North Carolina is banjo country. No other area has done more to nurture and preserve banjo traditions; no other area has had greater influence on banjo innovations. The colorful history of America’s favorite folk instrument is very nearly synonymous with the history of banjoists and the banjo in the Tar Heel state.
The American banjo is of diverse ancestry. Stringed instruments with skin heads and wooden shells are known to have existed nearly 4500 years ago in Egypt. Similar instruments have been used for hundreds of years in India, Burma, Siam, Arabia, Tibet, and the Celebes. 1 The etymology of the word “banjo” is as confused as the instrument’s line of descent. Though the OED says “banjo” is a Negro slave corruption of “bandore” (derived from the Latin “pandura” and the Greek “pandoura,” meaning “lute”), many words sounding vaguely or considerably like “banjo” have been used to describe instruments that vaguely or considerably resemble the banjo as we now know it-among them banger, banga, bonja, bandja, banjar, bania, bain, ban a, banjon, bandju, banshaw, banjer, banjore, and mbanza.
The earliest banjos in this country, brought from Africa and Jamaica by Negro slaves in the eighteenth century, consisted of two, three, or four strings (of horsehair, grass, or catgut) and a hide stretched across a gourd. Cats, possums, raccoons, sheep, snakes, and other assorted creatures supplied the skins for the early banjo heads. Even today, many a North Carolina boy’s first banjo is a “gourd shell” banjo, though the technology of our age has resulted in more modern contrivances homemade from buckets, skillets, coffee and axle grease cans, cheese boxes, and pressure cookers.
The most important development in the history of the physical banjo was the appearance of the short, fifth (or thumb) string. Although the banjo family contains many poor relations-the tenor and plectrum banjos; baritone, alto, soprano, bass, and contrabass banjos; long-neck banjos, six-, seven-, nine-, and eleven-string banjos; guitar banjos, piccolo banjos, cello banjos, zither banjos, banjo mandolins, banjo lutes, banjolins, and banjeaurines-your Tar Heel acknowledges only the 5-string banjo. Since the fifth string extends only halfway down the neck, it is rarely fretted by the left hand and so behaves like a bagpipe drone. The fifth-string note does not always “fit” the chord being played, as the musicologist conceives of it, but the 5-string banjoist does not care; he plays it anyway, which does much to give “the five” its peculiar character and flavor.
Who gave the banjo its short fifth string, and when? Different opinions exist. Arthur Woodward, in his article “Joel Sweeney and the First Banjo,” says that Joel Walker Sweeney (unfortunately a Virginian) added the fifth or thumb string in “about the year 1831.”2 Sweeney’s banjo, along with authenticating documents, is now in the Los Angeles County Museum. Woodward quotes Fred Mather, who said in 1897, “I believe there is no doubt that [Sweeney] was the first to put the thumb string on the banjo, the ‘chaunter’ or ‘chanter’ we called it then” (p. 9). Others supporting Sweeney’s case are banjo historian C. C. Richelieu (who places the addition between 1830 and 1833),” folklorist Alan Lomax (who dates Sweeney’s innovation at 1840): and banjo player/manufacturer Fred J. Bacon (who favors the date 1845).” Richelieu, Bacon, and George C. Krick further maintain that Sweeney, nicknamed “Band-Jo” or “Band-Joe” because his playing sounded like that of a one-man band, gave the instrument its name.6
Gene Bluestein has another opinion about the addition of the fifth string. He says, “Since it is clear that Sweeney learned what he knew about, the banjo from plantation slaves, it is reasonable to assume that he learned about the ‘chanter’ or drone string from them too” (p. 244). He concludes that Sweeney’s claim to having invented the thumb string “is based mainly on the fact that Sweeney and his friends said that he did” (p. 243). In his banjo instruction manual, Pete Seeger quotes one of Sweeney’s banjo students as saying. “I am confident that Sweeney added the bass string,” rather than the fifth.’ Seeger concludes, “In other words, it would now appear likely that the use of a higher pitched thumb string was pre-Sweeney after all” (p. 68). Frank George believes that the first 5-string was constructed long before Sweeney was born. He suggests that the banjo may be of Cherokee Indian origin and- states flatly that “Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson, and Daniel Boone danced to the music of the 5-string,'” but unfortunately George does not give the source of his information.
Lee Haring, citing support from Gilbert Chase, denies all claims for Sweeney: “According to legend, Joel Walker Sweeney added a fifth string, shorter than the others, about 1830. In fact, the transition to five strings took place about 1845, not long before the adoption of the instrument by white musicians.”9 Musicologist Hans Nathan, an authority on nineteenth-century minstrel music, says that the fifth string was added “around the middle of the forties.” He substantiates that date by reference to the covers of sheet editions of minstrel music. Up to about 1844, the banjo was depicted with four strings; after that time, drawings of the 5-string began to appear (p. 126n).
Whether he added the thumb string or not, Joel Sweeney and his brothers Sam and Richard did much to popularize the S-string. They were Professional blackface minstrels. Joel, billed as “Joe Break-Em-All, the Virginia Paganini” (Nathan, pp. 141-42), played a command performance for Queen Victoria, and Sam became widely known as the personal banjoist of General Jeb Stuart.
