The recent passing of internationally famous 5-string banjo “picker” Earl Scruggs of Cleveland County has brought questions about his banjo. Where did it come from? Who invented it? Who made it famous?
Earl Scruggs is given credit for the 5-string banjo’s rise in popularity. He joined Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry in 1945, creating “Bluegrass Music,” according to the historians. Monroe’s Band was called “The Bluegrass Boys” from the Kentucky knickname, “The Bluegrass State.”
They now tell us the 5-string banjo is the only native American instrument, born in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. Since the early days, Americans have loved the sound of a banjo.
Stephen Foster’s old plantation song, “O Susannah” helped add to it’s popularity: “And I came from Alabama…with a banjo on my knee…”
But that banjo was different. It had only four strings, a rhythm instrument, not the lead instrument like Earl Scruggs played. It happened naturally. Two hundred years ago slaves had brought a crude form of the banjo from Africa. Not much more then a piece of goat skin stretched over a gourd with a wooden neck attached and four strings, it had an infectious sound that people liked to hear.
Many slaves were brought in through New Orleans, and folks there liked their banjo sound and adopted it as a rhytmn instrument to use in Dixieland bands. It caught on as it moved up the Mississippi and on across the country.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia “hillbilly musicians” heard and liked the banjo, and thought they could even make it sound better. So they went to work on it. They added a fifth string, tuned it like the “drone” sound of the bagpipe and picked it with the thumb.
They understood the bag pipe sound well since most of them were of Scottish ancestry. Thus, as the story goes, the “signal instrument” of what would become “bluegrass music” was born right then and there.
One of the more popular banjoists in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s was Uncle Dave Macon. He became a star on the “Grand Ole Opry” in Nashville, taking his 5-string banjo and country songs across the nation.
Uncle Dave toured North and South Carolina many times. One of his musicians would later tell me he traveled with “Uncle Dave” and saw him literally take pillow cases filled with money back to Nashville and his bank from his shows in the Carolinas.
As a kid of about 7, I remember going with my Dad to my home town (Westmoreland, TN) on Saturday afternoons to see and hear Uncle Dave Macon, on his way to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.
He was traveling in a Model T Ford Pickup Truck with a platform on the back. Sitting in a cane-bottom chair, he would start pickin’ his banjo and singing loudly (no microphone in those days) songs including “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be” and “20-cent cotton and 40-cent meat, how in the world can a poor man eat?”
Then, he’d pick his banjo and they’d start dancing in the street. A great minstrel, he could genuinely entertain a crowd. I imagine Earl Scruggs, as a little boy, learned a few licks on his banjo listening to Uncle Dave Macon.
During one of the many interviews I did with him, Earl told me he did not create what the media named his “Scruggs-style” of three-finger picking. He said he learned it from his old friend “Snuffy” Jenkins, with whom he was playing at the time on radio in Columbia, S.C.
Earl says he studied the 3-finger style, perfected it and carried it around the world. It no doubt will live on and on as banjo players get together and remember.
Doug Mayes lives in Lincolnton.