From Earl Scruggs to Bela Fleck: Let Us Now Praise the Banjo
I have been thinking a lot about John Hartford lately. And the banjo. About how one of the most popular songs of the 20th century (“Gentle on My Mind”) was written on the banjo, and its journey to prominence today in roots music.
While the instrument’s history is well known, a lot of folks may be unaware that the banjo was once viewed as an instrument of seduction. So much so that there were racist cartoon editorials depicting the instrument as being so intensely sexual that white women could be easily seduced by black men playing it. Another stereotype was deployed in the movie Deliverance: the backwoods hillbilly, and the refrain later in the picture, “squeal, piggy.” To many urban white males, the instrumental “Dueling Banjos” and the rape scene are indelibly linked.
But nowadays, the banjo is virtually a must in any group that wants to be taken seriously in the roots music world. We have seen a revolution in the instrument, the way it is played, and its role in the hands of its players today. Earl Scruggs, of course, revolutionized the banjo and music when he developed a three-finger picking technique that emphasized melody lines and a syncopated rhythm. Can you imagine Bill Monroe’s and bluegrass’ rise without it? Even today, the Scruggs style remains omnipresent in bluegrass.
But there are many musicians who continue to play and extol the virtues of the clawhammer style. Justin Hiltner earlier this month addressed the contrast in a recent article for The Bluegrass Situation titled “9 Times Clawhammer Banjo Was Almost as Good as Scruggs-Style.” I urge you to read it, and check out the video clips.
Steve Martin has also been a person of note in the banjo’s modern history because of his annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass beginning in 2010. His selections have been as inspired as they have been deserving, from Danny Barnes to Rhiannon Giddens. Most folks have come to know Martin as a banjo player from his tours with the Steep Canyon Rangers, but he is not some late coming interloper. Playing the banjo was part of his schtick when he was doing standup comedy in the 1970s. Needless to say, he had been playing long before that, and in the company of close friend John McEuen, no less.
During the past dozen years or so we have seen the instrument taken into directions few could have foreseen back in the day. Never a stranger to the instrument (how could I be), my epiphany moment may have been when I first saw Alison Brown. It was not just one performance; I saw her several times at a music festival, and oddly enough, it was not long after I had formally studied the jazz piano. I noted that she was playing the banjo as if it were a piano. If that were not enough, she had a pianist in her quartet. I began hearing things a way different than before.
Sometime later I heard Abigail Washburn in Uncle Earl, in one of her first performances after returning from China. I had also seen the rise of Jens Kruger from his early days at MerleFest to now playing in classical settings. And I can’t fail to mention Bela Fleck’s immersion into world music, which I, too, had come to know and love in the ’90s. Additionally, the banjo has become significant in “jammy” type bands, such as Old Crow Medicine Show and the Avett Brothers, while Suzanne Santo (honeyhoney) plays it with both ferocity in, say, “Whole Lotta Love” and with a deep softness in “Dear Prudence.” It has also traveled back across the Atlantic, to Ireland, where Enda Scahill formed We Banjo Three and Colin Durham the Irish Americana band I Draw Slow. The banjo has even made it into Sweden, where the sister trio Baskery plays what has been described as “killbilly” and “banjo punk.”
Between Scruggs and Fleck there were/are plenty of other important players as well. Think of what Bernie Leadon brought to the Flying Burrito Brothers, and, later, the Eagles. Other banjo pioneers in the ’70s included Bill Keith, Tony Trischka, John McEuen, Tommy Thompson (Red Clay Ramblers), and Eric Weissberg, just to name a very few that I have been personally acquainted with.
This is far from a history lesson, and, further still, a very incomplete list of banjo players and the many playing styles. But I would be extremely remiss in not sharing some additional thoughts on the banjo:
1. Can anyone ever forget the first time you heard Roscoe Holcomb?
2. The banjo as an instrument of social change in the hands of Pete Seeger.
3. The otherworldliness of Richie Stearns. I urge to see him whenever you can. Living in the Finger Lakes area of New York, it is well worth a pilgrimage to the Grassroots Festival there in July just to hear him play in a variety of settings. Or, listen to him, whether it be solo, with the Horseflies, or as a duo with Rosie Newton. Their new album, No Where in Time, is due in a couple of months. I eagerly await it.
Now, scroll though photos of banjo players, from the well-known to newbies and those who are not known for playing it, such as Steve Earle and David Rawlings. After all, if the greatest flatpicker ever, Doc Watson, and the Deadhead himself, Jerry Garcia, embraced it, why not the rest of us?
Also included are rare photos of some notable banjoists from West Virginia: Aunt Jenny Wilson, Clarence Tross, Doc White, Tommy Thompson, Don Stover, Johnny Hager, Maggie Hammons, Sherman Hammons, and Uncle Homer Walker. Please note that the Hagar photo from 1920 features legendary fiddler Ed Haley. You may recall that Hartford was writing a book on Haley before he passed away. These are courtesy of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.