For several decades any banjoist wanting a 5-string had to get one from a banjo craftsman or make his own. In 1860, J. H. Buckbee began selling the first trade-name banjos (Richelieu, p. 6). The Fairbanks and S. S. Stewart banjos, still prized by players as well as collectors, appeared first in the 1870’s (Richelieu, p. 6). All banjos prior to about 1880 were fretless, which placed limitations on banjoists wanting to change chords rapidly above the first 1st-hand position. Accordingly, by 1880 manufacturers met the demand of minstrel banjoists for fretted banjos. (Richelieu says the Fairbanks Company produced the first fretted banjo in 1880. Haring, in the liner notes for Folk Banjo Styles, says frets began to appear in the 1870’s.
Until the turn of the century, minstrel banjoists held the stage. When the public preference shifted to vaudeville in “the 1900’s, banjoists adapted readily to the new format. For several decades after 1910, the louder plectrum and tenor banjos (both with only four strings and designed to be strummed, rather than plucked with the fingers) made headway as instruments in jazz and dance bands. During the 1920’s, everyone seemed to want a banjo, most often a tenor. From 1920 to 1925 one manufacturer sold 2500 banjos a month, and at least 300 mail-order schools sold banjos and playing instructions.” The tenor and plectrum banjos were fixtures in dance and jazz bands until they were replaced in the late 1930’s by the more versatile electric guitar.
During the century following the construction of Joel Sweeney’s instrument, most banjoists favored ever bigger, gaudier instruments and a more showy, raucous sound. In the North Carolina mountains, the banjo became even smaller and more delicate, and the manner of playing more subtle. We are not sure how the banjo arrived in Western North Carolina. Perhaps, as Archie Green suggests, the early penetration of the mountain areas by railroads using Mainly Negro labor was a major source of contact” (Bluestein, p. 246). But arrive it did.
In 1909, Louise Hand Bascom described the North Carolina banjo of that day: “The banjo is home-made, and very cleverly fashioned, too, with its drum-head of cat’s hide, its wooden parts of hickory (there are no frets).” Though banjos have had frets for nearly a hundred years, many North Carolina mountain banjoists continue to favor fretless instruments because of the smooth left hand slides enhanced by the fretless fingerboard. The physical banjo has undergone many changes at the hands of commercial manufacturers and may now consist of twelve to fifteen pounds of fine woods (or aluminum or fiberglass), gold plating, and elaborate pearl inlays; even so, the small, light, wooden “mountain banjo” as described by Louise Band Bascom continues to be carefully hand crafted in North Carolina. For example, in 1962 Edgar A. Ashley of Grassy Creek described his first banjo: “The one I learned on, my brother made it, a homemade banjo. Killed a cat, tanned its hide, made the head, and he carved out the rest of it.” Traditional banjoists may shun “bracket banjos” or “Northern banjos,” as they may be scornfully called. Mack Presrell represented that attitude when he said, “I would not take fifty bracket banjers for one good fretless.”
Although many an old-style banjoist is proud of his “Nathan Hicks” banjo or “Clifford Glenn” banjo, perhaps the best-known banjo maker in the old tradition was Frank Proffitt, a tobacco farmer in the Beaver Dam section of Watauga County who died in 1965. He is known among big-city folk music enthusiasts as “the man who taught ‘Tom Dooley’ to Frank Warner,” who passed the song along to The Kingston Trio. The Trio recorded the song in 1957, and over three million copies were eventually sold. According to Bill C. Malone, “More than any other single recording, ‘Tom Dooley’ set off the urban folk-music boom.” But Proffitt’s reputation will last as a maker and player of banjos.
Banjo-making was a tradition in Proffitt’s family. Frank learned from his father how to make banjos from mountain hardwoods. He told Frank Warner:
As a boy I recall going along with Dad to the woods to get the timber for banjo-making. He selected a tree by its appearance and by sounding. . . hitting a tree with a hammer or axe broadsided to tell by the sound if it’s straight grained. . . . As I watched him shaping the wood for a banjo I learned to love the smell of the fresh shavings as they gathered on the floor of our cabin. . . . When the strings was put on and the pegs turned and the musical notes began to fill the cabin, I looked upon my father as the greatest man on earth for creating such a wonderful thing out of a piece of wood, a greasy skin, and some strings.
In an interview with Gary Ferraro, Proffitt further described his father’s method: “My father would cut the tree down and saw it up in neck lengths. Then set the blocks on their ends and layoff in squares. This is my way also, using a maul and wedges to split the Squares for banjo necks. I then as Dad taught me, stick the Squares in ricks to air dry for 6 months or more.. . . They are [then] taken and put over a stove or fireplace to kiln dry.”
As Proffitt preferred the traditional, fretless banjo (he even filed the frets off his first guitar), so he and most other mountain musicians preferred the traditional styles to the rapid-fire bluegrass manner. Of the Scruggs style, Proffitt reportedly said, “I’d like to be able to do it and then not do it.” In 1962, playing in his time honored manner, Frank Proffitt won “The Burl Ives Award for Distinctive Banjo Playing” at the National Folk Festival.
The traditional North Carolina banjoist usually plays in one or more of three styles: frailing (also called down-picking, fly in’ hand, beating, framming, framing, thrashing, clubbing, rapping, and knocking), up-picking, and two-finger picking or double-thumbing. As a rule, he uses his bare fingers, disdaining metal or plastic finger picks.
