking building into a full-on folk music jam session. The kid’s entire backwoods family emerges to have fun, with one of them even breaking into traditional dance to the patronizing amusement of the rafting visitors. The friendly musical throwdown ends with the young banjo-player completely smoking the newcomer to his world.

The Breakdown: First and foremost, despite what this scene is called there is only one banjo present as Ronny Cox is clearly playing a guitar but I digress. On a grander scale the conflict of Deliverance is that of the ” New South” which was beginning to emerge at this period versus the classic “Old South” populated by those still in touch with their ancestral roots. For those unfamiliar the term “New South” in its modern context first came into prevalence in the 1970’s and continues to this day. While the region is still filled with the traditional small towns and rural settings one associates with it, southern cities like: Atlanta, Memphis, Charlotte, Austin, etc. have exploded bringing a modern evolution to Southern culture. In Deliverance the two worlds collide and it starts here at this service station. For the crew from Atlanta the people who live in this rural area who still keep the traditions of their ancestors (one of them even does a traditional Scots-Irish-inspired jig) and treat them as being akin to seeing elephants at the zoo. The scene even ends with Ned Beatty suggesting they “throw ’em a couple of bucks” showing that he sees the banjo-playing kid and his family as merely a source of entertainment. Aside from the thematic elements of this scene. “Dueling Banjos” also proves that no matter differences in culture, music is universal. Despite the differences between the big city guys and the rednecks this could serve as a bonding experience if things had gone differently.

The Best Bit: As the two jam out Drew has to keep his focus on his instrument, making sure his fingers are hitting the right chords and frets. But his young dueling opponent does not do such a thing, as the kid never breaks eye contact picking him banjo to perfection with pure confidence. While Rabun County, Georgia-native Billy Redden would largely go back to a typical life in his community, his brief role as the “banjo kid” has made him into nothing short of a pop culture icon and this is something he has been proud of all along.