Image via Conor Gibson.
For most, the feeling that spring has finally arrived after an unrelentingly cold winter is announced by budding daffodils, buzzing bees and emerald green grass. But for students at West Chester University, the greatest sign of spring is none other than walking outside onto the academic quad and hearing the soft strum of a banjo from across the lawn.
It’s not on every college campus that you see a man walking around with a banjo slung across his back. For that matter, it’s rare to see someone walking around with a banjo in general. No doubt a novel presence at WCU, he’s become a connoisseur of plucking away swift tunes and cheerful melodies on the instrument. All at WCU have surely come to appreciate the presence of Conor Gibson on campus, otherwise known as “banjo guy.”
A third-year student, Conor has quickly risen to high prominence amongst student life here at WCU, despite his rather tranquil presence around campus. Conor shares that it has been a startling yet welcoming experience to have random students come up and introduce themselves and when he shares his own name they respond “yeah, I already know.” With a lengthy list of songs he knows how to play written in his phone and a weathered banjo and sticker-covered case, Conor surprisingly only learned how to play the banjo about two years ago.
He had always known that he wanted to do something with music in his life, but he didn’t know that would include playing the banjo until a friend introduced him to the musical world of folk, which led to him falling in love with the work of musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Particularly drawn to their unique ability to incorporate music into social activism, he was inspired by their skill at sparking social commentary through tunes and lyrics.
The unique storytelling abilities of folk music also inspired Conor’s quest to find his place in music. A genre originating in the 19th century, it has long held the reputation of being a form of verbal storytelling that transcends time, passing narratives on from generation to generation.
“There’s little worlds inside songs,” he says. “By looking at folk music, you can really get a sense of the time, of the people, of what they thought was important.”
Conor’s favorite by Guthrie, “Dust Can’t Kill Me,” perfectly demonstrates this idea. On the surface the song is one about the hardships of living through the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But Conor sees it as much more, rather, a window into survival, and what it takes to continue on when everything else has been lost. His favorite line, “I have weathered a-many dust storm, but it can’t get me,” tells a story of more than just surviving the dust bowl, but what it takes to survive life itself and have the strength to keep going.
A third-year history and education major, Conor has always been fascinated by history and what we can learn from its stories. He says his love of history flourished first in his youth, paving the way for him to develop such a deep appreciation for folk music.
However, with that blend of history and folk, comes the responsibility to constantly question and consider the banjo’s role in culture. “It’s tough dealing with this instrument’s history,” Conor said. He explains how a lot of folk music dates back to the Civil War era, and how the banjo itself was an instrument originally created by enslaved people. Since then, American history has twisted perception of the instrument, uprooting it from its origins and ties to African American culture.
Because of this, Conor is conscious of the connotation it carries, and always makes an effort to research new songs and the meaning behind their lyrics to avoid any offensive work.
“It’s very important to research the history so that you know what you are holding, you know what music you’re making,” he said. On a more optimistic note, he shares, the banjo is currently in the process of being reclaimed, with groups such as the Black Banjo Reclamation Project hoping to recenter the discourse around the banjo to restore it to its origins with a greater sense of respect towards communities of color.
Not only has picking up the skill transformed his view of history, but his view of himself as well, describing that since teaching himself how to play he’s experienced considerable self-growth. Playing publicly in front of dozens of people has boosted his self-confidence, students striking up conversations with him over his music has made him more sociable and experiencing the therapeutic nature of music has boosted his awareness of his mental health.
“I think that the banjo itself has brought out a lot of my personality, but it’s also become my personality, in a way that I don’t think I can ever take away,” he says.
Believe it or not, Conor was not always as accustomed to the spotlight as he is today. Starting in-person at West Chester in his sophomore year, he was startled to face a sudden emergence into stardom, with people recording him from the windows of Einstiens and staring at him as they passed on sidewalks. Not as social then, he tried to reduce all the focus on him.
However with time, he learned to appreciate the attention rather than try to control it.
Having random students walk up to him while he’s playing has been one of the best parts of the experience for him. When people strike up a conversation with him, not only does he have the chance to meet new friends and fellow musicians, but he also gets to spread his love for the banjo. Conor lets most anyone try strumming a chord on the banjo. While some are successful, and some need some work, he jokes, he’s managed to share the stories of folk, and hopefully cultivate an appreciation for the art form in students across campus.
Conor’s outlook on his playing lies at the heart of what folk music truly is. It is music that is proof of existence, of interaction and life, through all the good times and bad. And in this way, it is a connecting force. For as he says, his banjo has passed through hundreds of peoples hands — students, faculty, and even Rammy alike — all with different stories, beliefs and passions, but nonetheless being connected over the same attempt at trying their hand at playing a chord. Truly “an instrument of West Chester,” as he calls it, an unlikely taste of folk music has managed to craft the story of West Chester University, all because of one student and his banjo.
Olivia Schlinkman is a second-year Political Science major with minors in Spanish and Journalism. firstname.lastname@example.org.