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Shade Tree Picking

When I asked my cousin, Horney Rodgers, several years ago
how he rated himself as a fiddler, he paused for a moment and replied,
"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

In 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."

The 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:

Smith 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.

Smith 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."

The 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.

In 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?

SJ: Yeah.

MS: Did they sound anything like you, or do you sound anything like them?

SJ: I tried to sound like them back then, but I don't know what kind of job I done.

So 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.

This 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 pickers.

 

(c) copyright 2007, 2008, by Donald J. Borchelt, all rights reserved.