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Debian and Dueling Banjos: Solving the Mystery

Aficionados of the Debian distribution of Linux may remember that the debian-devel mailing list, a resource for developers working on Debian to communicate on mostly arcane and technical matters, occasionally receives bizarre and puzzling requests from random people who have nothing to do with Debian, asking Debian to send them the sheet music for "Dueling Banjos". This is popularly supposed to have begun with this message from one Martin Eldridge, on 5th July 2000, which was the first instance of such a request.

The Debian developers' mailing list is, of course, a totally daft place to make such a request... so Martin's post had no more effect than to induce a few puzzled and/or humorous responses, and you'd think that would be that.

And it would be but for the strong tendency of Debian mailing list content to be widely mirrored and linked and as a result rank highly on Google. So further people also found reference to "dueling banjos" on Debian pages and decided to send in their requests for the same thing... which in turn were themselves picked up by Google and contributed to Debian's continuing high ranking for such an inappropriate search term. Positive feedback can be a bitch.

The phenomenon became a kind of in-joke among the Debian community and was named "the Dueling Banjos effect". This term then found its way into the mainstream - as evidenced by this Yahoo Answers thread, even though both the asker and the answerer seem to have different wrong ends of the stick. (Different wrong ends? Why, yes. A stick comes from a tree, and can fork().) Meanwhile it continued to cause amusement and puzzlement on the Debian lists. The puzzlement had two main heads: (1) how did the requesters manage to navigate their way through the Debian organisation as far as being able to sign up to the developers' mailing list without realising on the way that Debian has precisely fuck all to do with the supply of sheet music, and (2) what prompted that first request that apparently started it all off?

The first point is an enigma which still defies solution. Someone did make the obvious suggestion to ask the posters... but the problem with this is they never answer. They make their one-line post asking for the sheet music for "Dueling Banjos" and then they vanish into the blue as totally as if they had been piped to /dev/null. So what can you do? Only an unusually capable mind can predict truly the illogical workings of a diseased and disordered mind. And neither I nor anyone else with an interest in Debian seems to be unusual enough.

The second point, however, we now have an answer to. I find it strange that nobody else seems to have discovered this in all the twelve years since the first question - but while I admit my search has been far from exhaustive, I have seen no clue on any site that anyone had found it. But it was sitting there all the time, back in the archives of that very same Debian developers' mailing list...


A long thread concerning ITPs for portsentry (translation for the unenlightened: tedious technical shit) began to descend into acerbity. And one of the contributors was inspired by the increasingly highly-charged atmosphere to retitle the thread...

dueling banjos and ultimate deliverance (was:Re: ITP: portsentry)

This is what put it into Google's googly mind to associate "Dueling Banjos" with Debian in the first place. Next year, it showed up in Martin Eldridge's search results... and the rest is history.

So now we know. It's all Ron's fault!

Addendum: For a long, long time I thought I was the only one who knew about this, which is why I wrote this page. Today I was amazed to find that there is someone else who knows about it, and he had even blogged about it back in October 2008. Goodness knows where Google has been hiding that search result up until now... According to this chap an older name for this phenomenon is "gumbaby". Never heard of that one, I must say. Learn something every day :)

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