The Banjo Years - Pt 2
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Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

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Bill Monroe Sandy Rothman Flatt Scruggs Stanley Brothers
Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

Jerry Garcia's Musical Roots:
The Banjo Years - Part 2
by Sandy Rothman©  

The bluegrass banjo style is often called "Scruggs style" after Earl Scruggs, a remarkable musician who brought finger-style five-string banjo from the hills of his native North Carolina to the world over Nashville's Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. (North Carolina is also known for its finger-style guitarists, including many blues greats and Earl Scruggs as well.) During the early part of this century, four-string banjo was the norm in popular music and jazz, primarily as a rhythm instrument; both tenor banjo or the longer-necked plectrum are played with a flatpick.

In bluegrass banjo playing there are many stylistic streams or lines of development, but there is one major division that can be made: a) players who would be happy if they could sound a lot like Scruggs, and b) players who, like Garcia, are eclectic and original with a personal style right from the start (although Garcia respected Scruggs enormously). There is no disputing the fact that Earl, through his work with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys (1945-1947) and Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys (1948-1969), resulting in international fame, has been the most widely influential and imitated five-string banjo mastermind of all time. He cites a number of other Carolina banjoists as his influences—Charlie Poole, Mack Woolbright, Rex Brooks, Leaborn A. Rogers, DeWitt "Snuffy" Jenkins, Mack Crowe, Smith Hammett, and his own older brother Junie; all were finger-style banjoists, but Earl is the one who put "three-finger banjo" (thumb and two fingers) on the map.

By the time Jerry Garcia—fifth-generation San Franciscan, son of a nurse and a jazz musician who named him after Jerome Kern—came across the appealing and increasingly popular sound of bluegrass banjo during the Folk Revival or what he liked to call "the folk scare" of the late '50s and early '60s, there were several variations on Scruggs's sound to be heard locally and on recordings. Jerry had already absorbed various banjo techniques—clawhammer or frailing (a strumming technique) and two-finger picking (sometimes called double-thumbing), styles that were widespread in the southern mountains before bluegrass appeared on the scene—and took an orthodox approach to them, reproducing the archaic sounds reverently like old-time purists everywhere do. He did the same with the old rural blues and country guitar styles. But when it came to the modern bluegrass banjo, rather than take the devout journey to the center of the Earl Scruggs aesthetic, Jerry veered towards the progressive fringe early on. Considering his background in old-time music, this may seem paradoxical, but it suggests that he wasn't going to be a hidebound traditionalist in this genre. First it was Don Reno and Eddie Adcock who turned him on with their adventurous single-string pyrotechnics and modern country and jazz interpretations on the banjo. Then it was Bill Keith, a former tenor banjoist from New England, who revolutionized bluegrass banjo with dazzling "chromatics" (melodic arpeggios, strings of notes or "runs" up and down the musical scale) and elegant chordal complexities. Jerry, a fine arts student interested in drawing and painting, discovered a traditional American musical art form that allowed and encouraged a considerable amount of improvisational expression.

But why banjo? "I liked the sound of the music that was made with a five-string banjo," he told Jones and Pickard. "That's all. It's that simple, for me. I think the first attraction is the thing of the incredible clarity and the sparkling, the brilliance of it...For me the banjo is kind of the gateway to music. That's the way I found my way into music." And for an urban kid on the West Coast, why country music and bluegrass? "I was attracted by the intensity of it, really. The Mercury [Flatt & Scruggs] album that's got "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on it and "Pike County Breakdown." I just couldn't believe the sound of it. It was just...startling."

Garcia's performances as a banjo player began in the early Stanford University coffeehouse scene of the post-Beat era, coming on the heels of a solo career highlighted by his twelve-string guitar virtuosity. Giving guitar lessons by day at a Palo Alto music store, he would play little duet gigs at night with fellow folkies Robert Hunter or Marshall Leicester, mostly as a guitarist, and later as a multi-instrumentalist with his first wife, singer Sara Katz. Garcia was playing banjo in old-time string bands as early as 1962, when he and some friends played at the San Carlos Jewish Community Center as the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers. Before that they were called the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers, and there were a few other hilarious band names in there at one point or another. Eventually Jerry found enough up-and-coming pickers to form the Hart Valley Drifters. This was Garcia's first real bluegrass group, but he played guitar in it. The banjo player was Brooks Adams Otis, who had been in the Army with mandolinist Roland White and was far ahead of almost everyone in the Bay Area when it came to bluegrass. Jerry's banjo itch was intensified by listening to Brooks's phenomenal collection of bluegrass tapes—live shows by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Don Reno and Red Smiley, the Stanley Brothers, and Bill Monroe that he'd acquired from traders back east. The Drifters soon became the Wildwood Boys, with Garcia on banjo and his friend David Nelson on guitar. (Nelson had a bluegrass-style banjo before Jerry did, so Jerry borrowed it to learn on.) Songwriter-to-be Hunter played guitar, mandolin, and string bass, and Ken Frankel later played some mandolin.

