I asked my cousin, Horney Rodgers, several years ago
how he rated himself as a fiddler, he paused for a moment and
"I'm the only man that I ever heard that played the fiddle
jest exactly the way I wanted to hear it played."
- John Rice Irwin
the back of his landmark instruction book, Earl Scruggs and the
Five String Banjo, the master of the five string included an old
photograph which has always fascinated me. It shows two, maybe
three musicians sitting on the porch stoop of a rural cabin. One
has a fiddle, the second a banjo, and the third a demijohn, but
whether the jug was for refreshment or bass accompaniment Scruggs
doesn't say. The scene reminds me of his partner, Lester Flatt's
famous remark that in the old days, "Down in our part of
the country, it hasn't been too many years ago since just a five
string banjo and a fiddle was kinda called a band down that way.
When you mentioned a band, one'd reach and get the fiddle and
the other'n the banjo, and they had it all ready to go."
banjo player in the picture is a young man perhaps in his early
thirties, wearing a necktie and a hat pushed back high on his
forehead. He is playing a light weight, open back five string.
His name is Smith Hammett, and the conventional wisdom around
Cleveland County in western North Carolina is that he was the
first to play a three finger style of banjo. Among others, he
would influence Earl's older brother, Junie Scruggs, who tells
about the first time he heard Smith Hammett play:
had come by our house from a dance
and Mom and Dad fixed him a snack. He
started playing the banjo, I woke up and
thought that was the prettiest music I had ever heard.
Hammett was not a professional musician. He never recorded, though
at the time of his death in 1930, at the age of forty three, the
golden age of string band recordings by Columbia, Victor, and
other early companies had already crested, and a number of three
finger pickers, including Charlie Poole, Fisher Hendley, Gus Cannon,
Docs Walsh and Boggs, and others had made it onto wax. His performances
were limited to square dances and fiddlers' conventions, with
pick-up bands made up of other local musicians. One such musician
was the young DeWitt "Snuffy" Jenkins, who would later
become a pioneer of three-finger style five string banjo in his
own right. In Jenkins words, Hammett was a "shade tree picker,"
but one whose style "sounded so good I couldn't stand it."
figure of the rustic mentor is not uncommon in the history of
country music. Roy Acuff credits a local auto mechanic named John
Copeland, whose repair shop was a gathering place for old time
musicians in Acuff's home town of Fountain City, Tennessee, as
an inspiration to pursue the fiddle. Merle Travis was fond of
reminiscing about a pair of local western Kentucky coal miners,
Ike Everly and Mose Rager, who started him on finger style guitar.
All true bluegrass fans know that Bill Monroe worshipped his Uncle
Pen. We don't know exactly what any of these early inspirations
actually may have sounded like. The only likely remnant of their
music is probably just a favored lick here and there, buried in
the recordings of their famous proteges, who probably long forgot
just exactly which licks remained from their mentors.
an interview with Snuffy Jenkins in 1989, published in the Banjo
Newsletter, Mike Seeger asked him if he remembered the names of
the tunes Smith Hammett (and Rex Brooks, another early Cleveland
County three finger picker) used to play. "Well, just these
old fiddle tunes, Buckin' Mule, Cacklin' Hen, Turkey in the Straw,
Cindy, Arkansas Traveler. Oh, just all the old time fiddle tunes
that most of us knew anyhow."
MS: And could they pick them on the banjo?
SJ: Oh yeah.
MS: Did they follow the fiddle pretty close when they played?
MS: Did they sound anything like you, or do you sound anything
SJ: I tried to sound like them back then, but I don't know
what kind of job I done.
we are left only to surmise what Smith Hammett, the wellspring
of three finger picking, might have sounded like. We should not
be deluded; compared with the complex five string techniques of
today, Hammett would undoubtedly sound primitive, much like comparing
a folk artist with Renoir. Something important, however, some
thing clearly metamorphic must have been going on in his playing
to convince Junie Scruggs, Snuffy Jenkins, and other North Carolina
banjo pickers to abandon the prevailing and perfectly servicable
two finger style of the day to embark in a new direction. Hammett
is now forgotten, yet immortal.
effort is dedicated to the back porch banjo picker, the kindred
spirits of Smith Hammett, for whom the tunes and techniques included
here are custom made. The arrangements presented in tablature
are challenging, I think, but learnable, and include a lot of
the old time tunes that most of us know, anyhow. And if there
is one lesson to be learned from the story of Smith Hammett, it's
that there will always be room in the music for us shade tree