Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina

A history of the banjo

By Todd Callaway

Tracing the history of the banjo as a musical instrument is a task that can make you want to pull your hair out.

Though hundreds of articles have been written on the subject of banjos, many are contradictory and filled with speculation.

There is, however, one fact most agree on: America's favorite folk instrument was brought to this country from Africa and Jamaica by slaves in the eighteenth century.

How did the banjo get to Africa? Well, Pete Seeger speculates in How to Play the Five String Banjo that Arabs may have brought it to Africa's western coast. There were instruments like the banjo in the Near and Far East, such as the sitar and sarod. Stringed instruments with animal skin heads and wooden shells are known to have existed nearly 4,500 years ago in Egypt.

But what paths the instrument followed through these countries, however, is simply guesswork. The instrument that made it to this country has been refined, evolving into what most recognize today as the banjo.
Early on people associated banjo and fiddle players with the Devil and Hell, believing that those who played the instruments were bound for Hell, thus the old saying, Thick as fiddlers in Hell.

The first banjos in the United States had two, three or four strings made from horsehair, grass or catgut. The head of those first banjos probably were made from animal hide stretched across a gourd.
An article printed in 1888 and reprinted in the March 1974 issue of Mugwumps says: "With rapid strides it improved in form. First a wooden hoop, and then a metal one; first a rough skin for the drum, then the best parchment; first nails to hold it on, then neatly made tension screws. At one time the strings were made of anything that came handy; now they are formed from the 'intestines of the agile cat.'

Since then, the number of variations tried in creating the banjo is unknown.
Generally cited as the most important development in the banjo's history was the addition of the shorter 'chanter,' 'drone,' 'thumb,'or fifth string. Many historians credit Virginian Joel Walker Sweeny, a professional blackface minstrel, with the addition sometime between 1830 and 1845.

All banjos prior to 1880 were fretless. Demand for fretted ones forced several manufactures to put them on the market.

Though the banjo's popularity lapsed in the early 1940s, players like Earl Scruggs brought them back, and today the five-string, fretted banjo is king again.

Speaking of Carroll

"He had a real soft touch, some might even call it a classical touch. He was just a real talented fellow. Anything he tried he could do. ... He had all the characteristics that make a good musician; good taste, good timing and a good ear."

Dr. Robert 'Mack' Snoderly, who performed with Best for more than 28 years.

"Carroll was a real unique banjo player. He had a style all his own that no one has been able to duplicate. He wasn't one of the best banjo players in the world, he was the best. He was always the teacher. He wanted other people to know how to do what he was doing."

Danny Johnson, played guitar in Best's band for 20 years.

"Carroll is the earliest guy that I've ever known of that could play fiddle tunes on a banjo, note for note. He was one of the finest people I ever met. ... He was always giving with his music."

Nashville recording artist John Hartford, who learned from Best.

Carroll Best

Carroll Best, a banjo player from the Crabtree community of Haywood County, won widespread acclaim in contests, festivals and old-time music circles for his unique style of three-finger banjo picking and adapting fiddle tunes to the banjo. He once described himself as a fiddle player who didn’t play the fiddle and developed a style of playing fiddle tunes on the banjo note for note that became the basis for a whole school of younger banjo players.

Born in 1931 and raised in the Crabtree farm house where he lived most of his life, Best got his first banjo when he was five but broke the neck of the instrument swatting a bee. That didn’t seem to deter the youngster who borrowed his father’s banjo to learn tunes. Best began playing music in public at the age of 10 and also learned to play the fiddle, guitar and mandolin.

Showcasing his talents at local and regional festivals, he won enough awards for his music to cover a den wall in his house. Well known in bluegrass and old-time music circles, Best performed in festivals as far away as Port Townsend, Wash., and toured Europe sharing his gift of banjo picking. He played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, performed with Masters of the BanjoTour, won the prestigious North Carolina Folk Heritage Award in 1994 and recorded two albums (one in 1982 and another in 1994) before his death in 1995 at the age of 64.

A style all his own - Carroll Best
By Todd Callaway
News editor

Walk into the Upper Crabtree home where Carroll Best spent most of his life, and you can almost hear a banjo. Louise Best says she sometimes imagines it coming from the room where her late husband spent hours mastering his unique three-finger picking style.

"Sometimes you still think you can almost hear it coming from the living room," she says.

