Earl Scruggs: Soulful banjos mourn Foggy Mountain boy

Earl Scruggs, the hardriving banjo player at the heart of music died this week at 88. It was the brilliant and intricate work he did with his guitar playing partner, Lester Flatt, that brought this mountain music to millions of people -- when their work became the score for Bonnie and Clyde on the run, or the hillbilly anthem of Jed Clampett.

There is much to say about bluegrass, and Earl's contribution. For now, let's just listen.

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  • Guest - carldavidson

    I've been a fan of Flatt & Scruggs since 1959 or so. Earl was a master of his art.

    'Blue Grass,' by the way, while it taps into 'high lonesome' Scots Irish roots, is actually rather modern, developed in large part by Bill Monroe in the 1950s. One interesting way to hear it is as hillbilly jazz all on strings, since in many sessions, the 'pickers' improvise and bounce off each other, as in jazz combos.

    I have old 'fiddlers' in my family, but my brother Howard is the musician. He first had 'Steel City Bluegrass' a while back as his band, but his current one is called 'Lonesome No More,' a great name. He also works with a terrific working-class cultural group locally, the 'Pittsburgh Songwriters Circle,' which puts out an annual album is original music they have created.

    One additional interesting thing about Bluegrass are the annual gatherings, dozens of them, often held in remote campgrounds where you bring in your RV and camp, very non-commerical. The lack of electricity is no problem, since part of the tradition is to avoid electric amplification if possible. I went to one here a few years ago called 'Forest Circle', where you could walk a large circular trail, and every 50 yards or so, there would be a band jamming, perhaps as many as 12 at any one time.

  • Guest - anewworld

    I've always liked bluegrass for its unconventional sponteity of very acoustic portable instruments and the folk lyrics. Thanks for sharing - I'd like to learn more of its historical development.

  • Guest - anewworld

    Carl, I hasn't seen your post - thanks for sharing that analysis - in curious about how the Irish experience transferred over.

  • Guest - Gary

    It’s great to pay tribute to this artist who popularized his instrument, which has a very interesting history. Since I’ve been studying the history of lute-types, thought I’d share some of what I’ve found. The main point to grasp is that this lute, often seen as uniquely “American” is of African origin and banjo music is rooted in the experience of slaves.

    In the seventeenth century, West African griots (story-tellers, keepers of ancestral narratives) arrived in the Caribbean as slaves, and probably introduce stringed instruments evolving into the banjo.

    Likely ancestors of the banjo include the xalam played in Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Niger, Northern Nigeria, Northern Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Western Sahara; the akonting (spike folk lute played by the Jola tribe of Senegambia); the ubaw-akwala of the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria; and the ngoni of the Wassoulou region including parts of Mali, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast as well as a larger variation of the ngoni developed in Morocco by the Gimbri.

    (There are several theories concerning the origin of the name banjo. It may derive from the Kimbundu term mbanza. Or may derive from the Portuguese bandore or from an early anglicization of the Spanish word bandurria, both from the original Sumerian pandur which refers to a long-necked lute. Or it may derive from a Senegambian term for a bamboo stick formerly used for the instrument’s neck.)

    We find the first reference to reference the banjo [banza] in the Western Hemisphere in 1678 in a document in Martinique referring to the prohibition on dances of African slaves in which they “danced to the sound of a drum and an instrument the blacks called a banza.” (In the 17th to early 19th century writers transcribed the name of these instruments variously as bangie, banza, banjer, banjar, banjil, bangoe, banshaw.)

    In 1763 an Englishman in the British West Indies wrote in a poem: “Permit thy slaves to lead the choral dance/To the wild banshaw’s [banjo’s] melancholy sound.” In 1781 Thomas Jefferson wrote “The instrument proper to [slaves] is the Banjar [banjo], which they brought hither from Africa.”

    But whites started playing the instrument too. From 1769, in the British North American colonies white men begin using banjos as standard prop in “blackface” comedy routines. (I’m not sure how to analyze the mix of racism and cultural respect this represents. But in the history of popular music in this country there have sometimes been white borrowings of non-white culture that go through a stage of mocking emulation and then appropriation.)

