Effort to Support “Deliverance” Banjo Boy Billy Redden Underway

In the annals of the banjo, perhaps no other song or scene is as iconic as the “Dueling Banjos” moment from the 1972 Southern thriller Deliverance. Starring Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Jon Voight, and Ronny Cox, it’s the Ronnie Cox character in the film that gets into a musical duel at a backwoods gas stop with a local boy that was portrayed by a 15-year-old named Billy Redden.

Billy Redden is from the small town of Clayton, Georgia, and was picked to play the role due to his image giving off the impression of being inbred, which fit the casting for the film. Redden received very little compensation for his role in Deliverance, and no residual income from it either, despite the popularity of the “Dueling Banjos” scene specifically. Now there is an effort underway to properly recognize Redden, as well as compensate him into the future.

When “Dueling Banjos” appeared in the Deliverance film, it became a hit. Originally written by country musician Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in 1954, the song was first called “Feudin’ Banjos,” and the first recording came about in 1955 between Smith and fellow banjo player Don Reno.

Deliverance was not the first time the song made an appearance on the screen. In 1963, an episode of The Andy Griffith Show featured the song being played by a musical family visiting Mayberry, portrayed and performed by members of The Dillards.

When the filmmakers decided to include “Dueling Banjos” in Deliverance, Arthur Smith initially didn’t receive credit. The version of the song in the film was arranged by multi-instrumentalist Eric Weissberg, and played with Steve Mandell. Weissberg was given the sole writing credit on the song. Arthur Smith would eventually sue and receive both a writing credit and royalties from the song.

Arthur Smith and everyone else involved in the song would ultimately be paid quite well. “Dueling Banjos” spent four week’s at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973—only kept out of the top spot by the hot streak of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” It was also a #5 song on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and a #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. “Dueling Banjos” was nominated for Best Original Song at the Golden Globe Awards, and won the 1974 Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

15-year-old Billy Redden didn’t play on the track, either in the studio version that was dubbed into the film, nor in the film itself. A musician named Mike Addis was used to mimic the movement of Redden’s left hand to make the depiction in the film appear closer to the recording. Redden can’t even play the banjo. Nonetheless, it’s Billy Redden who is most synonymous with “Dueling Banjos,” even above the composers or players.

Over the years, Billy Redden has been remembered in the press upon occasion, including a feature in The New Yorker in 2003. But generally speaking, Redden has been lost in time. He’s not a professional actor, and instead has worked labor jobs in his local community for many years. Recently, he was in the hospital and racked up numerous medical bills. Now 68-years-old, over the last few years Redden has been working as a greeter and janitor at the Walmart in Clayton, GA.

Recently, a bluegrass musician named Lance Frantzich and other members of the California-based bluegrass band The Storytellers decided they wanted to do something to help Billy Redden, so they started a Go Fund Me campaign in hopes of seeding a trust fund that will be managed by a local attorney to make sure Redden is better taken care of moving forward.

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In the aftermath of Beyoncé releasing songs to the country market, a discussion has been reignited about the banjo’s origins as an instrument from West Africa—something that has never been disputed by historians or anyone else. However, there is a public perception that ties the banjo to lower class, poor, rural, and often, inbred Whites.

As Saving Country Music asserted recently, this public perception about the banjo is probably due at least in part to the popularity of the “Dueling Banjos” scene from Deliverance. But as opposed to surreptitiously trying to appropriate the banjo’s origins to White culture, some believe the scene is exploitative of distressed rural Whites, giving into the stereotype of the slack jawed mountain inbred, reinforced even further by the rape scene later in the Deliverance film.

Ronny Cox who plays “Dueling Banjos” opposite of Billy Redden in Deliverance takes issue with that characterization, saying that the Banjo Boy character was meant to portray a savant, not necessarily an inbred. Eric Weissberg who played on the “Dueling Banjo” track also points out that in the Deliverance novel, the Banjo Boy character named Lonnie was actually an albino, making Weissberg believe the character was supposed to be Black.

In the Deliverance novel, the character is described as, “…an albino boy with pink eyes like a white rabbit’s; one of them stared off at a furious and complicated angle. That was the eye he looked at us with, and with his face set in another direction. The sane, rational eye was fixed on something that wasn’t there, somewhere in the dust of the road.”

Regardless of how the original character was meant to be portrayed, along with potentially inadvertently helping to obfuscate the banjo’s true origins, Deliverance also casts the face of Billy Redden in a negative role that he never asked for, even if “Dueling Banjos” remains an interesting, entertaining, if not proud element of American culture.

Making sure Billy Redden is remembered and properly compensated seems like the proper thing to do.

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