In the frailing style, probably the oldest of the three, the hand forms a slightly clenched fist and the melody notes are played by striking the strings with the nail surface of the index or middle finger. These melody notes .are surrounded by chord “brushes” across the strings with the nails and by thumb-string notes plucked as the hand is raised to prepare for the next downstroke. A variant of frailing ‘is the clawhammer or drop-thumb method, in which the thumb frequently drops down from the fifth string to pluck one of the “inside” strings. The two frailers most familiar to Americans are Grandpa Jones and Stringbean (David Akeman, Bill Monroe’s first banjoist) of TV’s “Hee Haw.”
In the up-picking style, the melody is plucked by the “up-pick”of the index finger, then the nail brush and thumb “kick-off” follow as in frailing. A variant used by Bascom Lamar Lunsford and other North Carolina players involves an upward index finger brush rather than the brush downward with the nails. Up-picking is the basic stroke in Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo, the book that has influenced more young city banjo players than any other. If Seeger had not attended the Asheville Folk Festival in 1935, he might still be playing the tenor banjo. “
The traditional two-finger picker or double-thumber uses only the thumb and index finger, and plays single notes rather than brushing across the strings. If the double-thumber is using a “thumb lead” (melody notes played with the thumb), his thumb jumps back and forth from melody note to thumb string, alternating the down ward thumb strokes with upward index strokes, usually on the first string. The effect is often that of a “double drone” (on both first and fifth strings) instead of the customary fifth-string drone. The index, rather than the thumb, can also lead off. Art Rosenbaum says, “Many mountain musicians, particularly in the Western part of North Carolina, use a two-finger technique with a consistent index finger lead.”” Rosenbaum offers Doc Watson, Bascom Lunsford, and Wade Mainer as examples. Individual variations on the basic two-finger strokes are frequently found. For example, as Rosenbaum notes, “George Pegram of Union Grove, North Carolina, has a raucous, hell-for-leather, driving style that is essentially thumb lead two-finger picking with the middle finger added” (p. 69).
The traditional North Carolina banjoist may achieve nearly as many notes with his left hand as he does with his picking hand. He is constantly “hammering on” or “pulling off” a string to get extra left-hand notes. He also uses his ‘left hand to “slide” from one note to another, or to raise the pitch of a note slightly by “choking” or pushing on the string. He may cover the lower end of a fretted fingerboard with part of a Prince Albert tin, to facilitate his lefthand slides and chokes.
Though the traditional banjoist usually plays in the G or C tunings, he may not know them by name. The first he may call “high bass” because the fourth or bass string is not turned down; he may refer to the C tuning as “low bass” because the fourth string is turned down a whole step. He and the traditional fiddler probably know a number of colorfully named, non-standard tunings-natural Hat, cross key, mountain minor, discord, sawmill, graveyard, Black Mountain, Grey Eagle. In his Old-Time Mountain Banjo, Rosenbaum gives twenty-three traditional tunings and says that scores more have been collected (p. 78). Buell Kazee of Kentucky gave Gene Bluestein a dozen tunings he uses regularly (Bluestein, p. 246). These tunings are used to maintain as many open strings as possible for a given song’s most frequently repeated sequences of melody notes. John Cohen suggests that many non-standard tunings may have evolved before the turn of the century, perhaps as early as 1880.’
The end result of all these tunings and .left- and right-hand techniques is often musically unorthodox, but that very lack of orthodoxy is what gives traditional picking its distinctiveness. One violation of convention is the picker’s refusal to change chords when the musicologist demands it. As Bluestein says, “The mountain banjo derives its unique and often ‘dissonant’ sound from this practice of picking out the melody over the tonic chord without regard for the chord changes which may be called for by the tune itself” (p. 247). And even though the mountain banjoist tends to such self-effacing remarks as “I just picked it up and played it,” or “I can’t do very good even now,” the music is often quite complicated. Nevertheless, the traditional banjoist manages to get by without often knowing one note from another. In fact, he scorns the value of such knowledge. This attitude has given rise to such traditional gags as “Can you read music?” “Not enough to hurt my playing.” or “Do you have a musical background?” “My father beat me with a fiddle bow.”
Virtually all 5-string banjoists learn from other banjoists and play by ear; 5-string banjo music notation is nearly non-existent. The banjos, songs, and styles used to play them have changed little in the Western Carolina mountains over the past fifty years. After a day’s work, the mountain man may pick on the front porch or at the fireside much as his great-grandfather did. But in the early twentieth century, the banjo began to move to town. The efforts of the Gretsch, Vega, Stewart, Gibson and other banjo companies standardized the commercially manufactured 5-string: 11 inch head, 22 frets, 19 inches from nut to shell, position markers at designated frets. Resonators and tone chambers enabled the banjo to hold its own in string bands. North Carolina banjoists were in the forefront.
