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Some comments on "Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Banjo"

Posted by corcoran on Monday, December 23, 2019

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Like many bluegrass banjo players, I eagerly awaited the release of Thomas Goldsmith’s book “Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Banjo,” and I was not disappointed.  Goldsmith provides a detailed account of Scruggs’s history and the events leading up to the recording of FMB in 1949.  His analysis of the tune itself is exhaustively detailed, with a measure-by-measure if not note-for-note accounting.   Goldsmith is an excellent writer and an accomplished  researcher, and I learned quite a few things about Scruggs and the recording of FMB.  I recommend the book to all banjo players who care about and enjoy the tune that Goldsmith rightly calls “an American classic.”

That said, I do want to dispute, or at least qualify, several of Mr. Goldsmith’s major points.  In my view he gives a somewhat biased perspective on Scruggs’s contributions to banjo playing and to bluegrass music, and I think it is worth discussing alternative explanations.  I will raise three points that are fundamental to Goldsmith’s treatment of Scruggs and FMB.

The first is concerned with a perennial question: Did Earl Scruggs create the three-finger style of picking the banjo that is now widely referred to as Scruggs style?  Regarding Scruggs’s predecessors who played the three-finger North Carolina style, Goldsmith says, “Smith Hammett, Rex Brooks, Fisher Handley, and Snuffy Jenkins ... used two right-hand fingers and thumb to play with an arpeggiated lilt ... but none achieved the strings of “rolls” that Scruggs did ...” (p. 11).  On the other hand, Don Reno, Bill Monroe, and Ralph Stanley all credited Snuffy Jenkins for developing the three-finger approach.  With casual disdain, Goldsmith dismisses their position: “These players’ opinions, though worth consideration, reflect individual perspectives and competitive biases and aren’t widely held.” (p. 14).  In my view, it is unjustified to dismiss the opinions of these eminent musicians who were around when Jenkins and Scruggs were playing and had first-hand knowledge of the origins of the style..

An interesting side issue concerns Johnnie Whisnant, another early three-finger stylist from North Carolina who overlapped with Scruggs.  He was influenced by a large group of obscure three-finger stylists including Oliver Webb, Tell Reed, Hess Starr, Jess Fulbright, Hubert Lowe, and especially Clay Everheart, who became his teacher.  Walter Saunders reported the Whisnant was very bitter because Scruggs, Reno, and Jenkins all got credit for the three-finger style, whereas he was playing it before all of them.  According to Tom Gray, Whisnant often talked of a young Earl Scruggs watching him from the back of an audience, trying to learn how to play the banjo.  Recordings of Whisnant with Carl Story from the 1930s show him playing a rudimentary form of three-finger style reminiscent of Scruggs.  However, Whisnant’s playing was choppy and old-timey, with lots of sixteenth note rests and pinches. His playing in later years sounded more Scruggs-like and even incorporated some melodic runs.  But the point remains that Scruggs was not the only banjo player who could lay claim to the development of modern three-finger style.
I think Goldsmith hits the nail on the head with this characterization of the limitations of previous three-finger playing: “Jenkins typically used what’s called a forward roll ... that could lead to getting stuck after playing two thumb-index-middle sequences of three notes each ... To release the three-finger style from these periodic interruptions, another figure of some kind was needed to fill the remaining space” (p. 14).  I have argued that one of Scruggs’s major contributions was to incorporate the backward roll (“backward roll” is Bill Keith’s terminology and refers to playing strings 1-2-3) or the forward-reverse roll (Keith again, playing strings 3-2-1-5-1-2-3), which provided the kind of flexibility and fluidity that the earlier styles lacked.  According to Goldsmith, Jim Mills makes the same point by crediting Scruggs with straightening out the timing on the three-finger roll.  “And the way he did that was, he could alternate his roll forward or backward ... Where guys like Snuffy Jenkins could stop and do a pinch to create a timing jump, or a stop, or a change, Earl could stop and do a forward or a backward roll to make it come out right timing-wise.  It was smooth and it was very flowing” (P. 15).

Is there no evidence of the backward roll in the playing of Scruggs’s predecessors?  Answering the question is complicated by the scarcity of recordings by those folks.  Nonetheless I have found hints of the pattern.  A prime example is in the B part of Mack Woolbright’s break to “The Man Who Wrote ‘Home Sweet Home’ Never Was a Married Man” (available on the Rounder CD “The North Carolina Banjo Collection.” an excellent source of early three-finger picking), which is built around backward runs, and this is of course the break that Scruggs copied in his rendition of “Home Sweet Home.”  In that same collection, Snuffy Jenkins plays a nice version of “Nancy Rowland,” and I think I hear at least elements of the backward roll in his playing.  Furthermore, Snuffy seems to employ a forward-reverse roll in his breaks on "Long Journey Home," on the CD “Snuffy Jenkins: Pioneer of the Bluegrass Banjo”). But these players did not exploit the roll in their playing in the way that Scruggs did so systematically and to such great effect.

