14 August 2020

Alan Lomax, the banjo, and bluegrass (CORRECTION)

The BIB editor writes:

[Update 18 Aug.: My face is red after finding the amount of correction needed in this post, so red will be used below where the necessary changes have been made.]

Alan Lomax (1915-2002; see also here) was by any standards an outstanding ethnomusicologist, an endlessly energetic folk-music collector, and a prolific activist in related fields, whose influence was felt throughout the world. It is no detraction from his stature to say that his enthusiasms at times overcame his judgment.

His film Appalachian journey (1991) can be seen on YouTube. Just over halfway through, Tommy Jarrell (1901-85) is shown playing a fretless banjo. Lomax comments at 31:08: 'This was of course an instrument of African origin, the banjo, and was given by white musicians the fifth string, so that there was a constant high, pinging drone there that was put in between every, every beat.'

Two things can be said for this statement: first, that it gives a nod to the belief, still common last century, that the thumb string was added by Joel Sweeney, without committing to naming him as its inventor; secondly, that it does actually offer a reason, right or wrong, for adding this odd short string. But otherwise, banjo historians would now generally agree that the thumb string was inherited from the banjo's African ancestors, and was there before Sweeney had anything to do with the instrument.

In the August 2020 iaaue of Banjo News Letter, Bill Evans - a supreme player as well as a banjo historian and analyst of banjo music - looks at the tune 'Altamont', recorded in the 1940s by the black banjo-player Murphy Gribble, and later released on a Rounder album. Evans's judgment is: 'The parallels between Gribble’s approach, which he could have developed as early as the 1920’s [sic], and Scruggs-style technique is the revelation of this recording.' It's a fine piece; it sounds, nonetheless, to my ears like an old-time tune rather than anything Scruggs ever played. The double-C tuning sets it further apart from mainstream bluegrass.*

The link with Alan Lomax comes...

[At this point my original post went astray. The links at the end of Bill Evans's article begin with one headed: 'John [sic] Lomax letter about Murphy Gribble'. It leads to two student posts on the blog 'Music 345: Race, identity and representation in American music'. The earlier post, Teiana Nakano's Feb. 2018 post 'Making black influence in bluegrass visible', quotes from a letter to Joseph Hickerson at the Library of Congress about Murphy Gribble's playing: 'If you listen carefully… you will hear the steady 3,3,2 complex measure of so-called Bluegrass. From before Earl Scruggs and his mentors were born.'

Nakano, attributing this letter to Alan Lomax, comments: 'Here, Lomax clearly states the contradiction within the history of bluegrass. Earl Scruggs is the one credited with this core sonic marker of bluegrass, yet Lomax has recorded, physical proof that it existed before him.' The rest of my own post was largely concerned with pointing out the holes in these statements.

I had, however, failed to check the original document online. A check showed that the letter - three closely-typed pages with MS additions, dated 20 July 1977 - was not from John or Alan Lomax, but from Robert Stuart 'Stu' Jamieson. (Helena Webster, in her Sept. 2019 post 'Bluegrass and Black Appalachian banjo', gives the correct attribution, but dates the letter as 'about 1978'.)

Jamieson, as well as being a folk music collector, was a dedicated banjo-player and student of traditional banjo techniques - his revivalist string band, 'Stu Jamieson's Boys', contributed three tracks to the 1965 compilation album String band project (Elektra EKS-292) - and his remarks about Murphy Gribble's playing deserve full attention, as regards both its unique features and what might be inferred from it about undocumented black banjo traditions.

I don't accept Nakano's view that 'the steady 3,3,2 complex measure' is a 'core sonic marker of bluegrass'; it's the basic roll in the setting of 'Cindy' that begins the bluegrass section of Pete Seeger's How to play the 5-string banjo, and consequently could be heard in the playing of many learners, but is much less important in the music of Scruggs himself. In any case, Jamieson makes clear that while Gribble's picking greatly resembled the 'motions' of a bluegrass player, what came out was not in the 'language' of bluegrass.]

Nakano writes: 'Listening to other performances by Murphy Gribble and his other band members, the similarity with bluegrass is undeniable', and offers as illustration their recording of 'Pateroller'll catch you' (YouTube). Unfortunately, from this example the similarity is very clearly deniable. Gribble, York, and Lusk were a fine old-time string band, full of vitality, but do not sound like any bluegrass band I (or, I'll bet, you) ever heard.

Why are they not mentioned in bluegrass history? For the same reason that the white musician J.C. Sutphin isn't mentioned; they didn't play bluegrass. Sutphin had three tracks on what has since been considered the 'first bluegrass album', now reissued as American banjo: three-finger and Scruggs style - 'Don't let your deal go down', 'Under the double eagle', and 'I don't love nobody'; but all his style has in common with bluegrass is picking with thumb and two fingers.

Another theme of Nakano's paper is that 'scholars and historians' (Neil Rosenberg is singled out several times) 'have contributed [to] the erasure of black history in bluegrass'. This may be considered in a later BIB post. Meanwhile, I regret having charged Alan Lomax with words he did not write, and of which I did not at the time understand the context.

*PS (19 Aug.): Bill Evans's playing of 'Altamont' can be seen and heard on YouTube.

© Richard Hawkins

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At 10:52 am, Blogger Denis McCarthy said...

Hasn't Rex Brooks also been credited as an influence on Earl Scruggs?

At 12:10 pm, Blogger Richard Hawkins said...

Yes, he has; on the page cited, Earl also mentions Mack Woolbright, Leaborn Rogers, Mack Crow, and Snuffy Jenkins. However, he says: 'The player who inspired the most people at that time was probably Smith Hammett', and I happened to have come across what Snuffy Jenkins said, that Hammett might have learned from a black musician.

BIB editor

At 11:33 am, Blogger Richard Hawkins said...

The link at Smith Hammett's name in my post leads to a reprint (with additions) of Bob Carlin's article 'Roots of Earl and Snuffy: searching for the banjo along the North/South Carolina border', which first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited. It includes information on Rex Brooks (1899-1935) and Mack Woolbright (1890-1960). The website has some additional material, including a photo of Earl as a young cotton mill worker, and a 1960 photo of Rex Brooks's elder brother George, who taught Rex to play banjo.

At 4:18 pm, Blogger Richard Hawkins said...

The comments above arose from points in the first version of this post. The most relevant sources are Earl Scruggs, /Earl Scruggs and the 5-string banjo/ (2nd ed., 2006), p. 159, and the website 'The County' (https://remembercliffside.com/the-county/history-thecounty-hammett-hammett/). Also see Bob Carlin, 'Earl Scruggs and the 3-finger banjo style' in /Banjo News Letter/, May 2012 (https://banjonews.com/2012-05/earl_and_3-finger_style.html).


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