Issue: 35



Talent, Passion, Work, Decisions

                                                                                         by Bill Hudson


In the winter of 1964, our family moved from Maryland to California while I was studying engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. I met my family that summer and set foot in California for the first time. I knew no one, but my younger brother Ernie, who had been a senior in Chatsworth High School for the previous six months, told me his group was going to a Banjo & Fiddle Contest in Topanga Canyon the following weekend and I should join them.


I went with Ernie and his new musician friends and experienced something that changed my life ... it was the sound and beauty of a 5-string banjo. A hundred banjo players were practicing that day in the canyon down near the creek under the shade of old sycamore, and oak trees. Some played alone, others with groups. You could hear them start up like summer locusts and each banjo echoed its crystal clear pinging through the hills. The players varied in style, some using the clawhammer or frailing approach, but many using a style of "three finger pickin" popularized by Earl Scruggs. It became the backbone of "bluegrass" music made famous by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. I was drawn in forever by that three-finger pickin'. And they was a playin' (I quickly adapted to the lingo) songs I ain't never a hear'd of. Songs like "Yonder Stands Little Maggie," "Bile Dem Cabbage Down" and "Wabash Cannonball." And there was something about the design of the instrument that appealed to both my engineering and artistic sides. It was beautiful with its long, slender neck that had a fifth string added almost arbitrarily part way down at the fifth fret. It was a classic combination of a wooden neck, an ebony fingerboard with mother-of-pearl inlays, a fancy shaped peghead, and shiny nickel-plated brackets holding the white drum skin tight. It produced incredible acoustics that needed no amplification. The round wooden resonator behind the sound ring directed all that acoustic energy straight toward the listener. And it was a pure American instrument invented here by Joel Sweeney in 1831.


This event was during the beginning of the "Flower Children" era, so I was also exposed for the first time to the fashion and customs of most of the attendees. People were smoking things, others were "high" up in trees with their leather, wine-filled Bota bags hanging on straps around their shoulders. Performers took the stage as soloists or as part of groups. Spectators would scream support during each act, and everyone applauded the completed performance of even the most incompetent amateur. During one banjo solo an inebriated guy lost his bearing and fell out of a nearby tree-top fortunately bouncing off branches on the way down and landing un-harmed on dirt ground. He too received an ovation. I learned many things that day, but foremost I knew I loved that 5-string banjo.


It took a couple of years (during which I attended many more banjo events) before I realized I had to own one and try playing it myself. So I went to a pawn shop, bought a cheap one (but it was sure purdy), got some books, learned tablature, and started "pickin and a grinnin." I subscribed to the monthly edition of "Banjo Newsletter" and bought many instructional books. I took private lessons and night college classes. I realized that more expensive banjos sound better, so I bought what I could afford incrementally inching ever closer to the Holy Grail of banjos. Finally, after years of raising my children and sweating expenses, I found myself in the financial position to make the near-ultimate purchase. I bought a used, Earl Scruggs Model, Gibson Mastertone with the "Hearts and Flowers" fingerboard. I had arrived. And I began to practice in earnest. I couldn't wait to practice ... hours every day! I was in a groove, oblivious to my family trying to enjoy TV in the next room. And that was when my wife Ellie learned to tune my banjo ... with a pair of wire cutters!


Yeah, I could play "Duelling Banjos" or "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" or any of a number of other bluegrass classics. BUT, one very important clarification ... I could play those songs ONLY as long as no one else was watching. Put me in front of my own family at our annual "Family Talent Show" and my fingers would go numb. They would get twisted and stuck in the strings; I'd forget where I was and there was no recovery. In fact there was hardly ever a good start.


I remember watching a 10-year-old boy play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" flawlessly on Hee Haw one night and thinking, "I've played the banjo more hours than that kid has been alive and he's better than I'll ever be!" The short of it is that as much as I love the banjo, and as much as I might practice, in the end, I pretty much stink! I have the passion, but I lack the talent.


So how does this relate to art or anything else? We've all heard the saying, "Follow your passion." We may have even offered that as some sagely esoteric advice derived from years of personal experience. Well, for me, the banjo is a passion and, comparatively, art is not. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy art, but I am not compelled or driven by it. Coincidentally, I also recognized an above-average talent in art early in grade school. And it was confirmed many times by teachers and family. But I did not pursue art until later in life, well after graduating from engineering school.


Through my experiences with the banjo I learned many things about myself and came to some conclusions relevant to the arts and other professions. Most of us have to work hard and long at developing competence. Fortunate are those who have passion and talent in the same thing. Work is play and skills are developed almost without choice.


If your talent and passion are headed in different directions, and you need to work for a living, then ultimately you need to make some decisions. You may choose to go with passion until you realize its limitations or compromises. You may choose talent but never truly have loved something or given it a fair chance. If you're quitting an income-producing day job to make art a full-time commitment, you may wait until your art talents have matured, been affirmed by others, and shown profit potential. Following a passion without some related God-given talent should be accompanied with some self-check points.


If you're retired like me and paint simply to enrich your life and maybe the lives of others, then proceed without caution.




The 55th Annual Topanga Canyon Banjo & Fiddle Contest Folk Festival will be held on Sunday, May 17th, 2015 at the Paramount Ranch in Aguora Hills, CA. Check out


"A gentleman is a man who can play the banjo, but doesn't." - Mark Twain


Q - What do you say to the banjo player in the three piece suit?

A - "Will the defendant please rise."








Call for Entries. Online Only. Accepting entries April 1 - June 30, 2015

Entry Fee: $45 Members, $55 Non-Members. Transparent Watercolor Only.

Juror: Stephen Quiller - $20,000 Cash and Merchandise Awards

Exhibition from October 17 - December 13, 2015

City of Brea Art Gallery, Brea, CA

Visit for prospectus and details




Upcoming Events    (for Bill Hudson)


April 24, 2015               "Evening With the Artists"  Redlands Community Hospital Foundation,

                                         5:30 - 7:30 pm, Stan and Ellen Weisser Education Pavilion


June 20 & 21, 2015      La Jolla Festival of Arts






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