Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Clawhammer! #3

Now where were we last week? Ah yes, with the rise of the banjo orchestra, followed by the rise of jazz, & with the guitar infiltrating what we know call “old-time” music, it looked as tho the clawhammer style of banjo playing was pretty much headed toward being a historical footnote.

The probability of this didn’t seem to be diminished by the fact that an exciting new (or at least revamped) style of banjo playing came to prominence in the 1940s when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Monroe had been putting a distinctive spin on the old mountain music as he & his fellow Blue Grass Boys worked out the sound now known as “bluegrass.” Scruggs’ contribution to this was enormous—his syncopated style of playing brought the banjo to the fore along with the fiddle & mandolin.
Scruggs style used the thumb, index & middle fingers (always clad with thumb & fingerpicks) & the fingers plucked up on the strings rather than striking down with a fingernail. The syncopation Scruggs introduced into the music was novel, & he contributed a lot of licks that have now become standard. Up-picking on the banjo was a common practice long before Scruggs, however, & was played either with just the thumb & index finger or with the thumb, index, middle finger combination as in Scruggs’ style. There have been some renowned old-time musicians who played in each of these styles: two finger (thumb/index) pickers include Pete Steele, Roscoe Holcomb, Bascom Lamar Lunsford & Doc Watson. There were also noteworthy players in the three-finger style before Scruggs; two that I have to mention are Charlie Poole & the great Dock Boggs. Like a number of extremely talented old-time musicians (Mississippi John Hurt & banjoist Uncle Wade Ward are two other examples), Boggs was a working man, not a professional musician; although he made some recordings in the 1920s, he was a coal miner by trade. Boggs produced some of the most chillingly beautiful music, however—he played a lot in the so-called “graveyard tuning,” & between his magnificent banjo playing & his high lonesome voice, his music seems to come from the beyond. Check out his versions of “Country Blues” & “Oh, Death” if you get the chance. It’s also worth checking out Art Rosenbaum’s excellent Old-Time Mountain Banjo to learn more about the different right-hand styles used in this music; this was originally put out thru Oak Publications in the 60s, but is now available in a new edition thru Mel Bay.

So what happened? Why are we talking about clawhamm
er/frailing as a living & vibrant style rather than as a footnote? If you study your history wisely, kids, you’ll eventually learn there are a number of causes behind any event, & that no one person is responsible for changes simply by him/herself. So I’ll list some reasons here, admitting that these are just part of the picture.

First, the clawhammer style never died out—it simply lost caché in popular music. But throughout the first half of the 20th century there were skilled practitioners of this art: these included Uncle Dave Macon, Ola Belle Reed, Clarence Ashley, Uncle Wade Ward, Buell Kazee, & Tommy
Jarrell. & these players made recordings, however obscure their music may have been to a national audience. At the same time, the interest in American folk music started to percolate quite some time before the big folkie boom of the 50s & early 60s. Back in the New Deal 30s, folks like Carl Sandburg, a young Pete Seeger, & the Lomaxes were collecting & playing folk songs, & various groups like the Almanac Singers & the Weavers attracted a popular following. The Weavers even had a smash hit with their mellowed down version of Leadbelly’s “Good Night, Irene” before they got blacklisted due to their leftist politics. Of course, Seeger held forth on the banjo, playing in a style he more or less developed for himself from origins in old-time music—essentially the Seeger style is like clawhammer except that individual notes are plucked upward, not struck downward.

Meanwhile from around 1940 on, a left coast film maker named Harry Smith began accumulating a huge collection of old-time records: blues, hillbilly music (so called at the time), Cajun, gospel, etc. Smith approached Moe Asch of Folkways records in the late 40s, offering to license the collection to that label. An interesting footnote on the always fascinating subject of copyright: neither Smith nor Folkways had actual licensing rights to these recordings, & in a number of cases the rights were held by existing companies—so the resulting compilation, the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, was really a boo
tleg album. It was never actually “legit” in its earlier releases; however, when the Smithsonian released the Anthology on cd in 1997, they did acquire rights for all recordings.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of Smith’s anthology—it was the ur-text of the folkies, & it influenced playing styles, repertoire, made second careers for folks like Mississippi John Hurt, Buell Kazee, & Clarence Ashley—& speaking of Mr Kazee & Mr Ashley, here were clawha
mmer banjoists about as authentic as they come for aspiring folkies to listen to & emulate.

Another major old-time banjo event of the late 40s wa
s the publication of Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo. This covered most of the styles already discussed, with plenty of info on clawhammer & Seeger’s own variation on that style. Interestingly, at least as late as the 1961 3rd edition (the one I own), Seeger published this without retaining copyright, & encouraged folks to re-distribute his work.

A great example of the clawhammer style being taken up by the folkie revivalists
is the New Lost City Ramblers, which had an original line-up of Mike Seeger (Pete’s bro, for those of you who don’t know), John Cohen & Tom Paley, who was later replaced by Tracy Schwarz. These fellows all were multi-instrumentalists, & all played banjo in the clawhammer style.

These days there are a number of fine clawhammer players, including (but not limited to
) R.D. Lunceford, Mary Z Cox, Ken Perlman, Bob Carlin, Dwight Diller, Dan Levenson, Abigail Washburn, & a recent personal fave, Cathy Moore of the Banjo Meets World blog. Several of the current roster of frailers are also accomplished teachers, & I’ll write about that next week when we get into the nuts & bolts of the clawhammer style.


UPDATE: In response to Patrick's comment below, I posted an addedum to this; you can read that post here.

Pics from Top:
Uncle Wade Ward
Earl Scruggs
Dock Boggs
Pete Seeger
Bob Carlin
Ola Belle Reed


  1. You forgot the two guys who really brought frailing to the general public: Grandpa Jones and Stringbean.

    They have been downplayed lately by the modern clawhammer scene (mainly because modern players can't play and sing) but the Opry and Hee-Haw were what kept frailing alive between the 1960's and the 1990's. Everybody on your list combined didn't have the impact of Grandpa Jones banging away on the five-string every weekend on television.


  2. Hi Patrick:

    Yes, that was an oversight, & thanks for correcting it.



Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.