Commercially-recorded country music began in 1922 and 1923 with the Victor and Okeh records of Eck Robertson, Henry Gilliland, John Carson, and Henry Whitter. (See Malone, pp. 38-42, for a discussion of the difficulties in determining the first recorded country music performer.) Though these first performers were from Georgia, Virginia, and Texas, Tar Heel musicians were quick to follow their lead; in fact, according to musicologist Ed Kahn, “North Carolina provided most of the artists in the first twenty years of the commercial hillbilly tradition.”20
Once fiddlers Robertson, Gilliland, and Carson aroused the public’s interest, North Carolina string bands often including the 5 string-attempted to sustain it. In 1924 Samantha Bumgarner (5string) and Eva Davis (fiddle) from Sylva, North Carolina, recorded “Big-Eyed Rabbit” and “Wild Bill Jones” for Columbia.21 Fred G. Hoeptner” suggests that “Miss Bumgarner made what are apparently the first five-string banjo records,”22 a statement that is true only if the earlier minstrel and vaudeville virtuosos recorded solely on tenor and plectrum banjos. Then, Ernest Thompson of Winston-Salem, probably the first recorded three-finger picker, cut “The Wreck of the Southern Old 97” and “Are You From Dixie,” also for Columbia (Green, p. 215). Also in 1924 Henry Whitter, who lived in North Carolina and died in Morganton, took his Virginia Breakdowners (including a 5-string player) to Okeh’s New York studio (Green, p. 211), In 1925 Hopkins and other Watauga County musicians released a record for Okeh, with John Hector on 5-string banjo. The group called themselves the Hillbillies, first use of that term in connection with a type of music (Green, pp. 212-1:3).
One of the most important of the early string bands was Charlie Poole and The North Carolina Ramblers. According to Bill C. Malone, these musicians “were not only popular in their own time and milieu, they have also exerted a profound influence upon modern country performers. particularly those in the bluegrass category” (p 49).
Poole was born in 1892 in Haw River. His first banjo was a “gourd shell.” Though the Ramblers played in several Southern states during the early 1920’s, they did not achieve fame until their 1925 Columbia recording of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” String bands still consider “The Deal” a standard. From 1925 to 1930, the Ramblers recorded dozens of songs for Columbia, many of which have been re-released on County records 505, 509, and 516.
The North Carolina Ramblers were extremely popular in the Southeast. According to Clifford Kinney Rorrer, when the word would come that Poole and the Ramblers were in the area nearly all activities would grind to a halt. Storekeepers would shut down for the rest of the day; farmers would leave their teams standing in the fields; and mothers would stop their housework and gather up the children and head for the place where Poole and his group were. They might be found at a store, a garage, a springhouse, or even a still. A hat was sometimes passed around but more often it was likely to be a bottle instead.”
Charlie Poole used his banjo “as a loud front instrument instead of just providing a background sound” (Rorrer, p. 6). He was a forerunner, through no choice of his own, of the three-finger style. According to Rorrer, “His unique style of playing the banjo developed partly as a result of a childhood accident in which the fingers of his right hand were smashed. The accident left his fingers crooked so that they formed a natural picking position” (p. 10). Though Poole used a three-finger style, it was more closely related to earlier minstrel banjo styles than to the later bluegrass style; Poole fingered chords (rather than melody) with his left hand, while playing three-finger “rolls” or sequences with his right.
In 1928 Rambler fiddler Posey Rorer left to form The Carolina Buddies, with Buster Carter on 5-string. Charlie Poole died in 1931. Bill C. Malone says, “His name is still remembered with reverence among country musicians and fans in the mountain region of the South” (p. 48). Engraved on Poole’s tombstone in the Spray, North Carolina, cemetery is a 5-string banjo.
Another important early string band was The Carolina Tar Heels, with Dock Walsh on the banjo. Walsh was born in 1901 in Lewis Fork, Wilkes County. When he was four, he started playing a banjo made of an axle grease box. In 1925 he met Clarence Ashley (also a banjoist) at a Boone fiddlers convention, and they formed The Carolina Tar Heels. They were joined by Gwen Foster (an other banjoist) from Dallas, North Carolina, who played harmonica and guitar with the group. The Tar Heels recorded for Victor from 1927 to 1932. Ashley went on to play with Charlie Monroe (brother. of Bill, “The Father of Bluegrass Music”) in the early 1940’s and then went with The Stanley Brothers. After the folk revival was underway, Ashley was in great demand at Northern folk festivals until his death in 1967.
Dock Walsh was known as “The Banjo King of the Carolinas.” He played primarily in the claw hammer style but, along with Charlie Poole, was another forerunner of the three-finger style. “Dock also pioneered in a unique ‘Hawaiian’ banjo style by placing pennies under the instrument’s bridge and playing the strings with a knife, somewhat similar to ‘bottle neck guitar playing.””‘ Walsh has been dead for several years but played at the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers Convention as recently as 1959.
A banjoist who illustrates the influence of Poole and ‘Walsh on the following generation is Johnny Whisnant of Lenoir, North Carolina. Though Whisnant has played with such well-known performers as Carl Story, Carl Butler, and The Bailey Brothers, he has never achieved the widespread recognition accorded some other North Carolina banjoists. Nevertheless, his devotion to the banjo illustrates the extent to which a man can be caught up in the banjo mystique.
Whisnant might have led a normal life if he had not heard the Charlie Poole record “Monkey on a String.” Says Whisnant in an interview with Walter V. Saunders, ‘I’d put it [the record] in my wagon and pull it off in the woods and play that Charlie Poole record, and get my ear right in that speaker on that little old crank phonograph. It wasn’t the type of playin’ he was doing, which was a three-finger roll, and all. This wasn’t what drove me out of my mind. It was the sound that came off that banjo. It was that one particular tone that come out of there that stuck with me all through the years.” Though he was fascinated by the Poole sound, his first right-hand roll came in hand-me-down fashion from Dock Walsh’s recording of “Bring Me A Leaf From the Sea,” via a man named Cooper, who passed it to Clay Everhart, who showed it to Whisnant (Saunders, p. 10).
