By Sean Dietrich
You probably never met Ricky Edenfield. But you would’ve liked him. He played a banjo downtown, Crestview, Florida. He was a big fella, thick-bearded, with a personality so jolly he made Santa look like a jerk.
I saw him play. I remember it like it happened a few days ago:
“Whatcha want me to play?” he asks a few kids.
Somebody’s mother asks, “Do you know ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’”
“Know it?” He laughs.
He knows it. And he plucks through it like a man whose beard is on fire.
That’s my memory of him. He played this music like he belonged in a different world. An older one.
The world your great-grandparents came from—long before twenty-four-hour news channels and cellphone-based entertainment.
He was homeless for a long time, and it was hard on his body. He used a wheelchair. Once, he even died on the operating table from a collapsed lung.
But he was a cheery son of a banjo.
He had a way of looking at you that made you feel seen. And you’d wonder about things for a few minutes while he played. Big things. Universal things.
Like: why are people homeless? And: is anyone truly without a home?
“I ain’t homeless,” Banjo Bear once told me. “Got me a mansion. A nice one. It just ain’t down here.”
Then, I saw him fingerpick the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I never knew this man, I knew him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It’s a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn’t. It’s more than that.
It’s a rural church, with wood floors. Where preaching is more like shouting, and the pastor rolls up his sleeves to pray for folks. Where miracles happen, but not the big kind. The little kind. Everyday miracles like babies, marriages, and second chances.
His music was a funeral procession made of cars with headlights blaring. His music was salt peanuts in Coca-Cola, straw hats, and side-of-the-road boiled-peanut shacks.
Like the peanut stand I stopped at last week, outside Dothan. The old man filled my bag until I needed a forklift to move it.
“It’s on the house,” the man said.
I paid him anyway.
Ricky and his banjo weren’t playing for onlookers at all.
He played for men who hunted at night with oil lanterns, and women who could grow camellias in red clay dirt—and did.
Women like Miss Flora, whose hair is whiter than Elvis’ Resurrection suit. Who still remembers when the biggest news in the universe wasn’t Facebook politics, it was a war in Europe. It was Jackie Robinson. It was standing in her front yard, staring at the night sky, while the television showed footage of a man walking on the moon.
“During the Great War,” Miss Flora said—tapping her foot to the banjo rhythm, “this town had flags everywhere. Hanging in stores, churches, theaters…”
I’ll just bet it did.
I remember closing my eyes while the banjo rolled. I saw the old world. Our world. With hog head cheese, Hank Aaron, rag bologna, Hoagie Carmichael, and country stores.
Like the Country Store, in Jefferson, Alabama—a creaky place that’s been along Highway 28 since your ancestors used mule-wagons. Where you can still buy everything from Duke’s mayo to plug tobacco.
The music made me see farmland—the kind owned by families, not corporations. And the way the stars look over the bay. And big lunches. Sunday naps. Women who use talcum powder after showers. Witch hazel at barbershops. Gas-station clerks who bring their bloodhounds to work.
The instrument sounds like history. And it sounded good in his hands. He had a light touch.
Few ever got to know Ricky. Fewer saw the little pallet where he slept during cold weather. Even fewer asked how he was doing. But he was ours. And so was his music.
When he finished playing that day, I watched children applaud him.
He told the kids: “My father instilled four things in me, you wanna hear‘em?”
The kids were eating out of his hand.
“Please!” they shouted. “Tell us!”
He held up four fingers and said, “Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t judge, and don’t disrespect nobody.”
He was beautiful. And this afternoon, he finally got to see his mansion.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.