Jason Byassee: The banjo lesson

Leadership is about providing a space for another to grow into. Witness "The Banjo Player," an old-time musician, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

I’ve always loved this painting, “The Banjo Lesson,” as an image for teaching -- we can apply it also to leadership. The old man is sitting patiently, providing a physical frame for the boy in his lap to learn his way around the strings. He is also holding up the neck of the instrument for a boy not big enough to bear the weight himself. The goal is to make space for the child to love the instrument, for his fingers to learn his way around it, to have him grow into love for music and the joy it will bring for the rest of boy’s life.

We here in Durham recently got to hear an outdoor concert of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a trio of 20-somethings playing old-time African-American string-band music for a new generation. It was striking to watch a crowd of all races get up and dance unabashedly in a rain-soaked field to instruments their grandparents, black and white, left behind as antiquated -- the jug, the banjo, the fiddle, the kazoo.

A review of the concert in the local newspaper described how the Chocolate Drops got into this sort of music. They had their own banjo lesson of sorts, a fiddle lesson really. They met a man named Joe Thompson, a 90-year-old fiddler, one of the last of a generation that played old time African-American music from several generations ago. After first meeting one another at a festival called Black Banjo in the NC mountains (institutions like festivals are clearly incubators of new creativity), the three -- Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons -- started visiting Thompson at his home in Mebane. They got to know the man, studied under him and learned his repertoire, playing backup with him. Thompson is from an age that doesn’t dole out compliments freely. But the band knew he approved of them because he kept inviting them back to play. He took to calling CCD “My band.” And his effect is obvious -- these three play with old souls and make strangers want to hop up and dance with one another.

What a gift Mr. Thompson has given to the members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He made a frame for them, a space, to grow into. He passed on wisdom from his own childhood (he was 20 in 1940!) -- wisdom that would be lost otherwise. And their relationship yielded fruit in the form of new creativity gobbled up by a willing audience.

The challenges of mentorship are obvious: communicating across generations that may not inherently understand each other, the difficulty of any collaboration between creative people, the sheer need for time amidst other demands. But the payoff is beautiful and the rest of us dance.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.