Six Lessons I Learned from The Junkman

By Wes Goldsberry, Academic Dean

On Friday night, The White Mountain School hosted an all but incomparable musical act: The Junkman, a percussionist who uses as his instruments nothing but garbage.

So why bother doing that, when humankind has already created a wide array of drums, wood blocks, cowbells, and other commercially available noisemakers upon which to bang?

Because anyone can go bang (even prodigiously) on a drum kit, with its dozen-plus standard drum-kit noises, which will at best be experienced as a new species of an eminently familiar genus of noise. But Donald Knaack (a.k.a. The Junkman) performs on a drum kit comprised entirely of discarded materials, ones originally created for a purpose entirely distinct from that of creating sound, be that sound organized or not. And a composition performed on an array of plastic buckets, empty boxes, lids, and Cold-War-era hubcaps has a Gestalt effect unlike any composition of its kind.

Donald Knaack’s music has a unique sound. No band — none with which I am familiar, anyway — can make the same claim of its music, and make that claim with the same degree of authenticity.

During his hour-long performance in our Great Hall, The Junkman performed several of his pieces, many of which bear provocative sustainability-oriented titles (e.g. “Styrofoam Never Dies,” “What the World Needs Now is Packaging, More Packaging”). The show featured a world-premiere of a music video for “Litterbug,” as well as a concluding “junk jam” in which the entire audience (students, faculty, community members, and friends thereof alike) participated, either using junk-on-loan or their hands to replicate simple rhythms.

As Knaack informed the audience, he has been performing in and working with schools, touting environmental causes for 25 years — long before it became hip, some might say. While the recycling bug has yet to bite every last citizen, the United States in the twenty-first-century is generally much more aware of and sensitive to environmental issues than it was even twenty years ago.

There were many morals to be gleaned from the Junkman’s performance and testimony — what follows merely represents the ones that I took away:

  1. Not everything has been done before. Even in our seasoned postmodern age, there exist creative endeavors that have yet to be discovered or tried. The sky may as well be the limit. Dream big.
  2. One does not have to spend all of one’s life ‘doing the same thing.’ Before The Junkman was The Junkman, he played percussion with orchestras and bands. After that, he worked in Hollywood doing percussion work for films. Each phase of his career ran its course, so to speak, and Knaack sought a new permutation of an old passion.
  3. Can’t decide whether to do A or B with your life? Do both. Probably more easily said than done, yes. But The Junkman managed to synthesize his passion for music-making and his passion for sustainability in a way that has enabled him to travel the world and effect positive change at both local and (ultimately) global levels.
  4. Remember “the forgotten R” of sustainability: Reuse. Remember the tree in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (read by history teacher Paddy Foran at a Morning Meeting earlier this month)? Even once the tree had become a stump, it had not been entirely used up; it was still good for something. Imagine you were a discarded 1960s-era Volvo hubcap, and were rescued from the trash heap to become part of an all-ex-refuse percussion kit that has now seen the studio set at both Late Night with Conan O’Brien, as well as The Kennedy Center. You’d be thrilled.
  5. Anyone can make music. Nothing — neither old age nor young, nor shyness nor tone-deafness nor lack of lessons — prevented anyone in the Great Hall on Friday night from becoming part of a virtually spontaneous, creative, benignly raucous musical performance.
  6. One can bring good out of evil. “Evil” is surely a strong word to describe littering, but to chuck a glass bottle out the window of a moving car is a selfish, unnecessary action that makes the world less attractive. 
Occasionally, and fortunately, there will at times be a Donald Knaack to find your bottle, pick it up, bang on it, and discover that it makes exactly the pitch that he needs to complete his next junk-xylophone. So let us not be litterers; let us, if we must, be Junkmen.

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