[11 April 2012]
When Earl Scruggs died a couple weeks ago, the music world lost one of its most innovative and indispensable figures. Rarely has any one individual influenced the way musicians play a particular instrument as Scruggs has with the banjo. His three-finger picking style has become so ubiquitous that it’s what most people automatically hear in their heads when the instrument’s name is uttered. In the shadow of Scruggs’ death, it’s worth taking a look at the role the banjo has played in American popular culture. While some only associate the instrument with backwoods hillbillies and bluegrass music, its history and usage is far more diverse.
Following are ten culturally significant banjo moments. This list is not intended to include the best banjo songs or encompass all the important masters of every genre, but rather to present ten instances in which the banjo, an often misunderstood and unjustly maligned instrument, came to the fore of popular culture, for better or worse. Enjoy!
It’s impossible to escape the banjo’s early association with the horrors of slavery and the racial ignorance of minstrel shows. As unpleasant as these connections are, they are indispensable parts of the banjo’s history. The Stephen Foster tune “O! Susanna”, first introduced in the 1840s, features the famous lyric “I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee.” The song’s popularity in the 19th century is a reminder of the instrument’s ubiquity in American culture during that time. Even into the 20th century, many American children first heard the word “banjo” when they learned this folk song. The Marx Brothers performed a parody of the tune in their 1933 antiwar comedy Duck Soup, playing upon the audience’s familiarity with the song.
Béla Fleck has expanded the limits of “banjo music” and redefined what is possible on the instrument. As part of the groups New Grass Revival and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, the virtuosic musician caused listeners to stand in awe of his seamless blending of bluegrass, jazz, rock, classical, folk, and world music traditions. Time and time again, he has truly proven that the banjo is more than a “hillbilly instrument”. Throw Down Your Heart (2009) in particular represents a milestone for both Fleck and people’s understanding of the banjo. The record itself and an accompanying documentary film show Fleck visiting Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali to trace the African origins of the instrument. Fleck has raised awareness of the banjo’s rich non-American musical history and helped audiences understand that it has vitality far beyond the minstrel show stereotypes.
In the ‘20s, the banjo reigned supreme in American popular music. It became an essential part of not only rural blues and New Orleans and Chicago jazz, but also the old-time string music that found widespread popularity. No pop culture figure from this decade was more associated with the banjo than Charlie Poole. The fast-living, hard-drinking musician recorded a plethora of banjo tunes with his group the North Carolina Ramblers for Columbia Records. His three-fingered playing technique (the result of a baseball injury set the standard for many pickers to come and inspired the likes of Bill Monroe.
The CBS TV show Hee Haw, a variety program that ran from 1969-1971, broadcasted the values and culture of rural American to the entire nation. Full of cornified humor and down-home music, the show was promoted as a kind of country alternative to The Smothers Brothers. The banjo was an integral part of the portrait of rural America painted on the screen, as old-time musician Grandpa Jones picked his way to fame as he performed joyful novelty tunes on the instrument.
While many people think of bluegrass automatically when they think of the banjo, the instrument is also associated closely with the urban folk movement of the ‘60s. Pete Seeger in particular was known for connecting the banjo to the social consciousness and protest music of the decade. Seeger’s appearance on The Johnny Cash Show near the end of the decade solidified this connection, as Seeger talked about and demonstrated the importance the instrument had in his life and music.
Steve Martin is not only a talented comedian, but also a word-class banjoist. Lately, he has made a second career playing bluegrass music as a solo act and with the Steep Canyon Rangers. During the late ‘60s and ‘70s, though, as Martin was rising to prominence as a standup comedian, he notably used the banjo as part of his act. Martin not only got a lot of laughs by using the banjo for humor, but also proved that he is a talented musician deeply rooted in the instrument’s history.
The late Earl Scruggs is the most important and influential banjoist of all time. His work with rhythm guitarist Lester Flatt established the bluegrass template for decades to come. The Foggy Mountain Boys became culturally recognizable in the ‘40s and ‘50s for their radio program on WSM and their short-lived, yet highly influential, TV show. For many, Flatt and Scruggs still represent the public face of both bluegrass music and the banjo.
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, an Earl Scruggs instrumental, might just be the most famous banjo song of all time. This fame is justified, for it is a catchy and spirited tune. It was written in 1949, but became well-known after its prominent inclusion on the soundtrack of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. The movie represented the birth of the New Hollywood, and the instrument was there at the inception. The tune was further associated with the ‘60s counterculture when Scruggs performed the song during the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. It experienced a resurgence in popularity more recently when Scruggs won a 2001 Grammy award for his performance of the tune with Albert Lee, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Paul Shaffer, and more.
Plenty of banjoists and bluegrass musicians probably wish that “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” had never been written. Unfortunately, many people associate the banjo only with this silly TV show about backwoods hillbillies who become Los Angeles millionaires. For better or worse, the banjo roll featured prominently in this tune is probably the most recognizable bit of banjo music ever recorded. It didn’t hurt that Flatt and Scruggs themselves appeared on the ‘60s CBS sitcom.
It might come as a surprise that the song “Dueling Banjos” was written in 1955 by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. It didn’t become a worldwide pop culture phenomenon, though, until it appeared in the 1972 film Deliverance. It has been featured in TV commercials and covered by musicians of every instrument (“Dueling Banjos” has become “Dueling Harmonicas”, “Dueling Accordions”, and more). The “banjo battle” has become a prominent rite of passage for young musicians, one akin to the “cutting contests” of jazz musicians during the ‘30s and ‘40s. As long as there are banjo players, there will probably be “Dueling Banjos”.