The banjo has been seen as the characteristic instrument of bluegrass music. For 70 years, it wasn't bluegrass unless it featured a banjo. Many suggest that's still true, that bluegrass has lost its way when it plugs in, uses other instruments than the five (mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass) that Bill Monroe had in the Blue Grass Boys or the six (add the Dobro) Lester & Earl used in The Foggy Mountain Boys. Hardcore traditionalists maintain that music without the syncopated, three-finger style of Earl Scruggs cannot be bluegrass. Others hold that music, like all of life, progresses, evolves, changes, morphs. While, as musical genres go, bluegrass is a hoary 70 years old, the issue of WIBA (What Is Bluegrass Anyway) will continue to be revisited. Meanwhile, the banjo itself has proven its own ability to change.
The story goes that Earl Scruggs discovered his unique three-finger banjo style as a boy noodling on his banjo in the yard of the Scruggs family's small home in rural Flint Hill, NC near Shelby. He was almost daydreaming while playing the tune of an old song called "Reuben" when he realized something else was happening... and Scruggs style was born.
But the banjo is a remarkably supple and subtle instrument which many virtuosos have adapted to their own muse and creativity. While all contemporary banjo players pay homage to the quiet genius of Earl Scruggs (visit the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, NC) the instrument, like the music, has continued to evolve and develop. Nevertheless, I have a banjo head signed by Earl Scruggs that I asked other top banjo players to sign. Many of the best modern players signed it. None, NONE would sign his name above Earl's. Other banjo players have used Earl's innovation, added their own vision and sensibility to arrive at new ways of interpreting the banjo. Let's look at a few.
Many people don't know that the modern banjo is descended from an instrument that first came to this continent in slave ships coming from Africa. When Béla Fleck made a much-heralded trip to Africa, his goal was to both reconnect his instrument with its roots and to point out to those who saw the banjo as the music of white, hillbilly musicians from the American south, that it had a much more complex origin. Here's the trailer for the documentary film that grew out of this trip:
The banjo developed through the 19th century, mostly in the South, as an instrument played by slaves in a dance situation or in minstrel shows. Here, Dom Flemmons and Rhiannon Giddens perform a square dance call.
Though the development of any instrument in terms of technique and style never runs in a straight line, the antecedents of the banjo are pretty clear. From its humble beginnings, it was played as a four-string (tenor) instrument in bawdy houses and jazz dives in New Orleans, and in minstrel shows, often presented in black-face during the vaudeville period, which was later killed by talking movies. It was also adopted and adapted by white, mountain people in the rural South into what is now recognized as old-time, often dance related music. Earl Scruggs was clearly influenced by all these formats and knew a banjo player named Snuffy Jenkins (1908 - 1990), whom Scruggs acknowledged as an influence upon him. In the clip below, Jenkins demonstrates the two-finger, claw-hammer, and three-finger styles on "Cumberland Gap" in an interview with Pappy Sherrill, apparently recorded in 1988.
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt spent two years with Bill Monroe, often cited as the period during which bluegrass music emerged and matured. Soon after leaving, they joined together as Flatt & Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys, performing together for 21 years. In a 1969 press release after he left Flatt, Scruggs says, “It [playing bluegrass in The Foggy Mountain Boys] reached the point of becoming extremely monotonous. The banjo was locked into a category and I could see no reason why it wouldn't be accepted in other forms of music. I wanted the chance to give the banjo and myself the freedom to breathe.” (Nicholas Dawidoff, In The Country of Country, 1989) In discussing Scruggs' departure from the Foggy Mountain Boys to form, with his sons, The Earl Scruggs Review Dawidoff quotes Miles Davis as having said, “Don't play what's there, play what's not there.” This suggests the dilemma many artists face when their fans try to trap them into playing what made them famous rather than allowing them to continue to explore, innovate, succeed, and often fail.
Scruggs, an artist of unbounded range and deep integrity, freed the banjo for others to use in interesting and varied ways, in string bands, jam bands, rock/jazz groups, and now moving into serious orchestral music. While many musicians have taken the banjo in new directions and into new genres since Scruggs changed the landscape, I'd like to take a look at two musicians: Béla Fleck and Jens Kruger.
Since the breakup of The New Grass Revival in 1988, Fleck has restlessly and insistently explored the musical world as seen through his imagination for what the banjo can be and where it can go. Almost immediately after the disbanding, he formed Béla Fleck and the Flecktones releasing their first album in 1990. The band flirted with jazz improvisation, world music, but an Amazon customer review suggested, “Fleck has surely bent the boundaries of genre with his mind-altering banjo virtuosity, but the core of this music is JAZZ.” For those who are interested, the instrument on the left side of the trio, played by Roy Wooten (known as Futureman) is called a Drumitar. Roy's brother Victor Wooten is on electric bass. Meanwhile, the clarity and precision of Fleck's work suggests the versatility of the banjo.
The Kruger Brothers have been professional musicians since their early teens. They grew up in Switzerland but toured all over Europe with a few sojourns to the U.S. before moving to Wilkesboro, NC to live near their great musical influence, Doc Watson. Their early recording here leaned heavily towards old-time, bluegrass, and mountain music, but they have become increasingly interested in widening their musical horizons while they make music with classical string quartets and symphony orchestras. Jens, winner of the $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2013, has consistently widened the range of his music while gaining respect for the banjo in some unusual venues. Here's a full performance of the Kruger Brothers with the Kontras Quartet playing Jens' composition, "Appalachian Concerto."
The banjo, perhaps the most characteristic sounding of all bluegrass instruments, emerges as a versatile and surprising instrument as artists begin to explore its possibilities. Where it has gone, however, remains a testament to where it has come from, first a humble gourd instrument imported to America with slavery, then the defining instrument of bluegrass, and now a member of a larger, ever-expanding family of bluegrass derived and extended music.