It is worth noting that Don Reno had an opinion somewhat different from Goldsmith’s on the importance of Snuffy Jenkins’s playing:  “I never did meet (Smith Hammett).  Snuffy knew of him, and I’ve met other people who knew of him ... They say he played three-fingered, but he didn’t have it ironed out.  Snuffy did ... When I heard Snuffy, I could see that he had unwound something and straightened it out to the point where it did have a flowing melody to it and not a bunch of jerks and stops and this, that, and the other thing. He had perfected, as far as I’m concerned, a three-finger roll ... Snuffy Jenkins could play ‘Sally Goodin’ ... If you put a recording of him and Scruggs on, you couldn’t tell the difference.”

Scruggs’s style therefore did not evolve in a vacuum.  It emerged from a backdrop of other three-finger players (in particular Jenkins, Whisnant, and Reno) who played similar but somewhat less polished and coherent styles.  Scruggs built on earlier elements to create a new and readily identifiable style.  Thus my argument is that Scruggs contributed an evolution, not a revolution, in three-finger banjo playing. What Earl Scruggs did, and what makes him stand out from the other three-finger pickers of his and preceding generations, was to polish and perfect three-finger picking so that it incorporates the following attributes:

*    unprecedented smoothness, syncopation, and uninterrupted flow, primarily due to his introduction and frequent use of the backward roll or forward-reverse roll;

*    a large vocabulary of unique and characteristic cliches or licks;

*    blues and jazz phrases, particularly evident in backup and in solos such as “Foggy Mountain Special”;

*    an overall coherency and polish that other stylists lacked, and that readily inspired imitation by a whole new generation of banjo pickers

The latter point is particularly important: Scruggs’s style is more consistent and coherent, and hence more accessible, than the styles of Snuffy Jenkins, Johnnie Whisnant, or Don Reno (or at least Reno’s early style, as evidenced by the few radio recordings of Reno with Bill Monroe in 1948).  Thus potential pickers such as myself were able to learn the style from Scruggs’s recordings, to decipher his rolls and the location of on the fingerboard of the notes he was playing, in a way that could not have been as easily done from recordings of Jenkins and others.  And lest you conclude that I fail to appreciate Scruggs’s achievements or that I am anti-Scruggs, let me tell you that when I first heard a recording of Earl Scruggs, around 1961, the effect on me was monumental, and my fate was sealed:  The sound was exactly what I had hoped to achieve when I fantasized about playing the banjo.  It was complex, punchy, commanding, scintillating, and coruscating.  In a word, I loved it, and I spent the next several years hunched over a tape recorder slowing down and figuring out his breaks – as the Flint Hill Flash might put it, I became a scrugg for life.  My banjo universe had shifted permanently.

So my dispute with Goldsmith is one of emphasis and interpretation more than of fact.  I think Goldsmith too readily dismisses the contribution of Snuffy Jenkins and the other pickers who preceded Scruggs.  They laid the foundation for the three-finger style and Scruggs provided the brilliant finishing touches that elevated it to a whole new level of sophistication and art.

Did Scruggs create the sound of bluegrass?
In a kind of reverential take on Scruggs’s contributions, Goldsmith espouses the view that Scruggs's playing defined and perhaps even created the genre that came to be called bluegrass music.  His opinion is likely influenced by his personal relationship with Scruggs, making him part of what Butch Robins rather cynically called “the Scruggs management/publicity machine” (in Robins’s autobiography What I Know ‘Bout What I Know). Goldsmith cites Mac Wiseman’s statement that " ... Monroe didn't know exactly where his music was headed in those early years.  Scruggs's fire ignited the kindling that Monroe had spent more than six years gathering ..." (p. 30).  However, let us not forget the fact that Scruggs played with the Morris Brothers, fellow North Carolinians, before he joined Bill Monroe.   It seems to me that if Scruggs had single-handedly created bluegrass, it follows that the Morris Brothers should have been recognized as the first bluegrass band, or at least the first to play a particular subtype of country music, whatever it would have been called (perhaps Tar Heel music?).  But they were not.  The recognizable sound of bluegrass did not emerge until Bill Monroe formed a new configuration of the Blue Grass Boys that included Lester Flatt, Howard “Cedric Rainwater” Watts, Chubby Wise, and of course Earl Scruggs

Where was Monroe’s music before Scruggs came on the scene?  Well, when he joined the Opry in 1939, Monroe introduced a new and novel version of old-time string-band music that took the genre beyond what had been heard before, and audiences were reportedly stunned.  No previous band had played with the velocity and beat of the Blue Grass Boys, and no male vocalist had sung as high as Monroe did -- and this was all of course before Scruggs joined the band.  Monroe continued to tweak and experiment with his band’s sound throughout the early 1940s, but what he was playing was still not quite bluegrass music.  However, it set the stage for the radical transformation that occurred in 1945.  That Monroe was seeking to incorporate the sound of North Carolina three-finger picking is demonstrated by his attempt to hire Don Reno in 1943, as reported by Reno in Pete Wernick’s article in The Bluegrass Reader, edited by Thomas Goldsmith (!).  Clearly in the three-finger style played by Reno, Monroe heard something he wanted to add to his music. Reno was unable to join the Blue Grass Boys in 1943 because he was drafted into military service, however, and this opened the door for Monroe to recruit Scruggs in 1945.  The rest is history.

