Cigar Box Banjo – An Appreciation

Recently read, and thoroughly enjoyed, was the book Cigar Box Banjo by Paul Quarrington. Part exploration of musical history, part discussion of musical influences and part memoir by one of Canada’s most eclectic and far-ranging artists, the book was a delight to read. Written in the last year of Quarrington’s life, the book is a response to two driving influences: his publisher’s suggestion that the first draft was okay, but that the personal reflections were the most interesting; and the author’s diagnosis with Stage IV lung cancer. This ‘additional thematic material’, as he so quaintly describes it, grounds the book, gives it context and also touches in ways that go beyond imagining.

It is extremely rare that we get the opportunity as human beings to know how and roughly when we are going to die. Arguably, this is probably a good thing… otherwise we’d all just be depressed. Quarrington, courtesy of an interesting combination of ambition, restlessness and a drive to create, turned it into a challenge of how to get done the things he still felt necessary to accomplish. The list is as humbling as it is impressive. He wrote a book, went on tour with his band (twice), recorded a studio album with his band, recorded a personal album and travelled down the eastern coast of Canada from the inuit town of Kuujjuaq all the way to Halifax courtesy of the Walrus Arts Float. Normal people fantasize about this kind of activity in a lifetime; Paul Quarrington did it all in less than a year.

Having recently faced a life-threatening incident of my own (which thankfully is now mostly behind me), I’ve had to confront the question of what I would do if I had only a brief time to live. The only answer that I’ve come up with so far is that I’m not by a long shot done, and it is with arguable relief that I now have considerably more time in which to accomplish whatever it is I’m here to do. I can also say with equal certainty that I admire the clarity and vision that Paul Quarrington brough to his last months, and respect his ability to live large even while working through how to manage the illness that ultimately took his life. And I fully respect his first decision, which was “no more cheap wine.”

Any student of music – whether it be folk, rock, blues or country –will find a fascinating, inspiring and informative exploration of Quarrington’s musical journey and the influences that shaped it. Students of the written word will find a credible (and incredible) tale well told, with a delightful sense of humour and an imaginative, flexible and entertaining use of footnotes. In particular, however, the student of life in all of us has a lot to learn about what life really means, and how to truly live it well. And Paul Quarrington has a lot to teach. I’m still learning.

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