Stories » From Earl Scruggs to Bela Fleck, let us praise the banjo / No Depression

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From Earl Scruggs to Bela Fleck, let us praise the banjo / No Depression

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I have been thinking a lot about the banjo, and its journey to prominence today in roots music.  One of the most popular songs of the 20th century ("Gentle on My Mind") was written on the banjo.

While the instrument's history is well known, a lot of folks may be unaware that the banjo was once viewed as an instrument of seduction. So much so that there were racist cartoon editorials depicting the instrument as being so intensely sexual that white women could be easily seduced by black men playing it. Another stereotype was deployed in the movie Deliverance: the backwoods hillbilly, and the refrain later in the picture, "squeal, piggy." To many urban white males, the instrumental "Dueling Banjos" and the rape scene are indelibly linked.

But nowadays, the banjo is virtually a must in any group that wants to be taken seriously in the roots music world. We have seen a revolution in the instrument, the way it is played, and its role in the hands of its players today. Earl Scruggs, of course, revolutionized the banjo and music when he developed a three-finger picking technique that emphasized melody lines and a syncopated rhythm. Can you imagine Bill Monroe's and bluegrass' rise without it? Even today, the Scruggs style remains omnipresent in bluegrass. 

But there are many musicians who continue to play and extol the virtues of the clawhammer style. Justin Hiltner earlier this month addressed the contrast in a recent article for The Bluegrass Situation titled "9 Times Clawhammer Banjo Was Almost as Good as Scruggs-Style." I urge you to read it, and check out the video clips.  

Steve Martin has also been a person of note in the banjo's modern history because of his annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass beginning in 2010. His selections have been as inspired as they have been deserving, from Danny Barnes to Rhiannon Giddens. Most folks have come to know Martin as a banjo player from his tours with the Steep Canyon Rangers, but he is not some late coming interloper. Playing the banjo was part of his schtick when he was doing standup comedy in the 1970s. Needless to say, he had been playing long before that, and in the company of close friend John McEuen, no less.

During the past dozen years or so we have seen the instrument taken into directions few could have foreseen back in the day. Never a stranger to the instrument (how could I be), my epiphany moment may have been when I first saw Alison Brown. It was not just one performance; I saw her several times at a music festival, and oddly enough, it was not long after I had formally studied the jazz piano. I noted that she was playing the banjo as if it were a piano. If that were not enough, she had a pianist in her quartet. I began hearing things a way different than before. And I can't fail to mention Bela Fleck's immersion into world music, which I, too, had come to know and love in the '90s.