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Banjo “Missing Link” Discovered?

1 April 2010

Somebody tell Ken Burns:  There is a compelling story of music, strife and harmony waiting to be told— the history of the banjo!  Wait a sec, you say, didn’t Béla Fleck just do that in his recently released documentary Throw Down Your Heart?  Well, yes, Fleck did explore the instrument’s African roots in that heartwarming venture, but a fuller exploration of the banjo’s evolution in America is still waiting to be done.

Even a yahoo like me has picked up the following history of banjo styles:  Once upon a time, just about everybody played in the so-called “clawhammer” style, also known as “frailing” (linguists will note how “clawhammer” draws a vivid picture, whereas “frailing” perfectly captures the sound of this approach, but I digress…).  This involved using the thumb and the bunched-together fingertips of the right hand to create a propulsive strumming rhythm.  The clawhammer style developed at a time when most banjo players toiled in the fields.  They spent so much time grasping plow handles and… er… hoes that their hands were permanently frozen into a Pac-man-like rictus.  Some players could not even open their hands wide enough to separate the thumb from the other fingers, and these hard luck cases were therefore forced to develop a plectrum-based approach to playing.  This held true across the land, except for a pocket of pickers in North Carolina.  In this corner of the Piedmont, a style of playing using three fingers was developed.  It is thought that the cultivation of tobacco in the region— a task that involves the plucking of the lower leaves from the plant at harvest time— may have given these players the dexterity necessary for this style.  Although the so-called “three-finger” style existed for untold generations, it was popularized by Earl Scruggs and indeed today is widely referred to as “Scruggs” style.

So things stood for at least half a century.  Then, in the 1990’s, a scientist at MIT made a startling discovery:  the hand has two more fingers.  Determined to expand the horizons of banjo picking, Dr. Greg Liszt began to experiment with what became know as— have you been paying attention?— the “four-finger” style.  It is thought that it took an MIT student to figure out that he had all those extra fingers on his right hand because [REDACTED] and the lack of livestock near campus.  Dr. Liszt has predicted, reasonably enough, that a five-finger style is bound to be forthcoming, but development of a six or seven-fingered style clearly must await further lab work.

The above account represents a fairly canonical history of banjo playing over the past century— an orthodoxy that now must be reconsidered in light of a recent discovery.  It turns out that, while music historians’ attention has been focused on the eastern seaboard, from Cullowhee to Cambridge, they have overlooked technical breakthroughs in banjo playing that took place on the western frontier, decades before anyone started counting fingers.    With the assistance of Mike Holmes and his merry band at Banjo Camp North, Second Cousin Curly has recently unearthed an Italian documentary that recreates this hitherto neglected chapter of five-string evolution.  Here’s an excerpt:

Is this approach a crucial “missing link,” connecting later techniques to the instrument’s primal roots, or is it merely an evolutionary dog leg, as it were?  Cousin Curly is merely your humble reporter, leaving this and other important questions to those more thoroughly versed in the Cult of the Five Strings.

Hey everybody, it’s April!  You know what that means?  One and a half words:  Merlefest!  Second Cousin Curly will be journeying back to his Tarheel roots for this annual exercise in controlled hysteria.  As they say on TV, come on down!

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One comment

  1. What, no banjo jokes?



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