Fifty years after its initial release, there’s continued interest in the characters and scenes in the movie “Deliverance.” One of the most memorable parts of the movie is the “dueling banjos” scene. In this article, we’ll have an in-depth look at this scene, especially the creepy kid who played the banjo.
The American actor Billy Redden is best known for his role as Lonnie also called the banjo boy. He got his start in the movie “Deliverance,” which followed four city-dwelling friends who went on a hunting and canoeing trip in the Georgia backcountry.
Read more interesting information about the movie and the banjo boy in Deliverance.
“Deliverance” Movie: Main Characters
The film has four main characters:
1. Ed Gentry (Jon Voight)
The movie was told from his perspective. Ed is a middle-aged graphics artist who’s married and has kids. He wanted to turn the trip around when they arrived in rural Georgia. Unfortunately, his friends didn’t listen to him.
2. Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds)
Lewis, a landlord, was the one who thought up the canoe trip. Among the four friends, he’s the only one with experience with the fictional Cahulawassee River. He’s also a skilled bowman.
3. Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty)
Bobby works as an insurance salesman for mutual funds. He’s the total opposite of Lewis. He’s annoying, out of shape, and a whiner. During the trip, one of the mountain men violently sodomizes him.
4. Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox)
Ballinger is a talented guitarist who works for a major soft drink company. At the grocery store, he played a duet with Lonnie, the banjo-playing albino boy.
“Deliverance” Movie: Plot Summary
The movie begins with four friends (Bobby, Drew, Ed, and Lewis) taking a canoeing trip to the fictional Cahulawassee River in deep Northern Georgia.
They want to see and experience the river in its natural state before a local power company builds a dam on it, making it into a giant lake.
When they arrived there, they were greeted by uneducated and unfriendly locals. However, the four friends weren’t so nice to the locals either. Bobby, in particular, exhibited a more condescending attitude towards the locals.
Nevertheless, Drew briefly connected with a local mentally-challenged boy named Lonnie at the grocery store, where they stopped for provisions before continuing their trip.
During this scene, Drew had a duet with the Deliverance banjo kid, who returned to being unfriendly after the impromptu performance.
Their relatively peaceful canoeing trip turned for the worse when they were savagely attacked in the woods by two sadistic mountain men, one of whom sexually assaulted Bobby. Lewis killed Bobby’s attacker with an arrow, while the other escaped.
The movie went on to show how four friends struggled to survive in the wilderness of Georgia. Towards the end of it, only three of the four friends survived.
Drew died because a rifle bullet shot him. Bobby and Ed disposed of his body in the river to hide crime evidence. They later explained to the authorities that he must’ve died due to drowning.
Who Played the Creepy Banjo Kid in “Deliverance”?
Billy Redden Played the Young “Inbred” Teenager Lonnie
As you’ve learned, Billy Redden played the young “inbred” teenager Lonnie. He was around fifteen years old when he got the part.
Redden Was from Georgia
Billy Redden was originally from Rabun Country, Georgia. Lynn Stalmaster, an American casting director, recommended him to John Boorman. Despite not being an albino child, one of Boorman’s requirements, Redden was still cast as Lonnie.
Boorman Picked Him Due to His Looks
Boorman picked him mainly because of his looks—skinny frame, big head, and odd-shaped almond eyes—and mannerisms.
Watch “Banjo Boy” all grown up!
Redden Disappeared from the Spotlight
After the movie, Redden disappeared from the spotlight and returned to normal life. He worked as a tourist guide for people who wanted to visit the “Deliverance” filming locations, and then he quit because of the safety risks.
Cast as a Banjo Player in “Blastfighter” (1984)
In 1984, he was cast in Lamberto Brava’s film “Blastfighter” (1984). He also played a banjo player in the movie.
Blastfighter is about an ex-cop who was out for revenge after deer poachers sexually assaulted and killed his long-lost daughter. Some say it’s a mixture of the movies “Deliverance” and “First Blood.”
Played the Banjo-playing “Welcomer” in the 2003 film “Big Fish”
Director Tim Burton also got him for his 2003 film “Big Fish.” In the movie, he played the banjo-playing “welcomer” role in the mythical Southern town of Spectre. When Burton found him, Redden worked as a cook and dishwasher of the Cookie Jar Café, which he partly owned.
