Master of the 5 string banjo profiled in PBS special – The Complete Earl Scruggs Story
Short intro of Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe backstage at the Ryman Theatre home of the Grand Old Opry
Scruggs, one of Monroe’s band, pioneered three-fingered syncopated picking on the 5 string banjo. He became a household name when he and Lester Flatt, known as Flatt and Scruggs, performed The Ballad of Jed Clampett with Jerry Scroggins.
There is no more distinctive banjo style than Earl Scruggs and you can hear him cutting through all the guitars and Bill Monroe in the backstage clip.
Here’s the 7 minute version which starts with Little Maggie backstage and includes the stage performance that evening.
Young men grow old trying to learn to play as well as Earl Scruggs who set a new high-water mark for banjo picking. Earl Scruggs learned three-finger from his brother Junie Scruggs who learned it from an amateur musician named Smith Hammett.
“The conventional wisdom around Cleveland County in western North Carolina is that he was the first to play a three finger style of banjo. Among others, he would influence Earl’s older brother, Junie Scruggs, who tells about the first time he heard Smith Hammett play: ‘Smith had come by our house from a dance and Mom and Dad fixed him a snack. He started playing the banjo, I woke up and thought that was the prettiest music I had ever heard.’” Shade Tree Music
Hammett, who was never recorded, influenced many pickers who heard him including Charlie Poole, Fisher Hendley, Gus Cannon, Docs Walsh and Boggs,and “DeWitt “Snuffy” Jenkins.” Snuffy Jenkins “would later become a pioneer of three-finger style five string banjo in his own right. In Jenkins words, Hammett was a ‘shade tree picker,’ but one whose style ‘sounded so good I couldn’t stand it.’”
Scruggs took the 3-finger style to another level by adding “smoothness, syncopation, and uninterrupted flow; a large vocabulary of unique and original licks; blues and jazz phrases.” (Wikipedia)
Scruggs tells the story best in his book Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo, which is still in print since it’s original publication in 1968.
The clips come from David Hoffman’s film Earl Scruggs Bluegrass Banjo Legend which is available from Amazon or The Hoffman Collection. The film profiles Scruggs and includes footage with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Doc Watson.
I’ve seen the film and it’s worth watch. I prefer to order from Amazon.com. Hoffman’s site is an Amazon.com store; however you have to open another account, I couldn’t get shipping charges and he charges $25 for returns. The price is the same in both places, except shipping. I prefer Amazon.com. Their customer service is second to none.
One thing the Hoffman collection does have is a list of other movies produced by the award winning director David Hoffman. I like to browse and there were a couple of music titles that looked interesting: BB King and Joan Baez in Sing Sing, Bluegrass Roots: On The Road With Bluegrass Musicians, and The Complete Bascom Lamar Lunsford Bluegrass Story. Hoffman has other topics well. Amazon.com carries the music titles but not all of his documentaries.
DVD is the best thing since toasted bread. We can collect our favorite music videos for a pittance, usually less than the price of one ticket to a concert. I collect everything from Bob Dylan, opera, classical concerts, rock and roll, country, blue grass and a million instruction videos on how to play banjo, guitar and Cajun accordion. You can watch and learn from the most famous blues guitarists, long dead, on DVD. It is amazing.