Whisnant seemed unable to reconstruct his musical career after World War II, partly because of a bullet wound that affected his picking hand. Even though his fame has been limited, Charlie Baily has said that Whisnant and Snuffy Jenkins were “two of our greatest and they have never got the publicity or the name that they should have.”
Another old-time banjoist, still going strong, is J. E. Mainer, born in 1898 in a Weaverville log cabin. In an article written by and about himself” Mainer describes his early experiences with the banjo: “Jakey [Cole] told Daddy how I liked music, and Daddy bought a five-string banjo. He could playa few tunes on it and I asked him if 1 could try it. One day, I struck the tune called ‘Cripple Creek.’ Then, the rest wasn’t very hard for me to learn. I was nine years old-and, boy, I thought I was something, picking the banjo at nine years old!”7 J. E. and his brother Wade formed Mainer’s Mountaineers, recorded for the “RCA Victory Recording Company,” and operated out of Raleigh for five years in the mid 1930’s.
The Mainers split up in 1937, but J. E. has never slowed down. Mainer’s Mountaineers have made nearly a dozen record albums in the past few years. Wade gave up his music to devote his life and time to God. As he said in 1967, “This was about 17 years ago. At. that time I felt that it would be sinful for me to play my banjo at all.” On June 17, 1967, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Wade Mainer played publicly for the first time in many years.
A number of other old-time North Carolina banjoists can be heard on four records released by the County label. Frank Jenkins (banjoist with Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters), R. B. Smith, S. J. Allgood, and J. Small, all North Carolina banjoists of the Twenties, are included in Mountain Banjo Songs and Tunes (County 515). Paul Miles, who still plays in Cherry Lane, North Carolina, recorded for Gennett with The Red Fox Chasers in the late Twenties. Some of these sides have been re-released on The Red Fox Chasers (County 510). Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins (Frank’s son) play on Down to the Cider Mill (County 713). Cockerham, who grew up in Surrey County and no\’ lives in Low Gap, plays drop-thumb on his fretless banjo. Kyle Creed is featured banjoist on The Camp Creek Boys (County 709), who took their name from Camp Creek, North Carolina. Other old-time bands worthy of mention are The Tar Heel Rattlers, Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Hollers, and The Morris Brothers (who employed both Earl Scruggs and Don Reno around 1940).
There are other bands and banjoists still playing in the old way, under the combined influence of the mountain styles and the rural string bands. The National Barn Dance guitar-banjo team of Lulu Belle and Scotty (Myrtle Eleanor and Scott Wiseman) are from North Carolina and now live in Spruce Pine. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, from South Turkey Creek, is widely known as the banjo -picking “Minstrel of the Appalachians.” Lunsford taught Obray Ramsay to play the banjo. Ramsay’s technique, as heard on his Banjo Songs of the Blue Ridge and Great Smokies (Riverside HLP 12-649), represents an interesting full circle; early mountain banjoists influenced rural string band banjoists who contributed to the blue grass style which is being incorporated into the playing of this generation’s mountain banjoists.
Gaither Carlton, born in Wilkes County .Is a resident of Watauga County since age seven, is a fine old-time banjo player. His daughter Rosalee is married to Doc Watson of Deep Gap, who would be well-known as a banjoist if his guitar playing were not so sensational. Samuel “Jack” Johnson was born in Surrey County and started playing the banjo when he was ten. He is now a farmer in Pilot Mountain. Both Carlton and Johnson can be heard on the 1961 recording Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s (Folkways FA 2355). Carlton frails “‘Ruben’s Train” and Johnson double-thumbs “Sally Ann,” “Honey Babe Blues,” and “Pretty Little Pink.”
The Appalachian banjoist continued to play in the traditional styles throughout the late 1920’s and into the 1930’s, even though jazz and ragtime music brought the tenor and plectrum banjos into prominence. Since most 5-string players of this period were country people who could not afford expensive instruments, “original” prewar 5-strings of high quality are difficult to find and are highly prized by their owners. Some of the most expensive banjos of the 1930’s (the Gibson All-American, for example, which has a brief pictorial history of the United States engraved on its fingerboard!) may never have been made as 5-strings. Therefore, most 5-string players today who want a prestige prewar banjo must search long and hard for an old tenor or plectrum, then have it converted into a 5-string.
By the early 1940’s, most companies had stopped making 5string banjos altogether. But one of North Carolina’s most famous citizens was soon to bring the 5-string from the obscurity of the Appalachians to the stage at Carnegie Hall.
Earl Scruggs has been written up in Esquire, Time, Newsweek, Saturday Playboy, The New York Times, and The Christian Science Monitor. Nat Winston says that Scruggs has earned the title “The World’s Most Imitated Musician.”2. Robert Shelton, folk music editor of The New York Times, has said: “Earl Scruggs bears about the same relationship to the five-string banjo that Paganini does to the violin.”29
Earl Scruggs was born on January 6, 1924, in the Flint Hill community six miles from Shelby, North Carolina. His father George, older brothers Junie and Horace, and older sisters Eula, Mae and Huby all played the banjo. Scruggs began playing in the two-finger style somewhere between the ages of four and eight.3O He played his brother Junie’s banjo until he was thirteen, when he bought his first banjo, for $10.95. At fifteen, Scruggs was playing on the Gastonia radio station with The Carolina Wildcats. By that time he was using his now famous three-finger style.