"I've always wondered why the Wildwood Boys got written out of local bluegrass history," Hunter once mused. "The fact that we may have sucked is irrelevant. We were right there at the beginning, as far as the Palo Alto area is concerned. We drew well, had a following, and Cheney Otis [recordist and Brooks Otis's brother] thought we were worthy to record regularly. It was both Garcia's and Nelson's first bluegrass band. Was it because we weren't grim enough? But we had fun! What we lacked in skill we made up for in sheer exuberance. That was before it got hip to shut up and act like a conservative southern hat with an allowable clown on bass."

The fact is that the Wildwood Boys entered and were good enough to win the amateur open bluegrass band contest at the Monterey Folk Festival in the summer of 1963. They leaned heavily on their good-time exuberance, but probably just as much on Garcia's dynamic banjo playing.

That fall, when I joined Jerry's last bluegrass band of the decade-known by then as the Black Mountain Boys—he was attracted to the urbane sound of a band now referred to as the first progressive bluegrass band: Washington, DC's long-lived Country Gentlemen. Featuring John Duffey on mandolin and Eddie Adcock on banjo, they mixed traditional bluegrass with original instrumentals, pop and jazz standards, slow country songs, and folk songs old and new. Nelson was listening to their sound too, having been pressed into mandolin service by Garcia, and he modeled his mandolin playing after Duffey's to some extent. (Jerry had a mandolin before David did and loaned it to him to learn on.) Much of the Black Mountain Boys repertoire of that 1963-64 period was drawn from the Country Gentlemen's first two albums on Folkways Records. (Twenty years later, some of the original Gentlemen were singing Grateful Dead songs. And Garcia was still singing some of theirs.)

For quite a while Jerry's banjo playing was strongly under the influence of Eddie Adcock, who had been successfully adapting modern electric guitar and pedal steel guitar licks to five-string banjo. This included a rendering of Merle Travis's highly syncopated two-finger guitar style. Jerry emulated the sound considerably, even down to playing an unusual vintage Weymann banjo with a raised-head ("archtop") tone similar to that of Adcock's old Epiphone. The head was cranked down really tight, giving the instrument a penetrating clang that almost suggested an electric guitar sound. This was not Scruggs's refined tone, which had more of an open ring and a warm richness that came from old Gibson Mastertones with heads mounted less tightly across flathead (non-arched) tone rings. At the time, plastic heads had just replaced the traditional calfskin ones for banjos as well as drums.

The story of Jerry's first professional banjo can best be told by his first wife Sara: "We pooled all of our cash wedding presents, some of the instruments we already had, and returned what wedding gifts we could for cash so that Jerry could get the banjo. I remember driving to Berkeley to get it, right after the wedding. That banjo was going to be our livelihood. He needed it to support his family." Jerry and Sara fully believed that he was going to make his living as a banjo player—thus the need for a powerful enough instrument—and she even expected that they might have to move away from California for him to do it.

The banjo was a relatively unadorned mid-line Weymann made in the '30s that was forever after known as "John" because that name had been pearl-inlaid in the peghead for a previous owner. (It happened to be Jerry's middle name.) We never found out who John was, but Jerry played him all through the '60s.

Years later, with a vastly changed financial profile, Garcia acquired a fancier gold-plated-and-engraved Weymann of the same vintage from the top of their line. This rococo work of art spared little in the way of fine appointments, down to its colored wood marquetry and tiny mother-of-pearl floral decorations inlaid along the edges of the tone-chamber assembly. Sold through Jon and Deirdre Lundberg's venerable fretted instrument shop in Berkeley, where Jerry also bought John, the banjo had previously been owned by Pete Berg, an early member of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, the Bay Area's first bluegrass, and was undoubtedly admired by Jerry from early on.

Eventually Garcia went the way of most bluegrass pickers and bought a couple of old Gibsons. He played them on occasion and was sometimes photographed with them. I always felt that the rarely-seen Weymanns, with their elaborate, ornate appointments and dark Gothic design, seemed to evoke Jerry's artistic sense more than the Gibsons with their streamlined Art Deco lines and relatively simpler pearl inlays. The Weymanns have a uniquely focused and naturally amplified tonal characteristic created by a specially-engineered tone chamber that makes them robust and commanding in their extra-amplified projection. In that respect too they seemed to suit Jerry's self-assured, outgoing personality.

