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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Did Earl play clawhammer?


Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link: http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/377187

pat_mccarley - Posted - 08/18/2021:  20:17:30


I’m sure Earl played clawhammer but I can’t recall seeing any recordings our videos of him doing it.

Can you recall any?

Thanks

Pat

cevant - Posted - 08/18/2021:  20:20:53


One old post....

banjohangout.org/archive/155878

Bill Rogers - Posted - 08/18/2021:  23:42:44


Everythig I’ve read on Earl says he started copying regional fingerpickers early on. He was from the Piedmont, where fingerpicking was notably present. Clawhammer seems to have been more favored in the mountains to the west and northwest of Earl.

Joel Hooks - Posted - 08/19/2021:  06:32:39


BeFOre ScRuGGs iNvenTed bANjo PlaYIng the baNjo wAs oNlY a cOMedic prOP uSed in BaCkgRoUnd rHYthM.

anbanco - Posted - 08/19/2021:  11:03:09


In the video, "The Three Pickers", Ricky Scaggs asked Earl if he ever played clawhammer style. Earl replied; I tried but I couldn't hit a lick. My fingers kept wiggling.

monstertone - Posted - 08/19/2021:  16:28:23


A lot of rumors have floated around over the years about Earl. Couldnt play a G scale if his life depended on it, never played melodic, no sense of humor. Comes with the territory, I suppose.



John Hickman taped a lot of Earl's live radio performances, including a few bars of melodic back up to Leather Britches. The Yankee  Doodle lick in Ground Speed & Columbia Gem of the Ocean lick in FMB are just a few examples of Earl's sense of humor, expressed though his banjo.

Bronx banjo - Posted - 08/20/2021:  08:59:23


On one of the Martha White videos, there's a segment where Hilo Brown sings one of his endless ballads, I think it was the song "Blue Velvet Band". Toward the end of the song, while Scruggs was off camera, if you listen carefully, I believe you can hear him frail briefly, probably out of boredom. It's really funny.

writerrad - Posted - 08/20/2021:  19:58:17


People I know who have discussed the subject with Earl say he never ever played clawhammer, although I think his father who died when Earl was a small child did. Earl grew up in an area on the border of North and South Carolina where the impact of the guitar style banjo was extremely widespread, One of the few recorded local players in this style Mack Woolbright was a friend of his father and mother and was related to neighbors of Earl's. Earl told people I know and trust that he heard Woolbright play his famous quotations from Converse's variations on the Home Sweet home that ended up in Parker and Woolbright "Many who wrote the Home Sweet Home Never was a married man" when Earl was 6 years old, A great banjoist I know who was in John Hartford's band who remembers visiting Earl with Hartford in the 70s or perhaps 80s said that Earl could still play that tune note for note just like Woolbright, With the folk boom coming on in the late 1950s, Earl invented a lot of folkie examples of how he was playing Reuben and then just added a 3rd finger, but people who knew Earl and talked such issues in his house knew that Earl spoke about hearing these 3 finger guitar style banjoists before he Earl could pick a banjo.

writerrad - Posted - 08/20/2021:  20:03:32


quote: Off Camera you have to be careful,  Remember Paul Warren was a frailing banjo player and did some numbers with the band frailing Earl's banjo,  Paul might have been frailing.  In historical studies this is called combined and uneven development.  Because the historical order is that automobiles came first, then airplanes in most countries does not mean that in every country cars were built before airplanes.   In Australia, airplanes were produced before anyone ever thought of making an Australian automobile,   Finger picking conquered very much of the world, especially as steel strung, tone ring banjos became the rule,  The guitar style banjo playing was so widespread Edward VII of England played it., 


Earl never played clawhammer,  People I know who have asked him said that he never did,  He claims to have started 2 finger and added a 3rd finger, but in honesty he told people in his house he had heard 3 finger pickers using the guitar style banjo approach from the time he was 6 and could emulate their picking to the end of his life.


 

Originally posted by Bronx banjo

On one of the Martha White videos, there's a segment where Hilo Brown sings one of his endless ballads, I think it was the song "Blue Velvet Band". Toward the end of the song, while Scruggs was off camera, if you listen carefully, I believe you can hear him frail briefly, probably out of boredom. It's really funny.