Nobody expected that the banjo duet between Lonnie and Drew would be one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. But according to Redden (through a video interview), the scene didn’t change his life.
Redden Was Paid $500 for Deliverance
According to an article by The New York Post, he was only paid $500 for doing the movie. After the movie, he worked different odd jobs to support himself. He became a tourist guide, a maintenance employee at Wal-Mart, picked trash, and so on.
Is Billy Redden Inbred in Real Life?
Unlike the character he played, Redden isn’t a product of inbreeding. He also doesn’t suffer from mental retardation or any congenital disorders.
But what about Billy Redden’s eyes? Is there something wrong with them?
His eyes are perfectly okay. It’s just unfortunate that he has deep-set and slit-shaped eyes, which are unusual for a Westerner.
Combine that with his large head, skinny figure, pale skin, and moronic grin, and you’ll get what the director (and author of the book) envisioned as the “inbred look.” They even exaggerated his unusual physical features using makeup.
This is one of the awful legacies of the movie “Deliverance.” Even Redden regretted being the poster boy for the movie’s terrible view of people living in rural America.
He also didn’t like working with some of its leading actors, specifically Burt Reynolds, who he described on television as impolite and made them “look bad.”
That’s why he didn’t get mad when his mother, a custodial worker and solo parent, sold the banjo. He doesn’t have an emotional attachment to that instrument. His mother needed the money during that time to pay the bills.
Could Billy Redden Play Banjo?
Billy Redden can’t play the banjo. He was cast for the role purely for his physical appearance.
If it wasn’t him playing the banjo, who did?
He had a hand double. According to some sources, Redden’s double is a local banjo player. The film crew made Redden wear a special shirt, which allowed his double to hide behind the swing and slip his arm around his waist.
Then, they chose just the right camera angle to conceal the arms of his double.
If you’re a banjo player, you’ll most likely notice a flaw the film crew overlooked—the playing style. Redden’s double used the clawhammer style, while the soundtrack was played using the Scruggs style.
The clawhammer (or frailing) style is a down-stroke or down-picking style. Meaning you’re picking the strings in a downward motion.
Your hand will assume a claw-like shape with your strumming finger slightly stiff. When you strike the strings, you don’t flick your finger; instead, you use the movement of your hand at the wrist.
The Scruggs style is a three-finger picking style commonly used for playing the banjo in the bluegrass music genre.
This method is used with the pinky finger and/or ring finger braced against the banjo’s headstock (top), while you use a different right-hand finger (index, middle, or thumb) to play notes in succession.
Again, who actually played the banjo in Deliverance? Eric Weissberg arranged and played the banjo in Deliverance (1972). He won a Grammy for “Dueling Banjos.”
Watch the “Dueling Banjos” scene!
“Dueling Banjos”: The Pinched Soundtrack of “Deliverance”
The actors in the famous banjo duet scene mimed a recording performed by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell. Little did they know the track version, entitled “Duelling Banjos,” would become an unlikely hit.
One year after the movie “Deliverance” hit the big screen, the track became a worldwide hit. It was released under Warner Bros. Records.
It debuted at #92 on the singles chart and then stayed at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks. By February 17, 1973, it had already reached #1 (and stayed on top for two weeks) on Record World.
It sold millions of copies in the United States and the United Kingdom. It even won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental.
But Warner Bros. Records encountered a hiccup. Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith, one of country music’s influential figures, accused the film studio of using the song without permission. Weissberg and Mandell pinched the track and didn’t credit him.
Smith wrote “Dueling Banjos” in 1954 under a different title (“Fuedin’ Banjos”), then recorded it the following year. It was only in 1963 that the track had its first large-scale airing when “The Darlings” performed it on The Andy Griffith Show.
“The Darlings” was the famous American bluegrass band “The Dillards.” Watch their “Dueling Banjos” performance!
Smith wanted to be credited for the track and get a portion of the profits. So, he sued Warner Bros. Records and won. The film credits were also changed to include him.
What Is the Importance of the Banjo Scene in “Deliverance”?
