07 September 2017

American banjo - sixty years on, as relevant as ever

Sixty years ago this year*, the first bluegrass LP ever produced, Folkways 2314 American banjo: tunes and songs in Scruggs style, was released. As a further milestone in the history of the music, Ralph Rinzler's liner notes were almost certainly the first time that 'bluegrass' had been used in print as a name for it.

In recording the album, Mike Seeger wanted to document the older styles from which Earl Scruggs's had emerged, and a broad selection of players Scruggs had influenced; he also wanted tunes (especially older tunes) that were not from the bluegrass mainstream. The album therefore included J.C. Sutphin of Virginia, playing old-time three-finger style; Junie Scruggs, one of Earl's older brothers; Snuffy Jenkins (then only in his late forties), a key figure in developing three-finger picking; Smiley Hobbs, playing with exemplary verve, humour, and imagination; younger bluegrass professionals (Oren Jenkins, Larry Richardson); and, among others, the late-teens Pete Kuykendall, Eric Weissberg, and one woman - Roni Stoneman.

The LP opened with Joe Stuart's 'Cackling hen', a jet of notes from a high-pressure hose, followed by a remarkable variety of sounds from different players. The album has since been re-released on CD as American banjo: three-finger and Scruggs style (Smithsonian/ Folkways CD SF 40037). This no longer opens with 'Cackling hen', but has all the tracks of the LP, plus sixteen previously unreleased. Despite all that has happened to bluegrass banjo since then, the music is as rewarding as ever. The banjos themselves - recorded by a novice engineer obliged to skimp on tape, using a crude early portable recorder and one omnidirectional mike, which he drove from one home to another in a beat-up station wagon - sound so good; perhaps because the plastic heads and ample instructional material of today were not available? People took up the banjo with virtually nothing to guide them but the sound they could hear Scruggs and others producing; and the sound was one of excitement.

*Neil V. Rosenberg's Bluegrass: a history says it came out early in 1957.

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