 


Edited by - writerrad on 08/20/2021 20:05:48

writerrad - Posted - 08/20/2021:  20:07:47


quote:why are you sure,  did you ever ask him????  I know people who have asked him who he told he never did.     What is your source?

Originally posted by pat_mccarley

I’m sure Earl played clawhammer but I can’t recall seeing any recordings our videos of him doing it.



Can you recall any?



Thanks



Pat






 

writerrad - Posted - 08/20/2021:  20:15:48


quote:I have met severalk people who have discuss his early banjo life and early life with Earl Scruggs,  None of them say Earl has ever said he played down picking in any style.  Earl lived in an area with not only 2 finger,, but 3 finger picking in the guitar banjo style was very very common, encouraged by the cotton mills.  Mack Woolbright whose Converse borrowed 3 finger rolls can be heard on his recording with Charlie Parker of The Man Who wrote the Home Sweet Home Never was a married man" in 3 finger style was related to neighbors of Earl's.  Earl said he heard Woolbright play that tune that way when Earl was 6 years old.  People who had the joy of visiting Earl in his home near Nashville even i the 1980s or 90s said that Earl could play that tune note for note like Woolbright as it reminded him of his childhood and visits Woolbright made to Earl's home to visit Earl's dad who was a banjoist.  If you are familiar with the Flatt and Scruggs TV shows, or the stage shows,  at times Paul Warren would take Earl's banjo play frail old time tunes, but Earl never ever ever did tht on stage or off stage.   No one familiar with Earl Scruggs personally or historically or who played music with him reported that he ever played down picking banjo in any style,


This is just an assumption that comes with the folkie thinking that Southern Banjo playing is all clawhammer.   It was not.

 

Originally posted by Bill Rogers

Everythig I’ve read on Earl says he started copying regional fingerpickers early on. He was from the Piedmont, where fingerpicking was notably present. Clawhammer seems to have been more favored in the mountains to the west and northwest of Earl.






 

UncleClawhammer - Posted - 08/20/2021:  22:10:41


quote:

Originally posted by writerrad

Earl never played clawhammer,  People I know who have asked him said that he never did,  He claims to have started 2 finger and added a 3rd finger, but in honesty he told people in his house he had heard 3 finger pickers using the guitar style banjo approach from the time he was 6 and could emulate their picking to the end of his life.





These could easily both be true, which I think is actually the obvious way to interpret the version of his musical background Scruggs gave in his banjo book. He started playing banjo with two fingers, but was familiar with people, like Woolbright, who used three fingers, which he wanted to do. He found he was using three fingers one day while he was playing "Reuben," after many attempts at three finger picking. No controversy.



I've never heard Scruggs play clawhammer, mention playing clawhammer, and I've never heard or read about him doing it, at least not that I recall.

UncleClawhammer - Posted - 08/20/2021:  22:45:37


quote:

Originally posted by Bronx banjo

On one of the Martha White videos, there's a segment where Hilo Brown sings one of his endless ballads, I think it was the song "Blue Velvet Band". Toward the end of the song, while Scruggs was off camera, if you listen carefully, I believe you can hear him frail briefly, probably out of boredom. It's really funny.






This is the only video of Hylo Brown doing "Girl in the Blue Velvet Band" I could find. The "endless ballad" clocks in at under three minutes. I think I hear what you're talking about, though. Starts at the two minute mark and continues till about 2:06. I think what it actually is is a brush followed by some unusually prominent fifth string. I hear an almost identical sound at 2:14. Earl is definitely playing three finger immediately before and immediately after 2:14, and 1) I don't know why he'd start frailing for pretty much exactly one second 2) if he'd be able to change right-hand techniques that fast. I'd also wonder how he'd deal with his picks.



Earl does seem to be noodling more than usual during the song, though.

Bill Rogers - Posted - 08/20/2021:  23:20:26


Next we’ll have someone asserting that Frank. Proffitt played bluegrass style banjo.

rcc56 - Posted - 08/20/2021:  23:49:07


A long time back, Doc Cullis [whose name some of you old-timers might recognize] asked me to help him get started on clawhammer. I tried to show him the thumb bounce on the "ditty" stroke first. Two years later, he still couldn't get it and he finally gave up. 



By the way, Doc is still around [he's around 86 or so], but I think his gigging days are about over. His hands are slowing down and he can't stand for long with a resonator banjo hanging from his shoulder.