The inspiration for this style came to him sometime between the ages of ten and fourteen. (The earlier age is given in Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo, p. 155, and confirmed in Louise Scruggs, “A History of America’s Favorite Folk Instrument,” p. 28). Here is one account Scruggs gave of the style’s genesis:
“It was when I was about fourteen years old. I had been picking at the banjo almost unconsciously, distractedly, not paying too much attention to what I was doing, when it suddenly dawned on me that I had been using three fingers in stead of the usual two. I found that the melody line had ..been smoothed out, had become less jerky and flowed easily from one note to the next in a continuous, regular pattern, rather than jumping and jerking along. What had happened was that I was playing in fiddle patterns, rather than in banjo ones.”
The thing that most impressed me at the time was that here was a way, if all the difficulties could be ironed out, of achieving that graceful fiddle style-on the banjo. The notes would flow, just like they did on a fiddle. I started working on it in earnest (Welding, p. 5). Here, Scruggs is trying to describe musical sounds in verbal terms which may not mean anything to the person who has not heard the sounds being described, but anyone familiar with both the two- and three-finger styles knows that the former “jumps and. jerks” and the latter “flows.”
Scruggs continues: “I kept playing one piece for a whole week-that was Reuben-until I got that flowing, unbroken pattern I wanted. Then I played it for my brother Junie, when he came home. He wasn’t too impressed, to tell the truth, and told me that others had been playing that way for years. And there had been several others. He was right there.”
There were several people right in my area, in fact, who were playing in a three-finger style. There was Smith Hammett [variously spelled “Harnett” and “Hammet”], an older man, who used three fingers, but whose approach. was still pretty much in the old way. Then there was Fischer Hendley, who used to broadcast with his “Aristocratic Pigs” group. He used three fingers instead of two, and so did Snuffy Jenkins, another local banjoist. But all of these styles were based in the old, ragged, heavily syncopated method. I learned something from the playing of each of these men, but none of them had what I. wanted. So I had to develop it On my own (Welding, pp. 5-6).
Even though most country banjoists of the time were using the twofinger or frailing styles, Scruggs seems to have been raised among a small group of banjoists using a primitive three-finger style which Scruggs was to’ bring to culmination. In addition to Hammett, Hendley, and Jenkins, other three-finger pickers in the Shelby area were Mack Woolbright (who recorded for Columbia in the late 1920’s), Leaborn A. Rogers, Rex Brooks, and Mack Crow.
The chain of influence seems to have started with Smith Hammett and Rex Brooks. Scruggs credits Hammett with being the first of the three-finger pickers (Earl Scruggs, p. 147). Hammett taught both Junie Scruggs and Dewitt “Snuffy” Jenkins to play. Jenkins says, “In 1927, we started playing with two fellows who both played a three-finger style of banjo. Their names were Smith Hammett and Rex Brooks. This is when I started playing my style of banjo in Cleveland County, North Carolina” (Earl Scruggs, p. 148). Jenkins really liked the playing of Brooks and Hammett: “It sounded so good I couldn’t stand it” (Earl Scruggs, p. 149).
Snuffy Jenkins, born in 1908 in Harris, North Carolina, has had a colorful musical career, centering in the Carolinas.31 In 1934, The Jenkins String Band made its professional debut on the Crazy Water Barn Dance, station WBT, Charlotte. The Jenkins band was one of thirty or more string bands sponsored by the Crazy Water Crystals Company. Most musicians in these bands were North Carolina natives. At the sponsor’s desire, each group worked the name “Crazy” into the band’s title. For example, The East Hickory String Band would be so called when playing in its home base of Hickory, North Carolina, but Homer Sherrill’s Crazy Hickory Nuts when appearing on the Crazy Barn Dance. In 1936 Jenkins joined J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers. After Mainer’s departure the group was renamed Byron Parker’s Hillbillies and then The Hired Hands, the name still used by the group when they opened the forty-sixth Union Grove fiddlers convention in 1970.
Ralph Rinzler, authority on early string band music, sees Smith Hammett as the major influence on Snuffy Jenkins and Junie Scruggs, who in turn influenced Earl Scruggs significantly. Rinzler says that the two elements Scruggs has combined into his own style are based on the styles of these men.
These two significant elements in three-finger style are: (1) a strong rhythmic accent and a smooth continuous flow; and (2) a strong accent upon those notes, in the continuum, which belong to the melody. Junie, like his brother, has succeeded in adapting his style to the melody which he is playing so that there is never any question about what the tune is, but in order to ~o this he often has to interrupt the continuity of his picking, and his is a rhythmically erratic style. Snuffy, on the other hand, has mastered a style which, though it is less halting, sacrifices the particularly strong rhythmic and melodic accent, thus rearranging the melody in some cases in order to maintain the regular flow of notes which makes his a smoother sounding style than that of Junie Scruggs. Earl Scruggs has succeeded in retaining the strong rhythmic and melodic accent without sacrificing the smooth and driving flow of notes.”
This complicated blend of styles was not a conscious accomplishment. Recall that Scruggs was picking “unconsciously, distractedly, not paying too much attention to what I was doing, “when the musical influences that had surrounded him came together, more or less intuitively, into the Scruggs style.
