Eddie Collins, the accomplished banjo player, traveling bluegrass banjo instructor, author of numerous extremely helpful tutorials, and Banjo Newsletter (BNL) columnist, entitled his July 2014 column “Secret Agent Man,” focusing on the pentatonic scale behind that old TV show theme song.
The column prompted a flood of memories.
The relationship between clandestine service and banjo is not nearly as great as some might imagine. I recall a book by Floyd Paseman, A Spy's Journey: A CIA Memoir.
Paseman served in the CIA station in Taiwan, Japan, Burma, Greece, Thailand, Singapore and Germany; we overlapped in our service in Bangkok during the mid-1980s. Pasemen, as an AMAZON.COM review notes, found that one good tool was his ability to form bluegrass bands during his postings.
We did not play together during our time in Bangkok, nor did we work on the same “targets,” but I, too, hauled a banjo with me to Southeast Asia in the mid-1980s. My banjo did not figure in any of my professional responsibilities during my ten years in the service of the Central Intelligence Agency. At least officially…
Oddly, the banjo did become very useful to me during my twenty years in the service of the Department of Defense. For the first 10 years of that stretch, I was the Director for Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Burma in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, responsible for managing U.S. defense and security relations with the region. For 7 years I was the Director for Southeast Asia, heading a team of military officers and civilians in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs.
In the late 1980s I began traveling to Hanoi, first for discussions regarding America’s wartime MIAs, and then, in the mid-1990s, for the working level dialogue that led to the normalization of defense relations.
During those 15 or so years or traveling into Hanoi, in the down time after my official duties, following long hours of negotiations with the Vietnamese Defense and Foreign and Interior Ministries, I walked about town seeking out traditional musical instrument makers, frequenting bookstores where I’d hunt for publications about Vietnamese musical culture (not to mention books and periodicals and documents on political developments in the Socialist Republic…), and buying some interesting Vietnamese stringed instruments.
I actually found a musical instrument maker in the old section of Hanoi who was devoted to building replicas of traditional Vietnamese and ethnic minority instruments. He showed enough interest in the banjo that he undertook to build a 5 string banjo neck for me out of native wood. I carefully drew out a basic neck, peghead angles, fifth string bump, and the gentleman generated two very credible necks of native teak – which in short time twisted and turned every which way like a crooked old time tune but in the end supplied me with ample wood for some nice Boucher-like tailpieces.
In those days, the internal security apparatus was vigilant and focused, and well aware of the activities of visiting western officials. My traipsing around after Vietnamese stringed instruments, and my clear interest in political literature, came to the attention of officials who politely made it clear that they were cognizant of this, and curious about my interests.
Over time, my Vietnamese partners across the table became comfortable in discussing their own interests in music, and eager to learn something about my interests.
Enter the banjo. America’s instrument became pry bar, helping to open up small avenues into fairly well concealed private lives of fastidious, strictly focused, tight laced Vietnamese officials. Vietnamese military officials who traveled to Washington for official meetings would come to my home for friendly (yet “representational”) dinners, and I’d haul out my collection of both banjos and Vietnamese stringed instruments. It made them curious about the “human aspect” of American officials, offered the basis for a lighter side to dialogue at moments when problems seemed insoluble, and laid the groundwork for personal interaction that -- for me at least – established the foundations of friendships that endured long after my retirement.
So, the tune Secret Agent Man is right but only up to a point. “Everyone he meets he stays a stranger,” that is, until the banjo in unsheathed.