Friday, March 31, 2006 ... 4:24 PM

Clawhammer Banjo

County Records has reissued three volumes of field recordings that apparently galvanized the urban hillbilly movement of the early 1960s to a degree I'd only ever seen credited to Harry Smith's Anthology. I heard about it last week on All Things Considered.

The records are called Clawhammer Banjo. A New Yorker named Charles Faurot made them, skipping down the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge, house to house and town to town. His field trip echoes the historic commercial ventures of early label scouts like Ralph Peer and John Hammond, and parallels the holler-hunts of his more familiar folkie contemporaries Mike Seeger and John Cohen.

Faurot visited Galax and Pulaski in Virginia, towns whose exit signs I've passed maybe a hundred times on Interstates 81 and 77. It's a superficial line, but it kind of warms me to draw it between my drive-thru familiarity with these towns and old-time banjo history. If I'm thinking of the right exit, Pulaski ("Pewlaski") tempts you off I-81 with all kinds of fast-food logos on the GAS FOOD LODGING sign, and then makes you drive about 3 lonesome miles down an unlighted stretch of two-lane road before you finally see the town lights above the trees.

*

When I saw Sam Bush and Doc Watson a few years ago, Sam told us, with a practiced bear-baiting grin, that he thinks the banjo ruined bluegrass. He said he likes the "stomp" tempo of bluegrass. I think he meant that Scruggs-style banjo ruined bluegrass, and I think it's ironic that Sam Bush espouses a purer-than-purist stance toward the genre.

My feelings run along the inverse of old Sam's: I think Scruggs-style bluegrass flattened out the banjo, the way rocknroll mashed down blues and country musics. Post-Scruggs banjo is flashy impressive fun, but it blows right by me like a circus train. Old-time banjo, though, unreels light as a thread, and its shadow is monolothic, an Appalachian stonehenge. If you can link bluegrass to assembly lines and rush hour traffic and dishwashers, where do you find the material analogue for clawhammer banjo? It's a gestalt, a confluence of diasporas, trade winds and tragedies. Slavery, potato blight, coal mines. Africa, Ireland, the ragged Blue Ridge.

I don't like Buell Kazee's voice -- with his theatre-organ vibrato and rolling R's he sounds to me like the Cowardly Lion -- but his clawhammer self-accompaniment is otherworldly. On the old recordings, his frailing on an open-back banjo sounds spectral, detached from the plane of the song. It curls leviathan-like beneath the surface.

Hobart Smith, Roscoe Holcomb, Uncle Dave Macon: their frailing styles work to wildy different effects, all compelling. Ralph Stanley's clawhammer tunes have a lightning crackle missing from his up-picked stuff. And there's Clarence Ashley -- my favorite by a mile. Everyone loves "The Cuckoo" and "Little Sadie," and there's a reason for it. The whiplash tempo, the galloping snap of his thumb off the fifth string, the unhinged alto drone of Sawmill tuning that gives his blues licks almost Asian harmonies. His technique is austere and ineffible, light as breath but old and deep as a limestone cavern.

*

A year or so ago my now-wife Betsy bought me an open-back banjo. It cost around $80.00 in a pawnshop. The frame is heavy and glazed brown, polished fibreglass maybe, with a plastic Weatherking head, like you'd see on a Pearl tom drum. The brand on the headstock reads CHICAGO. When she bought it, I researched the brand name on the web, and all I found was a couple of newsgroup posts iterating that nobody knew anything about the Chicago brand banjo. It's definitely mass-produced. There's no scrollwork, no inlay, no engraving. I wonder who owned it, sold it. It's not new; rust spots the crooks of the steel brackets, the back of the neck is notched from banging many table corners. The strings need changing, but I'm scared that if I move the balsa bridge, I'll never find its right place again. It stays in tune, and I like its blunted timbre. The sound of the strings struck with the back of my finger trots sock-footed across our hardwood floor.

I've learned a couple of three-finger rolls -- a pinch, an alternating something or other. They sound all right together, especially on a minor chord. But it's nowhere near as satisfying to pluck a banjo as to fall into a clawhammer groove. To turn over and over a chord and a simple melody like a notched wooden wheel: bum-ditty dim-bitty bum-ditty ding.

Probably the guy who owned this banjo was a folkie in the 1950s. A suburban guy like me -- office, lawnmower, vocational discontent. I think of those guys, stumbling on those old records, or initiated into them -- succumbing to that feeling off the old recordings of your head spinning into the fog of the past. Their girlfriends buying them their first pawnshop banjos. In bedrooms and on couches, practicing over and over "Little Sadie" and that mysterious "Cuckoo" hook, the miscegenation of the Blues and the Highland ballads. All those guys who listened over and over to Faurot's field recordings. I can't wait to hear them for the first time.


Brendan






6 Comments:

Now I gotta look for Clawhammer Banjo. I haven't thanked you yet for turning me on to Roscoe Holcomb a few years ago. So thanks. Hope you and Betsy are well.

Rusty

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/01/2006 8:29 AM  

About your opening comment on clawhammer vs. Harry Smith ... the timeline is critical. The Smith Anthology was released in 1952, and Volume I of the County clawhammer anthologies came out 13 years later. In those 13 years, an awful lot changed.

I think the clawhammer records provided what seemed like a more authentic alternative to the Scruggs bluegrass style. But the idea, anyway, is that most people wouldn't have been thinking about banjos and authenticity (and all that) at all without Harry Smith's anthology happening after the War.

I'm starting to understand that in the early 70's, there was a big "oldtime revival" inspired by the County records, plus what happened in Chapel Hill with Alan Jabbour's Hollow Rock String Band, as well as that hippy "back to the land" impulse of the time. Dylan and Van Ronk and the Ramblers in Greenwich Village? That was a long time before, in a galaxy far, far away.

I love it when you write about the old stuff, by the way. You're good. Buell Kazee's banjo curls leviathan-like beneath the song. There you go again.

By Blogger Kurt G., at 4/02/2006 7:37 PM  

Rusty, it's good to hear from you. I'm glad you're still looking over here.

Kurt, great comment on the history and impact. Through every door a new world opens up. I had never heard of the County records until the NPR story, but it's surprising they're only now reissued. They might've made a bigger noise in 2001... or they might have been lost in the flood. Not too long after the O Brother craze, I discovered the field recording Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians, reissued by Tradition and bundled with the Kossoy Sisters' Bowling Green, which I'd been looking for. Instrumental Music introduced me to Hobart Smith and Etta Baker. Hobart's stabbing fiddle rendition of "Pretty Polly" might be my favorite version. And I love Etta's slide version of "John Henry."

By Blogger B. Earnest, at 4/03/2006 11:53 AM  

Hi, I had not seen this blog until today but those County Clawhammer reissues are essential listening. I think I bought #2 first but later picked up the others. I love Matokie Slaughters sound and style but everything on those discs is worth a listen.

After reading a bit more of your blog I think you will like The Lonesome Sisters. Check out their 2nd album with Riley Baugus on old-time banjo.

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By Blogger stev4n, at 8/13/2009 3:05 PM  

Mark your bridge location with a pencil on the head (we all do it) and change those strings. :)

By Blogger Picker, at 5/28/2010 12:47 PM  

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