My flight arrived at 10:30 at night. There were about a dozen of us on the shuttle bus to long-term parking, and I was careful not to make eye contact with anybody, lest I find myself engaged in a conversation. Across from me sat a man with a banjo case. To my right, one of those old boys–a salesman type–who’s always striking up conversations with strangers who would just as soon be left alone. He started egging on the banjo picker to play us a song. To my surprise, the man opened up his case, pulled out the banjo, and played us a ripping rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” It was an amazing thing, to be cruising around the airport parking lot in a bus with this banjo picker playing his heart out for us.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget how that little space was transformed the moment the first few notes rang out. At the risk of overstating the case, something resembling a community began to emerge among people who would have normally treated one another with jealously guarded indifference. In one of most impersonal, clock-managed, overly technologized settings you can imagine, humanity exerted itself.
When the banjo picker packed up and got off at his stop, one of the remaining passengers on the bus turned to me and said, “You know who that was, don’t you? That was Bela Fleck.”
I hesitate to provide that detail, lest this story come across as a celebrity-spotting, my-brush-with-greatness anecdote. That’s not the point at all. The music did its work on us just fine without our knowing we were being treated to a private concert by a celebrity virtuoso.
But knowing that it was Bela Fleck who played for us only amplified what I already understood: his performance on the bus was an act of generosity. Mr. Fleck was coming off a concert tour of Asia and Australia; if I’m not mistaken, when his plane landed that night, it was the first time he had been home in over a month. And yet he pulled out his banjo and played a song for a dozen people who had no way of knowing what they were getting.
Why would he do that? I don’t know, of course, but I wonder if it was because he was the only person on the bus who could do it. The artist’s imperative, at its heart, is to give what nobody else can give.
An artist does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.