Scruggs’ difficulty in verbalizing about the style he plays so easily and naturally can be sensed in this description of his method:
I take a song and work it out according to a repeated note pattern. In other words, I surround the notes of the melody line with others-call them grace notes, if you will-so that the melody line is broken up and imbedded in a series of repeated rhythmic patterns. Maybe it’s a repeated cluster of four notes, in which only one or possibly two of the notes are actually from the melody. These melody notes are almost imperceptibly emphasized-given greater value-than the connecting notes in a way that even I don’t fully understand.
In any event, it’s like a constantly changing chord pattern in which the notes are played successively rather than simultaneously, a horizontal rather than vertical approach. That’s the best way I can describe it (Welding, p. 6). Scruggs’ realization that the melody can easily get lost among the welter of notes pouring forth causes him to favor the “thumb lead.” He says, “I am a firm believer that the melody should be played so as to be recognized over the other picking. For this reason, I prefer to pick the melody notes as much as possible with my thumb since it is most capable of bringing out the strong melody notes” (Earl Scruggs, p. 1.5.5).
In December, 194.5, Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys (Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater). This band had been playing on the Grand Ole Opry since 1939, but the banjo had not been featured. Bill C. Malone de scribes Scruggs’ impact on the group: “When Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1945, he brought with him a sensational technique that rejuvenated the five-string banjo, made his own name preeminent among country and folk musicians, and established bluegrass music as a national phenomenon” (p. .314). L. Mayne Smith further emphasizes Scrugg’s contribution to the bluegrass form: “The basic bluegrass banjo style was first played by Earl Scruggs in 194.5 when he was one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, and is named after him. Every bluegrass band includes a banjo played in ‘Scruggs style’ or some derivative thereof.'” .
As the North Carolina banjo styles of the 1920’s and 1930’s evolved into the Scruggs style, so did the North Carolina string bands themselves evolve in parallel fashion into the bluegrass bands of the middle 1940’s and beyond. As Malone puts it, “Bluegrass music was the refinement and modification of the instrumentation developed by several organizations, including Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, Al Hopkins’ Buckle Busters, the Piedmont Log Rollers, Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers, and Mainer’s Mountaineers, and it is probably no accident that, with the exception of the Georgia-based Skillet Lickers, all of these groups were of North Carolina origin” (p. 310). The importance of bluegrass music to folk tradition has been recognized by Alan Lomax, who calls bluegrass “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British- American folk tradition in five hundred years.”‘”
In 1948 Flatt and Scruggs formed their own band, which was immensely successful for the next twenty years. Two Scruggs banjo renditions became well known to every American-“The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (“Beverly Hillbillies” theme and best-selling country & western single of 1962) and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (background theme for the movie “Bonnie and Clyde”). . Even though Flatt & Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys achieved wide recognition, their most consistent support continued to come from the rural South. For example, as of 1963, they had made twenty personal appearances at Sandy Ridge, North Carolina.”
No one knows how many hundreds of fine banjoists are now playing in North Carolina, but some indication may be given by the number that flocked in 1970 to North Carolina fiddlers conventions as they have for more than sixty years. Particularly in the spring and summer, hardly a week goes by that a convention is not held somewhere in North Carolina. In 1970, conventions were held in Vale, Elkin, Camp Springs, Mount Airy, Raleigh, Lansing, Lawsonville, Terrell, Randleman, Asheville, Cleveland, and Greens boro, among other places. Although Star, North Carolina, has had annual conventions for more than forty years, the oldest and largest convention is held at Union Grove. Last year’s forty-sixth Union Grove convention presented approximately 140 bands (nearly fifty from North Carolina) and their 700 musicians. Scores of superb banjoists, most of them Scruggs-style devotees, gave ample evidence that North Carolina is still the natural home of the 5-string.
Most of these banjoists are known only in their home areas, although a few have had a measure of professional success. Hoke Jenkins of Harris, North Carolina, was Snuffy’s nephew and learned to play the banjo from him. Hoke played for The Bailey Brothers and on the early (recently re-released) Jim and Jesse McReynolds records. Sam Hutchins of Forest City has played banjo with Jimmy Martin and The Sunny Mountain Boys. Banjoist Raymond Fairchild of The Maggie Valley Boys (entertainers at the Maggie, North Carolina, “Hillbilly Fun House”) is billed as “the fastest banjo picker alive.”
Clarence H. Greene, banjoist-guitarist for The Toe River Valley Boys, lives in Penland. He and his group play throughout the Southeast, with Little Switzerland, North Carolina, as their home base. Greene’s playing is. unusual in that he picks Scruggs style but with only two fingers. The versatile Smiley Hobbs, born in Johnston County near Four Oaks, has played mandolin and fiddle with the Reno & Smiley group. He and Reno wrote “Banjo Signal,” a standard three-finger tune. Hobbs has made records op which he plays all the bluegrass instruments himself. His considerable banjo prowess can be heard on American Banjo Scruggs Style; he plays “Rosewood Casket,” “Pig in a Pen,” “Cotton-eyed Joe,” and “Train 45.”
A mountain minister once told Nat Winston, Sr., “You might as well give your son a ticket to hell as give him a five-string banjo” (Earl Scruggs, p. 8). The long and illustrious history of the 5-string in North Carolina indicates that Tar Heels have been more than willing to risk damnation for their banjo music. From simple strums on homemade wooden banjos to the Scruggs style capable of eight to ten notes per second-we might conclude that North Carolinians have taken the 5-string banjo just about as far as it can go. But perhaps Earl Scruggs’ recent comment will promote caution. On that score: “I really have a tendency to believe that everything to date has not been figured out about this instrument” (Earl Scruggs, p. 70).
