Friday, 30 March 2012

So farewell then, Earl Scruggs - the greatest darned banjo-picker of 'em all

Director Arthun Penn got two things right when he made that revolting film, Bonnie and Clyde – he cast Gene Hackman as Clyde' brother, and he accompanied the car chase sequences with Flatt and Scruggs’ 1949  classic, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. Good call, because it is, without any shadow of a doubt, one of the most exciting records ever made, in any genre. When it was released, it must have had tens of thousands of country folk reachin’ fer their shotguns ‘n their jars of moonshine liquor and headin’ into town to raise hell.

The genre here is, of course, Bluegrass, a term which only really took hold in the 1960s. Characterised by its virtual inventor – Bill Monroe – as “that high lonesome sound”, the form got its name from the Blue Grass Boys, the band he formed in 1939. Guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo-picker Earl Scruggs quit the band in ’48, and their greatest song – perhaps the greatest bluegrass single of all time – was released the following year. (Around that time, Bluegrass, which had been treated as Folk Music until then, was suddenly reclassified as Country & Western - which no doubt helped its spread.)

Before I heard Scruggs pickin’ at full pelt, I’d always considered the banjo a novelty toy, one up from a ukelele – after all, Pete Seeger and practically anyone else one heard back then sounded like they were playing the instrument while wearing boxing gloves – clunk, tink, thunk!  But one listen to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and suddenly the banjo was cool – hell, it was a derangedly percussive, mysterious, pulse-racing weapon, especially when, as on this tune, the player shifted from a major to a minor chord: the thrilling chord change which always make me shiver with delight is from G Major to its relative Minor, E – for non-musical readers, this is what’s happening whenever the music turns from bright and upbeat to slightly psychotic: the players are at a jolly barn dance, but their thoughts keep turnin' to lynchin' someone, or stabbin' their girlfriend. 

After the success of Bonnie and Clyde Scruggs and Flatt split - Flatt wanted to stick to the traditional music, while Scruggs wanted to spread his musical wings - and there have always been plenty of top-notch musicians eager to help. I’ve always loved his 1970 album, I Saw the Light with Some Help from My Friends and in 2001 I bought Earl Scruggs and Friends, which was also pretty damn good. Here’s a performance of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” featuring most of the "friends" from the latter release, including Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) on second banjo, Albert Lee and Vince Gill on electric guitar, and Marty Stuart on Mandolin. Hell of a line-up – and a great performance:

I don’t know enough about banjo-picking to impart any particular insights about what Scruggs was up to. He apparently invented three-finger picking, and thus came up with the dynamic, propulsive effect that pumped adrenalin into Bluegrass (and probably helped it became a major part of the mix – along with Rock ‘n’ Roll, Blues and Country – that produced Rockabilly in 1954).

I’ll leave you with a great 1960s TV performance of "Earl’s Breakdown" – hell’s bells, those guys could play! All together now – yee-haw!

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