January 6, 1924 – March 28, 2012
REPRINTED FROM FolkWorks October 2011 preview of the UCLALive! UCLA Concert by Ross Altman
Series: Mercury Theatre
Show: Dueling Banjos
Dateline: Oct 30 2011
REPORTING FROM ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO
For FolkWorks of the World
An unusual amount of static has been detected at a radio switch station above Roswell, New Mexico, where an unmarked aircraft has just set down reputed to be carrying bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs. He was said to be laying over at a local farmhouse en route to Los Angeles for a concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday, November 5.
We interrupt this story…our keyboard has just been seized…breakup…breakup…alt…control…delete…permanent error…blue screen of d…
Banjo Players on High Alert in Los Angeles:
Rapture Predicted for November 5 at Royce Hall
This is Orson Welles speaking from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey; Memo to Department of Homeland Security: we have received credible intelligence that Los Angeles banjo players are concerned for their safety as November 5 approaches. A recent discovery in Princeton, New Jersey of Nostradamus’ last prophecy proves that the world is about to end in a Martian attack to rid the city of five-string banjoists, based on the high probability that they will all be convened in one target area on that specific evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The medieval French scientist even pinpointed the time as 8:00pm sharp, when a high value target—Bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs—is scheduled to arrive on stage for a “concert.”
Astronomer Richard Pierson, a consultant with The FBI (Federal Banjo Inc.) based at the Princeton Observatory has determined that this is merely a ruse to attract every known LA banjo enthusiast to the vulnerable confines of this venerable campus auditorium, there to become sitting ducks for alien invaders, who have declared that the banjo is an instrument of freedom, a source of delight, and an insidious corrupter of the morals of local youth, by showing them that banjos are fun, and fun is a threat to public decency.
Earl Scruggs, who invented the style of three-finger banjo picking that bears his name at the age of only 10, is living proof that even children are susceptible to this home-grown, American-made musical instrument’s allure, and it must therefore be nipped in the bud.
To complicate the suspicious maelstrom roiling Los Angeles, a porcine rabbi from Chabad House has urged Congress to pass an amendment to The Patriot Act, requiring teachers to report any student known to possess a banjo, and librarians to report any readers who have checked out Pete Seeger’s little red book How to Play the Five-String Banjo, with a closing chapter (by his half-brother Mike Seeger) on the specific techniques developed by Earl Scruggs.
Security being at an all-time low at our nation’s airports, the TSA is also urged to pat down all musician’s who have a telltale banjo case onboard, with a circular head at one end of the case, and to confiscate their banjos immediately. CNN is reporting that a 93 year-old grandmother who still plays her banjo had hidden a set of finger picks that showed up on the airport scanner during her routine boarding screening. The video is currently on YouTube and has just passed 200,000 hits.
Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this essay to bring you a special bulletin from NPR: it has been confirmed that Earl Scruggs was kidnapped by aliens in Roswell, New Mexico. We await further details and will give them to you as soon as we can. In the meantime we return to our brief history of the banjo.
At one time the banjo was not nearly so famous or considered so threatening. Created out of a hollowed-out gourd by African-American slaves, who stretched a dried possum hide over it and used gut strings fashioned from its entrails, the instrument is the only known musical device fashioned in America. The guitar came from Spain; the harmonica from Germany, but the lowly banjo has now surpassed them both in many states particularly associated with the form of music known as Bluegrass. Earl Scruggs is the acknowledged master of the instrument, and that is why he attracts such a huge following at his fabulous concerts, even at the age of 87. He is so famous he doesn’t even have his name in the homepage ad of LA’s folk music magazine of record—FolkWorks—going Madonna one better, since she at least needs one name to identify her. All Earl Scruggs needs is his image curled around a banjo neck, and everyone knows who it is.
That is why banjo players are so concerned and hush-hush about the event. Anyone who is after them will know exactly where they will be on Saturday, November 5 at 8:00pm when the lights go down—at Royce Hall.