[I thank Norman Cohen of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation and David Freeman of County Sales for their comments on an earlier version of this article.]
North Carolina State University Raleigh, N. C. Originally Published in Southern Folklore Quarterly, March, 1971. Courtesy of C.P. Heaton
1 Robert Ladner, Jr., “Behold, the Noble Banjo!” Music Journal, 26 (May 1968) 23.
2. Los Angeles Museum Quarterly, 7 (Spring 1949), 8.
3. “The Banjo: America’s Own Musical Instrument,” Country Music Who’s Who-1965, p. 6.
4. Gene Bluestein, “America’s Folk Instrument: Notes on the Five-String Banjo,” Western Folklore, 23 (Oct. 1954), 243.
5. “The Evolution of the Banjo,” Musical Trades, 78 (Mar. 1930), 26.
6. Richelieu, p. 6; Bacon, p. 26; Krick, “The Banjo,” The Etude, 56 (Mar. 1938), 192.
7. ‘How to Play the 5-String Banjo (Beacon, NY.: Pub. by the author, 1961), p. 68.
8. ”5-String Banjo” The Appalachian South, 2 (Spring-Summer 19(7), .’52-.’5:1.
9. Banjo Styles,” Country Dancer (Summer 1968 )” p, 18.
10. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy U of Oklahoma Press, 19(i2), p. 128.
11. J Elizabeth Maddox McCabe, “The Banjo: Made in America,” Music Journal, 23 (May 1965), 31. ‘
12. Ballads and Songs of Western North Carolina,” ]AF, 12 (Apr.-June 1909), 239.
l3. Henry Glassie, Pattem in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), p. 22.
14. Glassie, p. 24. Glassie’s note reads, “Mr. Presnell would rather pick the banjo with his ‘magic finger’ than work his small steep farm. He would rather fish than pick the banjo.”
15. Country Music, U. S. A. (Austin: Unh. of Texas Press, 1968), p. 11
16. Frank Proffitt,” Sing Out, 13 (Oct.-Nov. 1963), 8.
17. Record Notes, Frank Proffitt Sings Folk Songs (Folkways FA 2360).
18 Old-Time Mountain Banjo (New York: Oak Publications, 1968), p. 33.
19. John Cohen and Mike Seeger (eds.), The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book (New York: Oak Publications, 1964), p. 13.
20. “Hillbilly Music: Source and Resource,” JAF, 78 (July-Sept. 1965), 260. 21Archie Green, “Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol,” JAr’, 78 (July
Sept. 1965),215. Samantha Bumgarner can be heard on Banjo Songs of the Southern Mountains (Riverside RLP 610).
22. Folk and Hillbilly Music: The Background of Their Relation, Part II,” Caravan: The Magazine of Folk Music (June-July 1959), p. 21.
23. Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers”” (Eden, N. C.: Tar Heel Printing Inc., 19(8), p. 9.
24. “Archie Green and Eugene Earle. record notes, The Carolina Tar Heels. (Folk-Legacy FSA-24). The Tar Heels can also be heard on Victor’s Early Rural String Bands.
25. .”Johnny Whisnant Musical History, Part I,” Bluegrass Unlimited, 4 (June 1970), 9.
26. “Walter Saunders, “Johnny Whisnant Musical History, Part II,” Bluegrass (Unlimited, (July 1970), II.
27. “J. E. Mainer of Concord, North Carolina,” Sing Out, 18 (May.-ApI19(8), 28.
28. “‘Earl ‘Scruggs, Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo (New York: Peer International Corp., 1968), p. 8.
29. “Donald Myrus, Ballads, Blues and the Big Beat (New York: Macmillan, 1966), p. 97.
30. For varying accounts of when Scruggs began playing, see Earl Scruggs, p. 156; Pete Welding, “Earl Scruggs-and the Sound of Bluegrass,” Sing Out, 12 (Apr.-May 1962), 5; Louise Scruggs, “A History of America’s Favorite Folk Instrument,” Sing Out, 13 (Dec.-Jan. 1963-64),28.
31. “For a full account of Jenkins’ career, see Pat J. Ahrens, A History of the Musical Careers of Dewitt “Snuffy” Jenkins, Banjoist, and Homer “Pappy” Sherrill, Fiddler (Columbia, S. C.: Pub. by the author, 1970). Most of the following information in the text about Jenkins is from this source. For examples of the Jenkins three-finger style, listen to Carolina Bluegrass (Folk Lyric FL123) by Snuffy Jenkins and The Hired Hands. On American Banjo Scruggs Style ( Folkways FA 2314), Jenkins plays “John Henry,” “Lonesome Road Blues,” “Big-eared Mule,” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
32. ‘”Record notes, American Banjo Scruggs Style (Folkways FA 2314). On this record, Junie Scruggs “picks the two Sallies” (“Sally Anne” and “Sally Goodin”).
33. “An Introduction to Bluegrass,” JAF, 78 (July-Sept. 1965), 245-46.
34.”Bluegrass Background: Folk Music With Overdrive,” Esquire, 52 (Oct.1959), 108. Malone says this one-page article “possibly signaled the intellectual acceptance of bluegrass music” (p. :323).
35. “Nat Hentoff, “Ballads, Banjos, and Bluegrass,” HiFi/Sterio Review (May, 1963), p. 49.