.I think the conclusion is inescapable that modern bluegrass was formed by the combination of Scruggs’s sophisticated approach to the banjo with Monroe’s driving beat (unprecedented in country music at the time), his revolutionary mandolin style, his high tenor lead vocals, and his tenor harmonizing with the lead singer.   Scruggs’s joining the band kicked the band’s sound up a notch or six, but the emergence of this new style was built on the framework that Monroe had constructed in earlier years.  It seems obvious that it would not have been bluegrass without Monroe, nor would it have been bluegrass without Scruggs, Reno, or someone else who played the North Carolina style of banjo.  This conclusion differs from Goldsmith’s, who seems to give Scruggs sole credit for the creation of bluegrass music.

Did Earl Scruggs write Blue Grass Breakdown?
Goldsmith states that Scruggs was the author of BGB.  He does not cite any corroborating testimony from others who were around at the time and in a position to know, but simply accepts Scruggs’s claim to authorship.  However, as Goldsmith discusses, Monroe also claimed authorship of the tune.  As noted in the book, it was common for bandleader to claim authorship of a tune or song, sometimes shared with the sideman who actually wrote it. Goldsmith discusses Monroe sharing authorship with Flatt on songs Flatt wrote, and quotes Scruggs: “Well, I wrote ‘Blue Grass Breakdown’ and I thought he’d give me half of it.  He didn’t give me nothing.” (p. 35).  On the other hand, Pete Kuykendall (original editor of Bluegrass Unlimited) took the contrary position that BGB was Monroe’s work, “ ... given its resemblance to other Monroe tunes, but his remains a minority view” (p. 36).  Of course, even if it is a fair characterization that concluding Monroe wrote BGB is “a minority view,” this does not mean that it is wrong.

There is no conclusive way to resolve Scruggs’s and Monroe’s conflicting claims, because no hard evidence or relevant testimony from other people exists.  However, one can appeal to each musician’s history of composition of original tunes, as Butch Robins did in his autobiography:  Arguably Scruggs’s history of composition is limited to 8 or 10 memorable tunes, as compared to Monroe, who composed dozens if not hundreds of tunes.  Furthermore, we know from decades of research that memory is labile and subject to reinterpretation and modification with the passage of time (see evidence for “false memories” from Elizabeth Loftus and others).   Thus it is not inconceivable that Monroe did indeed write BGB as one of his earliest originals, and that Scruggs simply misremembered the details of authorship.  Or perhaps Scruggs in fact wrote the tune, and Monroe misremembered.  We will never know for sure, although, for what it’s worth, I tend to think that Scruggs wrote BGB.  FMB is a simplified version of BGB, omitting the B part (really Lonesome Road Blues) and changing the F chord to an Em chord.  The natural evolution of FMB therefore seems evident as the progression of Scruggs’s composing.  FMB is arguably more effective than BGB, thereby justifying its continuing influence as well as its being the focus of Goldsmith’s book.  Regardless of what one concludes about the authorship of BGB, however, there is no question that Scruggs wrote FMB, the more striking and enduring instrumental of the two.

Let me close by mentioning a couple of interesting side issues: First, Goldsmith cites Lewis Jolley’s story that Smith Hammett learned the three-finger pattern from a black man at the Flint Hill School, but he concludes that  “There’s no other available evidence that the piedmont three-finger style had its roots in an African-American musician’s presence in the area.” (p. 19).  But Snuffy Jenkins did in fact provide such corroboration:  "Smith got it from a colored fellow, black."  Snuffy in turn learned the style from Hammett and Rex Brooks, and he passed on what he could to Scruggs and Reno:  "I don't claim to have taught Earl or Don (Reno).  They'd come to where we was playing ... and naturally I'd show them whatever I could."

Second, I find it surprising that Goldsmith’s book makes no mention of Bill Keith, another profoundly influential banjo player whose Opry debut with Monroe was  nearly 20 years after Scruggs’s and whose perfection and popularization of melodic style resemble Scruggs’s perfection and popularization of North Carolina roll-based style.  I have long been intrigued by Bill Palmer’s account (on that Keith was the person who introduced Scruggs to the concept of banjo rolls:  “In 1965, I visited Earl at his home in Madison. This was where he told me that he had never heard of a ‘roll’ until Bill Keith told him about them. He said that he basically played the melody with his thumb or his index finger, whichever seemed best, and filled in the gaps with whatever was left over. So simple—so arcane!” Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Keith won a civil court case against Earl and Louise Scruggs for their failure to share royalties with him from the Scruggs book, for which he provided all the tabs, generated some of the key terminology (“rolls,” “forward rolls,” “backward  rolls,” “forward-reverse rolls”), and organized the instructional recording of Scruggs’s playing.  And so it goes.

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