Long known locally as a banjo picker, Best had just begun to amass a horde of national honors and recognition when his life ended tragically, shot down in 1995 by an angry brother.

What's left is a legacy carried on by other players who, while Best was alive, had the opportunity to hear and learn his vast array of old-time tunes Best prized and polished to perfection.

One of the first performances where Best was recognized for his extraordinary talents was in 1970 near Cosby, Tenn., at the Festival of the Smokies.

It was there in Cosby where Best's three-finger banjo picking earned him widespread acclaim. He won the Southern Highlands Champions trophy, the first of a many awards he collected, so many they now cover a den wall in his house.

As he won awards wherever he went, Best became a legend in Haywood County. He won the hearts of people who had the privilege to hear him play, a prize he cherished far more than any award, according to his wife.

It would be the regional folk festivals held in the Southern Appalachians—the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival, the Union Grove Ole Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Festival, the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Mountain Music Festival in Asheville, and the Dance and Folk Mountain Music Festival in Tennessee—where Best showcased his talents and his knowledge of traditional old-time music.

But throughout his life, Best was a man who'd always find the time for a friend in need or to share a banjo tune with a peer.

"His generosity seemed to never lack,"said Louise, Carroll's wife of 39 years.

Best had a spirit and enthusiasm for old-time music that drove him from an early age to play and eventually master the fiddle tunes heard in his family for six generations back, she said.

"Carroll celebrated his mountain heritage through his music," Louise said. "It was part of his life. You couldn't separate Carroll from his banjo."

A banjo player without peer when it came to finger-picked old-time fiddle tunes, Best perfected a three-finger style of playing that until him no one else had conceived. His melodic style allowed him to play note-for-note the fiddle tunes he'd heard growing up in Haywood.

He once described himself as a fiddle player who didn't play the fiddle.

This unique style would help Best become the 1994 winner of the N.C. Folk Heritage Award, the most prestigious folk music award given in the state.

Like many mountain musicians, Best learned from his parents. His mother played the clawhammer banjo and his father played the three-finger style banjo.

The banjo goes back at least to Carroll's grandfather, Louise said. He was given his first banjo when he was five, but broke the neck swatting at a bee. Afterward he used his father's long-necked instrument to learn on.

Although Best learned bluegrass and jazz standards—which he played in the Navy during and after the Korean War—he always remained true to traditional mountain music.
Working as a professional musician briefly in the 1950s, Best realized the traveling life ill-suited him. After six months on the road he returned home.

"He got money sometimes when he'd play, but he never played for the money. He played because he wanted to play. He played for the love of the music," Louise said.
Best once said of his fluid banjo style, "I play what it takes to get it."

There wasn't a tune Carroll couldn't play, and when he came across one he didn't know he'd work at it until he learned it, Louise said.

"We'd see him on the weekends, and on the weekends he always played music," she said. "He'd play the banjo every day."

Best is recognized today as one of the most talented and influential banjo players in the country.

Not a familiar name to many, Best was well-known in old-time and bluegrass circles in Western North Carolina and around the world. His attendance at music festivals as far off as Port Townsend, Wash., and a tour of Europe helped spread word of his talents.

Over the years, Best invented a method of playing that mirrored the fiddle note-for-note. This style formed the basis for a whole school of younger banjo players.

"I play melody with what it takes to get it," he once said.
"Carroll Best is among the most interesting of America banjoist," said Joe Wilson, director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts in Washington, D.C.

People who knew Carroll Best say he was always in a familiar position—sitting in a chair, legs crossed, banjo resting in his lap with a slight smile of delight across his face. He had a favorite straight-back chair that he always sat in when he played at home, Louise said.

"It was music that his forefathers played, not modern music. He always reverted back to the old-time tunes he loved," she said. "I always said Carroll had three jobs—Dayco, farming and his banjo."

Best played the banjo for 57 years of his 63-year life. He worked at Dayco and farmed his family's 200-acre spread. Between his work and music he was a busy man.

"I learned from my daddy," Best told an interviewer in 1994. "The work I do is my own creation and I haven't yet heard anyone who can play like me. The banjo is an amazing instrument. You can take one thumb and you get at least three different styles—patterns you can get by changing the movement of your fingers. I'm just scratching the surface."

Carroll Best: NCAC Folk Heritage Award Recipient

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