Through the years, there have been different opinions about the meaning of the banjo scene. Let’s explore a few possible explanations for that iconic scene:
1. Showed Drew’s Positive Qualities
Drew isn’t just a talented guitar player. In the movie, he’s portrayed as the greatest person you’ll ever meet in your entire life. He’s a stark contrast to Lewis and Bobby, who looked down on the poor white folks in the area since they got there.
It is believed that this scene foreshadows the horror they’ll soon experience. But if you think about it, it’s a fun and light moment.
It also highlighted Drew’s eagerness to connect with the locals and his great respect and appreciation for Lonnie. He even said this after his duet with the young banjo player: “Goddamn, you play a mean banjo!”
2. Music as a Tool for Connecting Different Cultures
Both camps—the locals and the visitors—clearly mistrust and don’t think highly of each other. The feeling of superiority and offensive comments of the visitors don’t help build trust and rapport. That’s why it doesn’t come as a surprise that communication between them isn’t working.
It started with Drew playing a riff then Lonnie mimicked his song with his banjo. The exchange of riffs between the two created a platform of mutual understanding and effective communication (without talking or using words).
Music has always been a tool for connecting different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. American novelist Sarah Dessen once said, “Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.”
The banjo session scene provided a brief period of optimism and broke from the film’s unbearably dark and action-packed scenes. The banjo duet was so contagious that an older man started dancing a jig, and a few locals started gathering.
Unfortunately, this moment of meeting of minds and cultures was short-lived. Reality sets in again after the duet stops. Lonnie turned his face away and refused to shake Drew’s hand.
The realization here is music can’t permanently connect the gap between the urbanites and the poor rural folks of Georgia.
3. Portrayed the Locals as Humans
If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll perfectly see the contrast between the local people and the four urbanites in every conceivable way. The locals lived in run-down dwellings and owned rusted vehicles that could fall apart soon. On the other hand, the friends drove brand new cars.
Worse, they portrayed the locals as uneducated, crass, empty-headed, and suffering from physical defects due to inbreeding. These stereotypes of rural folks started a genre of films that took a similar approach (creating terror out of the prejudices between urban and rural folks).
One example of such was Tobe Hooper’s horror film “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which was released in 1974.
The banjo session allowed the audience to see the poor locals differently. It showed that they’re also humans like the rest of the people living in the city.
Also, after suffering from a horrific ordeal down the river, the group received nothing but kindness from the rest of the community. Competent rural doctors attended them. The law enforcers and those with authority in the area were discerning, not the stereotypical dumb types.
4. Assertion of Power Through Music
Being assertive doesn’t mean you must be aggressive, vocal, or make others feel superior.
Although he was silent throughout the scene, Lonnie could stand up for himself and his community through that duet with Drew. His banjo-picking prowess did all the talking.
What Is the Lasting Impact of the Movie “Deliverance”
For others, “Deliverance” is a pop culture phenomenon. But for those who are living there, it’s a curse. To this day, some locals are still spitting mad about the movie.
The movie scared the heck out of people because of its terrifying depiction of some of the locals, specifically those who lived in the mountains.
In a 2013 interview by Mark Strassmann for CBS News, Barbara Woodall, author of “It’s Not My Mountain Anymore,” said that the movie made North Georgia famous for the wrong reasons.
They had to endure the repulsive stereotyping of the locals as stupid and uneducated. That they’re from the “land of nine-fingered people.”
Barbara said in the interview that she wished that the scars caused by the movie would disappear like the movie stars. However, that’s almost unlikely going to happen soon.
She still sees some people wearing t-shirts with text designs related to the movie, such as “Paddle faster! I hear banjo music.”
In the same interview, Billy Redden said that the people of Rabun County are good. The town is generally peaceful, and almost everybody gets along well.
But suppose there’s one good thing that came out of the movie. In that case, Congress declared the Chattooga River as a federally-protected river corridor under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The fictional Cahulawassee River is the Chattooga River.
Conclusion – Who Plays the Banjo in Deliverance?
While Billy Redden was the actor who played Lonnie, he wasn’t the one who played the banjo. His double, who was never named, did that for him. Meanwhile, Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell performed the song that he and Drew were finger-synching on their instruments.