Think of how potentially dangerous Earl Scruggs’ show is therefore, when 1800 banjo players and bluegrass fans will be congregating in one easily accessible locale, unable to resist the charms of Earl Scruggs’ five-string virtuosity.
After all, they grew up on it, watching the Beverly Hillbillies in their own youth, and hearing its instantly recognizable banjo-driven theme song, The Ballad of Jed Clampett. Their more adventurous brothers and sisters who went out to movies in the late 1960s and saw Bonnie and Clyde, the violent modern western that celebrated an outlaw couple portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, will remember the breakneck banjo instrumental that accompanied their getaway scene; it was played by Earl Scruggs. He then rode his hit tune Foggy Mountain Breakdown right into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
There is just no end to the marvels that Scruggs’ music is indelibly associated with—from radio and TV to movie houses and concert halls—his music has inspired people for more than half a century in the mistaken belief that life may be hard, but a simple five-string instrument can fill it with joy and make the dimmest life sparkle and shine.
Earl Scruggs was for many years the band-mate of Lester Flatt—thumb-picking Lester Flatt—who played a big Martin D-28 to provide the rhythm background and support for Earl’s banjo prowess. After they left Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1948, Flatt and Scruggs were the best Bluegrass duo in the business, and recorded so many songs they simply ran out of country and bluegrass standards to perform. So what did they do? They recorded modern folk standards on Changing Times in 1969, including Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ classic If I Had a Hammer—and gave this song first printed in the 1950 premiere issue of Sing Out the full-steam ahead treatment of a bluegrass barnburner.
So whether playing his signature tune Earl’s Breakdown or a Pete Seeger/Lee Hays favorite, or doing a virtuoso performance of Eric Weissberg’s Dueling Banjos captured live at Kansas State University, Earl Scruggs has created a soaring body of distinctly American music that is recognized around the world. It has now been imitated by young Japanese players who learn the songs phonetically, and its musical vocabulary expanded upon by a new generation of virtuosos like Bela Fleck; but there is no substitute for the original—the man who took the five-sting banjo kicking and screaming out of the old-time string bands of the 1920s and in 1945 put it right next to Bill Monroe’s mandolin as the heart and soul of bluegrass.
Indeed, Bill Monroe may be considered the James D. Watson of Bluegrass—and Earl Scruggs the Francis Crick; it took both of them to discover the double helix of its DNA.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have just received a live update from Pacifica’s Amy Goodman, on the ground with a Democracy Now mobile unit near Roswell, New Mexico. Go ahead, Amy; you are feeding directly on air: “Mr. Welles, we have established communication with undocumented workers aboard the aircraft; they have assured us that Earl Scruggs was only temporarily detained, for the purpose of teaching its inhabitants the three-finger roll—which they intend to take back to Mars as a sign of intelligent life on Planet Earth. We have been informed that Mr. Scruggs was just released and they guarantee his safe passage to UCLA.” Tremendous news, Amy! Thank you so much for calming our jangled nerves at this critical time.
Ladies and gentlemen, we now return to our essay for a closing thought.
Let the Department of Homeland Security beware: if you want to protect America, come to Royce Hall on Saturday, November 5 at 8:00pm. Because America’s intergalactic ambassador of goodwill will be standing on stage with his only weapon a Gibson Granada; and a concert hall full of banjo players will be enraptured, especially by those Scruggs’ Tuners.
Maybe you’ve seen the Grand Canyon; maybe you’ve seen Niagara Falls; maybe you’ve seen a white buffalo; maybe you’ve even seen a UFO, but you haven’t seen it all.
One day you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren you saw Earl Scruggs play the banjo.
Happy Halloween—October 30, 1938-October 30, 2011
(With apologies to Howard Koch)
Tickets for Earl Scruggs at UCLA Live at Royce Hall may be purchased at: UCLALive!