A strain of rural Appalachian music that ran through the Black Mountain Boys (and the Country Gentlemen as well), appealing very strongly to Garcia, Hunter, Nelson, and their original guitar player Eric Thompson, was the archaic mountain sound of southeastern Virginia's Stanley Brothers—guitarist-lead vocalist Carter and banjoist-tenor singer Ralph and their Clinch Mountain Boys. What Jerry got from the Stanley Brothers was a vocal style and a repertoire of haunting mountain lyrics that suited his attraction to the dark and mysterious. "Stanley Brothers songs are the songs I like most, in terms of if I'm doing somebody else's songs," he told Jones and Pickard. "There's something lonesome about them. There's something sweet about 'em. And Ralph Stanley is also my model for the best voice in the world."

There is actually very little in Ralph Stanley's stately and conservative right-hand banjo "rolls" (three-finger picking patterns) to remind me of Jerry's, which were modern and sophisticated. Most southern banjo players in the bluegrass idiom maintain a straight "forward roll" as bedrock, returning to that foundation from flights of fancy; Ralph uses it to create an almost mesmerizing drone. For Jerry it was a matter of course not to play it so straight. He combined forward and backward rolls endlessly. Even then Garcia couldn't have been called "straight," despite being "part of the Vitalis/Brylcreem crowd," as former Grateful Dead pianist Tom Constanten dryly put it. But Stanley and Garcia did share a taste for the keen, dry crack of an archtop banjo with its head stretched rock-hard across a bell-brass tone ring mounted on a maple rim. To get this sound, southern wit says to "tighten the head down until just before it breaks, then back off on it." Although Jerry didn't entirely reproduce the keen, narrow Ralph Stanley tone, neither did he go after the full-bodied banjo voice of Earl Scruggs's sound.

Ralph Stanley was a role (not roll) model for Jerry in another way besides his repertoire and his crisp banjo sound: the idea that a banjo player could be a lead and tenor singer. This was a departure from the classic Scruggs model in which bluegrass banjoists sang mainly on choruses, usually a baritone harmony part below the melody. In the Black Mountain Boys and his other string bands of the '60s, Jerry featured vocal solos and sang high harmony on many songs. He loved the Stanley-style modal inflections (and those of older mountain singers like Roscoe Holcomb of Kentucky, another banjo-picking balladeer) and consciously added that kind of ornamentation to his singing. Like Ralph Stanley, he sang the high tenor part on choruses, because his range allowed him to. In our band, everyone else's voice was lower.

By the '70s, Jerry's range had dropped and he was more comfortable taking lead (melody) or even baritone parts. But he could still sing high. "Trouble in Mind" in C is no mean feat for a heavy-smoking man; Garcia sang it during his "Acoustic and Electric" Broadway tour of late 1987. At that time our '60s roles were exactly reversed: he played guitar and sang lead, and I played banjo (or mandolin or dobro) and sang the high part above him on choruses, although I was never a natural tenor singer as Jerry was in his day.

Ignoring another standard formula in bluegrass, Garcia as banjoist ended up doing the lion's share of talking and joke-telling in his bands, usually a steady stream of devastating one-liners. Banjo players and comedy had been historically paired since the minstrel-show era, but this was rare for modern-day pickers; even the king of bluegrass banjo, Earl Scruggs, was chided by the old-time banjo-playing comedian Uncle Dave Macon: "You're a good banjo picker but you're not a bit funny." Bluegrass banjoists were usually busy enough supplying consistent backup for the voices and other instruments in the band and struggling with the often difficult task of keeping their instrument in tune, a challenge for Jerry with his Weymann's antique tuning pegs and his habit of tuning even when he was already in tune. (Years later it must have been fun for him to walk out on stage to an already-tuned electric guitar.) But being an entertaining bandleader was a role Jerry handled easily with his withering humor and naturally confident stage presence. Garcia's stage patter at age 20 was as funny as the work of many professional stand-up comics, then or now. Oddly enough, he rarely spoke a word onstage in his entire career with the Grateful Dead.

[Main] Author ] The Banjo Years - Pt 1 ] [ The Banjo Years - Pt 2 ] The Banjo Years - Pt 3 ] The Banjo Years - Pt 4 ]

Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

Black Mountain Boys

Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

 

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