Edited by - rcc56 on 08/21/2021 00:00:23

writerrad - Posted - 08/21/2021:  08:49:40


quote:Earl was not a mysterious or close lipped person,  As time went on as any responsible person in the public light, he became strict about what he said in public or to the press or interviewers about a number of things, sometimes adhering to constructed stories that were invented to make his seem more authentic when the folk revival became a market.   On the other hand, he seemed to have been quite honest and concerned in conversations with other musicians especially those who visited his home or whose homes he visited to play, as he liked really to play with all sorts of musicians.  Good musicians in that category who were good clawhammer players and played clawhammer in is home asked him about it, people he spoke to honestly about music. 


,  Earl said he did not play clawhammer,   Earl said he could never ever figure out clawhammer and it confused him even to try.  Isn't what Earl said enough for some people?


Again, Scruggs was not some secretive person. 


He was not unknown to people who did play clawhammer like Bob Carlin or John Hartford or Paul Warren or Doc Watson or even Lester who could play clawhammer banjo.  He was a forward looking musically adventurous person.


He came from an area where 2 and 3 finger picking in styles similar to what he developed were part of the local music scene.  His family was friends with at least one of the most outstanding recorded players in the the 3 finger style.  Earl recounted many times that he had heard Woolbright play his most famous tune as young as Earl being 6 years old and that Woolbright came to Earl's house when Earl's father was living,


It is also true that Earl's earliest musical role was as a guitarist, not a banjo player with the role of banjo in their family band being taken by his older Brother while he played guitar.  It will be noted that Earl's guitar style was a finger picking not  flat picking, or not clawhammer thumb and brushing style like Lester Flatt, but a finger style very similar to the Travis style but with 3 fingers.  In fact, Earl's first Flatt and Scruggs recording is a guitar piece i that style.


This kind of finding odd noises on a TV show 6 decades ago does not erase the fact that what Earl scruggs had to say about this was that he didnt ever learn clawhammer, and that he had tried and could not figure it out and did not play it.


So it is fairly bizarre to intimate some sound like this on these recordings which might not even be Earl but one of the other musicians  using Earl's banjo,  It is a fact that not only Paul Warren who did a number of clawhammer tunes on the show, but Lester Flatt who came to music playing clawhammer banjo.  


Why does the simple set of facts about this that are clear have to be rejected,   I had a similar conversation once with Bela Fleck.  He said he never really paid any attention to clawhammer and probably wasn't good at it and didnt do it, despite being married and performing with an expert clawhammer performer.  


Now, I must confess that when I started being interested in the banjo seriously about 22 years ago,  I had this idea and even wrote stupid wrong things about the links between clawhammer and Earl's style based on total stupid thinking,  As I got into the world of banjo even though I have focused on African American banjo, every time I come into contact with people who had something to do with Earl or who have studied him, I have asked these kinds of questions, because to me Earl is still the greatest and most important banjo person ever.   People who knew Earl and had asked him about this casually, people who are clawhammer players who have played clawhammer with Earl at his home or in performances, people who are in both categories but were working on historical accounts of Earl's banjo playing have asked him about clawhammer.  Both in private and in public, Earl's response is that he never learned clawhammer and had tried to play it after becoming an established performer and could not figure it out.  

Originally posted by UncleClawhammer

quote:

Originally posted by Bronx banjo

On one of the Martha White videos, there's a segment where Hilo Brown sings one of his endless ballads, I think it was the song "Blue Velvet Band". Toward the end of the song, while Scruggs was off camera, if you listen carefully, I believe you can hear him frail briefly, probably out of boredom. It's really funny.






This is the only video of Hylo Brown doing "Girl in the Blue Velvet Band" I could find. The "endless ballad" clocks in at under three minutes. I think I hear what you're talking about, though. Starts at the two minute mark and continues till about 2:06. I think what it actually is is a brush followed by some unusually prominent fifth string. I hear an almost identical sound at 2:14. Earl is definitely playing three finger immediately before and immediately after 2:14, and 1) I don't know why he'd start frailing for pretty much exactly one second 2) if he'd be able to change right-hand techniques that fast. I'd also wonder how he'd deal with his picks.



Earl does seem to be noodling more than usual during the song, though.






