A little history of 5-String, 3-finger style banjo picking. Part 1

When I first became interested in picking the banjo it was hard to find any information at all about the instrument. This was partly because there was no internet, but also 'cause civil society pretty much discouraged banjo behaviors, especially among the youth. Remember the "duck and cover" drills in grade school? That wasn't for nuclear disasters no matter what you were told. Nope. It was to be prepared for the inevitable: The fear of an impending Folk Music Revival. Luckily, most of the population DID "duck and cover" (and except for a few scraggly enclaves in the north-east) were therefore able to leap-frog over Folk Music and land directly in the Beatles.

But the history of the banjo does not start in the 1960's, or even the 1950's. Not at all. Now I've heard a lot of conjecture and speculation about where the banjo was "invented", but I have my doubts that it was invented at all. Was water "invented"? Or stars? Or even dirt? Of course not! Perhaps I don't have a clear understanding of it, but I suspect the origin of the banjo can be traced back to a discovery by some primitive person in some prehistoric pawn shop. Was it four strings or five strings? Did it have a resonator or was it "open back"? Was it long neck or standard? Nobody now knows - that is lost in time - but what is certain is that this poor caveman slept on the couch the night he brought that banjo home.

Over the years, many styles of music have been played on the banjo. Or, if you have trouble calling it "music", we can hopefully agree that there is something music-like about some of the sounds a banjo makes. Everything from classical music to punk rock has been attempted on the banjo, but some sounds and styles are just better suited to banjo than others, and a few have pretty much stuck. Some have stuck pretty darn well, as a matter of fact. Just about anything in the realm of country music can be improved, or at least not worsened much, by the addition of the banjo. Folk music also seems to have welcomed the banjo, or at least tolerated it. Pretty much any music from any Isle seems to work okay with the banjo - particularly British Isles, but other Isles as well. Recently there have been some explorations made into numerous other music styles, but the jury is still out and someone told me there is going to be a mis-trial.

In the 1930's and 1940's a style of music called "Bluegrass" emerged and no one has yet found a way to cause it to permanently go into remission. As a matter of fact, it just got more tenacious the more people tried to suppress it and there are now "super-strains" that are thought to be untreatable. Although early forms of Bluegrass used the banjo, in the second half of the 1940's Earl Scruggs joined up with the seminal Bluegrass band - Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. Bill Monroe is often referred to as the "Father of Bluegrass Music", and the band members of this period (1945-1950) are often referred to as the "Uncles of Bluegrass Music". Earl's driving, three-finger, syncopated style merged nicely with Bill's bluesy (and also driving) mandolin sound and Chubby Wise's soulful (and also driving) fiddling. This locked it all in - and the banjo was officially elevated to the status of being "probably required if you are going to call your band a Bluegrass Band".

[A personal note here: When I first got interested in Bluegrass, the only records (they used to have these plastic things called records... well, we'll cover that later some day) easily available were from Flatt and Scruggs - you could get them at K-Mart and any other letter based mart of the day. So I pretty much was exposed to the Scruggs banjo sound at a ratio of about 10 Scruggs to 2 Stanley to 1 Everyone Else for the first 6 or 8 months of my induction into the Brotherhood of the Banjo. But I digress.]

Bluegrass flourished for 8 or 10 years or so into the mid 1950's, but I am using the word "flourished" pretty loosely here. Still, it was a boost to the banjo, and to banjo related technologies. However, by the early 1960's, the banjo was pretty much overshadowed by the new "lectric" instruments. Rock and Roll music - a fusion of country and blues - didn't have a lot of room for old-fashioned accoustic instruments (no matter how loud they might be) and the guitar replaced the banjo in most peoples minds. Well, I don't think all that many people had anything remotely banjo-like in their minds anyway, but you get the idea. So, the banjo disappeared from the music stores and moved to the pawn shops, again.

At about this time the "Folk Music Revival" I mentioned earlier occured. I think this was the second or thrid revival of this sort, and there's bound to be more someday, I suppose (like they say, if we don't learn from history we are doomed to go through life blissfully ignorant of our blissfull, ignorant ancestors). This was the early 60's, and there was no telling what people were thinking. Folk music works well during periods when the thinking of people is unclear, and so it was a good time to reintroduce the banjo - people didn't even see it coming. Overall, as far as I have been able to determine, the fate of "Poor ole Charlie" is still unknown. Regardless, the banjo was resurected for a short time and it is possible that all the banjos sold and later pawned during this time kept a number of people employed throughout the banjo-making and short-term-loan making parts of the world. Alas, even a folk revival could not reverse the effects of Rock and Roll. But folk music - rather than giving up - decided to merge with the more dominant music and became "Folk Rock". And, again, there was little need for banjos in a world of the Byrds. Accoustic guitars, perhaps, but banjos?

Still, just like warm mustard water, you can't keep some things down, and the banjo quickly resurfaced in the movies. First, in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde, and then 5 years later with Deliverance. I'm not complaining, as much as I enjoy complaining, but the Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Dueling Banjos does not a genre make. So, lucky for us all, Bluegrass Music remained as a residue in the poorly lit distant corners of the music industry... but more on this later.

Comments

Banjo history is nice Thank you for writing it

Banjo history is nice. I'm glad to read it. My brother play bajo sometimes log ago but now he's not probably. Zuill Brothers had banjo player and guiter player. Did guitar player die? Probably.

Guitar players often die early

I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this comprehensive history. You'll be sad to hear that the guitar player you mentioned did die, and is buried in embeded code.