    In 1819, the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe described musical instruments on sale in New Orleans’ “Congo Square” including “banjers” (banjos). In 1830s,, Joel Walker Sweeney (was the first white man (apart from the blackface comics) to perform on banjo onstage with his Sweeney Minstrels. Banjo popularity rose through the century as it beame a middle-class instrument. Sweeney toured Europe in 1843, further spreading the banjo’s popularity.

    In 1848, U.S. songwriter Stephen Foster, capitalizing on new fad for “Ethiopian songs,” wrote “Oh! Susanna” for a blackface troupe: “Oh! Susannah, don’t you cry for me. I come from Alabama with a Banjo on my knee.” In 1887 a U.S. music dealer wrote, “No instrument has ever had to fight its way through such bitter antagonism as the banjo.”

    In 1948, Seeger wrote the first version of his now-classic How to Play the Five-String Banjo.

    In 1962 Earl Scruggs (1924-2012) composed The Balled of Jed Clampett.

  • Guest - Mike E

    Gary... this is just wonderful and fascinating, man. Thanks so much for sharing it.

    BTW: It is also worth noting Earl's progressive politics. Wikipedia put it this way:

    <blockquote>"On November 15, 1969, Scruggs played his Grammy-winning "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on an open-air stage in Washington, D.C., at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, becoming one of the very few bluegrass or country-western artists to give support to the anti-war movement."</blockquote>


  • Guest - Ghan

    Earl Scruggs is the man. His stance against the Vietnam war was courageous, and he will be dearly missed by all fans of good music.

    That said, "The Beverly Hillbillies" is a (highly sanitized, but still hella offensive) television adaptation of Tobacco Road, a pulp novel that depicts a semi-racist caricature of Appalachians as incestuous, lazy, morally depraved and dim-witted.

    Erskine Caldwell, the author of Tobacco Road, was the son of Ira Caldwell, who wrote a famous article for the journal Eugenics, advocating a sterilization policy for Appalachian hill folk. (A policy that culminated in the sterilization of thousands of people)

    Also Scruggs' contribution to "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" was purely instrumental. The words were written by television writer Paul Henning and produced by Jerry Scoggins. (neither of whom are Hill Folk) "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" is not a significant or important aspect of Scruggs' body of work, IMHO.

    There are plenty of Hill Folk that may be under the false impression that "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" is a positive "hillbilly anthem", (then again there are also plenty of Hill Folk who ignore their own nuanced history and identify proudly with white nationalism and the Confederate flag) however it's just another tasteless pop-culture reflection of the US empire's legacy of genocidal racism.

    Sorry to be a stick in the mud but I hate that shit. Andy Griffith Show too, fuck people's "nostalgia" for 1950s racist, patriarchal TV propaganda.

  • Guest - Gary


    I stand corrected on the point that Scruggs did not "compose" the Ballad of Jed Clampett but only the instrumental music. I wouldn't say it's "not a significant or important aspect of Scruggs’ body of work," though. It was likely the first banjo music I ever heard (at around age 6) and I'm sure made an impression on a lot of people since (for better or worse) the TV program was hugely popular. Certainly it's significant for that reason.

    I'm not interested in defending the TV show, but I'm not sure how it reflects "the US empire’s legacy of genocidal racism." That argument needs to be made concretely. How is even the disparaging depiction of a white community by white writers and producers "racist"?

    As for "patriarchal TV propaganda"... I may have not done the investigation to entitle me to speak on these things (I haven't bothered to revisit episodes online) but my sense is that this popular program was as much about satirizing bankers (the venality of Mr. Drysdale) as anything else.

  • [posted as its <a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2012/04/02/about-those-beverly-hillbillies/" rel="nofollow">own thread</a>]

  • Guest - carldavidson

    As a hillbilly myself--actually a 'hoopie', which is a hillbilly from the W VA panhandle/W PA area--I agreed that many, but not all, hillbilly jokes are enjoyed by us. I recall going to the Newport Jazz festival with a carload of us back in 1960. We stopped in NJ at a diner, and started slapping our knees, laughing at all the 'funny accents' people had. We thought everyone had 'accents' but us!

    But keep in mind a point made by Hegel, I believe, that all humor contains a touch of evil and violence. Now there's something a little different I picked up at college--a 'hoopie' quoting Hegel. We come in all sorts.

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