 


Edited by - writerrad on 08/21/2021 09:04:52

writerrad - Posted - 08/21/2021:  09:30:07


As someone who writes about the history of the banjo and researches it and gives presentations about banjo history at banjo camps,universities, and whatever, I always lay such discussions at the weaknesses of the work of either banjo writers or presenters or the way the world warps knowledge about the banjo.



The most significant thing we have not been good at conveying is that starting in the middle of the 19th century there was an immense explosion of banjo playing, banjo making, writing and instruction and musical adaptations for the banjo, especially in the United States, but also in every other English speaking country, something that really lasted for the 5-string banjo until after WWI. 



While the stroke style like clawhammer was part of it, an increasing part of it after the Civil War was the guitar style, which was 3 or 4 finger picking modeled after the way pop and art music guitar was played at that time,  Across the 19th century and into the 20th century, this style became more and more at the center of how banjo entertainers played their banjos, and it was emphasized by banjo teachers, and composers of music for the banjo.  The guitar banjo stylet took an important step forward in popular music and music in general when ragtime swept the world since playing ragtime on the banjo in this style was one of the most popular forms of early recordings,  There were more ragtime banjo recordings than there were of pianos or bands,



From the 1860s on construction of banjos in the late 19th century by the great Boston and New York makers focused on designing banjos that would best play that style, particularly having a very highly articulate treble.  The advent of the external resonator banjos largely to create tenor and plectrum banjos,  made banjos even more suited and powerful in this type of finger picking.



The guitar banjo style (some have called it classic banjo since the 1970s)  was popular across the world of banjo including noted African American performers with international reputations, and South Black banjoists like Gus Cannon.  It was widely adopted by banjoists who mixed show business banjo playing with folk playing like Uncle Dave Macon or Sam McGhee.  It was used by Murph Gribble, the banjoist in the most pure example of Black string band playing we have,  the recordings Stu Jamison made in Campaign Tennessee in 1947 and 1949.  Charlie Poole preferred to play the banjo in this style and tried to get the record company to allow him to record more ragtime classics that had been earlier recorded by Van Eps and Ossman, but the record company wanted Hillbilly,



The vision of the popularity of this style of banjo does not fit into the stereotypes of banjo playing popular among people who do not venture into banjo history.,  To a certain extent, the degree to which banjo playing historians have sought the oldest folk styles through clawhammer and 2 finger picking with their definite West African roots, has made our work neglect the decisive role the guitar style banjo playing had in the world of the banjo, including among Southern white players.



It does so happen that Earl Scruggs grew up in an area where this style was most widely adapted to needs of the popular and dance music of the community and that he had heard one of the most recorded players of this style play from his earliest days.  The cotton mills like the one Earl worked in during WWII actual  brought in music teachers that taught this style in "community" buildings  they set up to keep workers happy as Patrick Huber documents,



This is a different picture, the reality of banjo history, from an ignorant stereotype that all these Hillbillies must be playing clawhammer.  But it is the real history.  As someone who writes and publishes and presents about banjo history, this is the responsibility of those of us who do this to have a more balanced approach about the whole of banjo history,   Earl is special to me it is jus thim and Sweeney in the importance of named performers in the 400 or more year history of this instrument.  We should all rejoice in what combination of location and parenting and just dumb luck produced Earl Scruggs and got so much of his music out to the world,



As someone who came to the banjo in love with what I thought were traditional clawhammer styles or Black banjoists,  this missing link in the real history of the banjo, this part of the banjo's story which is not purely "folk" but part of the history of the instrument as a commercial story and part of what people who applied formal music properties to the banjo, and part of the infuence on the banjo's life of  successions of commerial show business and commercially inspired parlor music fads confronts me and the rest of us as the big piece of banjo history that we need to latch on to to understand what happened and why people did what they did, which is the real purpose of history,


Edited by - writerrad on 08/21/2021 09:42:57

janolov - Posted - 08/21/2021:  10:42:45


As far as I have read, Earl didn't paly clawhammer, but I think some of his sisters did. Clawhammer existed as a style in their region but Earl focused on finger picking. However, Earl was also an excellent guitar player, and one of his styles was (what we today call:) the Carter scratch which gives a bum-di-ty  or clawhammer-like rhythm, so he could very well tried to get a clawhammer rhythm on the banjo (thumb on melody note. brush down and brush up on first string or first strings).

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