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The Five-string Banjo

April 26, 2010

In 1965, when I was a senior at Furman University, I was president of the Pep Club. One of my responsibilities was to organize a campus-wide pep rally before the Homecoming football game.  I decided to hold an outdoor event in the middle of a big grassy field. I made arrangements to borrow an eighteen-wheel flatbed truck.

All of the details were delegated and plans were in place. All but one! The guy who promised me he would secure a band came up empty.

With the event only two weeks away, I decided to call on a fellow from my hometown. Our band for the event was pure Bluegrass – Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-Ups.  Performing from the flatbed, the band was a hit. On that cool, sunny afternoon the Furman Student Body heard one of the best five-string banjo players ever.

Don Reno was born in Spartanburg County.  His family moved to Heywood County, North Carolina, when he was a boy. He picked the banjo when he was five years old. As a teenager he played with Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks. He recorded with Woody Guthrie. He joined Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, playing with them for several years.

Don Reno and Red Smiley organized the Tennessee Cut-Ups in 1955. Reno reunited with Arthur Smith for one recording session.  Together they produced “Feuding Banjos,” which was later re-titled “Dueling Banjos” for its use in the 1972 film “Deliverance.”

Some have said, incorrectly, that the banjo is the only instrument to originate in this country. By the early 1600s, the four-string banjo had been brought to America by African slaves. Early versions of the banjo were made from tanned skins stretched over gourds connected to strips of wood. Gut and hemp were used for the strings. Slaves on Southern plantations used various African names for the instrument. It was called the bangie, banza, and banzer before becoming known as the banjo.

Joel Walker Sweeney had a traveling minstrel show with banjo players in the early 1800s. Sweeney added the fifth string to the instrument. The five-string banjo is a uniquely American instrument.

My grandfather told me that Uncle Dave Macon from McMinnville, Tennessee, was the best five-string player he knew. Uncle Dave was the first star of the Grand Ole Opery. There have been many other notable pickers from Mark Twain to Pete Seeger to Steve Martin to Ricky Skaggs.  Each person who plays the instrument develops a unique style. Don Reno had a three-finger style, playing a rapid series of single notes creating complicated melodies.

One of the finest is Ralph Stanley, born in Big Spraddle, Virginia. His mother bought him his first banjo when Ralph was 15 years old. She agreed to pay five dollars for the used instrument. The woman she bought it from took payment in groceries from the small mountain store run by Ralph’s mother. His mother, a member of the famous Carter Family, taught Ralph to play using the claw hammer style.

Stanley considered becoming a veterinarian. Instead he and his brother Carter formed the Clinch Mountain Boys. Drawing on the minor-key singing style of their Primitive Baptist tradition and the harmonies of the Carter family, the Clinch Mountain Boys found their place in Bluegrass music. They were featured in the 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Ralph had learned the theme song of the soundtrack, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” years before from his dad. He sang the Appalachian dirge, “O Death,” without the banjo and won a 2002 Grammy Award.

Jerome Fowler of Clifton Number Two told me long ago, “Playing the banjo will drive you crazy!” Most people who have tried the five-string agree that in order to play you have to be a little bit addled. If you’re not deranged when you begin, that short drone fifth string will drive you batty.

Among the banjo players in my acquaintance are some unique people. Ralph Boney not only plays the five-string, he plays it left handed!

Walker Copley who sells and repairs watches as his day job, plays the banjo on the side. Each spring, The Smokey Mountain Banjo Academy gathers for a weekend of picking near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Walker Copley and I are planning to go together one of these first days.

My brother Lawton plays the banjo. I won’t say he is the best I have ever heard, but he is the only person I have seen play the five-string and ride a unicycle at the same time!

Earl Scruggs is hands down the greatest of all time. Born and raised in Cleveland County, North Carolina, Earl Scruggs is the reason that the banjo grew in popularity.

When Earl was only four years old, he inherited his dad’s banjo.  By the age of ten, he had learned the three finger style that became his trademark. 

After high school Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Lester Flatt was also a member of that band. Flatt and Scruggs started their own group, The Foggy Mountain Boys. “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” brought them worldwide fame. Earl has won two Grammys for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

When I was in high school a friend and I sang the songs of the Kingston Trio. For Christmas, I received an extended neck five-string banjo.

I think I’ll get it out again.

Our grandson might enjoy it.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2010
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