Gastonia to Boiling Springs from Flint Hill back to Charlotte,
Still trying to find the place of birth,
Still talking about who played it first,
Of the boys from North Carolina.
It may seem strange that an old-time style banjoist like me would be interested in the musicians that taught Earl Scruggs, the father of bluegrass banjo. True, one way to divide old-time music from bluegrass music is in the banjo method utilized, with the down picking clawhammer-style differentiating the old-time way from bluegrass music's three-finger up picking. However, the line between old-time and bluegrass is much murkier, with many old-time banjoists "B.E." (i.e., "Before Earl") utilizing two- and three-finger up-picking styles, several coming awful close to what Scruggs would eventually devise for his ground-breaking style.
The acknowledgement of three-finger banjoists preceding Scruggs does
nothing to diminish Earl's importance. His truly original approach galvanized the banjo community from his first appearances on the Grand Ole Opry radio program. I would go so far to suggest that the banjo might have disappeared from our culture if it wasn't for Earl Scruggs.
It was this desire to join the history of bluegrass banjo à la Earl back with old-time fingerpicking that began my journey into the heart of banjo country. What follows is the tale of my travels along the North/South Carolina border, and what I found out about those banjoists Scruggs names as his earliest musical influences.
Local legend has the young Earl Scruggs making his first public appearance at the fiddlers' convention held yearly by the Withrow family in the tiny town of Hollis in Rutherford County. I was able to spend a delightful part of a day the company of Jenna Withrow and Danielle Withrow at their house within sight of the original store building as well as what is left of the Hollis School.
Newspaper articles report that this prominent contest with a reputation for lucrative prizes was held from 1925 into the 1960s in the foothills of Rutherford County at the Hollis School. Founded by Julius Plato Durham Withrow (known by his initials JPD), the Hollis convention on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving was begun as a memorial to Withrow's late spouse Laura Hamrick. When JPD died following the first gathering, his son Grady took up the reins. Probably the best banjoist to appear during the 1920s at Hollis was Smith Hammett. It was during this period that Harmmett was to become the most important musical influence on the young Earl Scruggs: "As far as I'm concerned, Smith Hammett was the first man to come out with the three-finger style playing. I don't say he was the first, but I do say he was the first one that I heard do it. There's a lot of people give me credit, but that is not true. Smith Hammett and Rex Brooks were the first to my knowledge to play like that."--Letter, Dewitt "Snuffy" Jenkins to Paul Carpenter (courtesy Larry Hammett).
Snuffy Jenkins and Earl Scruggs both credit Smith Hammett and Rex Brooks as playing three-finger banjo rolls before Jenkins or Scruggs ever picked up the instrument. The few sentences that Snuffy and Earl have uttered or written about the two players do little more than to offer up two enigmatic figures seen through the eyes of apprentice musicians.
I easily found a genealogy for Hammett's family online and then used other Web data to fill in some of the holes. My friend, fellow musician, and historian Tommy Forney led me to the local historical society library. I also made the trek over to Forest City to mine the archives of the Genealogical Society of Old Tryon County and to Rutherfordton to check out the county records at the courthouse. Since the Hammetts came out of Gaffney(as did several other key players in my search), I undertook several road trips to that upstate South Carolina town. I spent most of my time in the Cherokee County Public Library, pulling whatever public records weren't online and searching the local newspaper on microfilm for mentions of Smith Hammett and his family.
I knew from Earl Scruggs that Smith had died young, but the date given by Scruggs in a Banjo Newsletter interview did not yield an obituary. I realized from my initial research that Smith had children and grandchildren still living and I began writing letters and making phone calls m order to locate whoever 1 could. I was amazed one evening to pick up the phone and find myself speaking with Smith's youngest son and namesake, Jesse Lee Hammett. Jesse had relocated to Florida some years back and was now retired. Luckily, I had a Florida trip scheduled for other reasons, so I included a stop to see Jesse.
In the Meantime, I made contact with the sons of another of Smith's offspring, Martin Van Hammett. Van had died just three months prior to my phone calls, and his son Ronald directed me to Van's other son Larry, who was the family historian. Since Larry was still going through his father's effects, he helped me out by looking for anything about Smith that Van may have kept.
Larry Hammett provided some important pieces of the Smith Hammett puzzle. He reinforced what information I had already found about the family genealogy and he provided newspaper articles from an effort in the early 1980s by Paul Carpenter to honor Hammett. Larry Hammett also knew a few family stories that came from his grandmother, Smith's widow Essie Ola Harris.
On another visit, Larry took me around the area on the border between North and South Carolina where Smith and Ola (and Ola's parents) lived and to the church where the Hammetts were buried. It was through Larry that I got to view and copy some original photographs of Smith Hammett, as well as examine a banjo belonging to Smith on which Earl Scruggs learned to play.
Earl Eugene Scruggs was born January 6, 1924. In his banjo instruction manual and in interviews, Earl has recounted first listening to Smith Hammett around 1929. Earl's father (a bookkeeper and farmer) George Elam Scruggs died the previous year before his son could hear George's own clawhammer banjo playing and fiddling. Earl's oldest brother, Junius Emmett "Junie" Scruggs, inspired by their relative Smith (Hammett's wife and Earl's mother were cousins), had already owned a banjo for several years and Earl attempted to play on both his father's mail-order open-back and the instrument owned by Junie. Earl Scruggs writes: "When I was a little boy, the only way I could pick Junie's banjo or the old banjo my father had played was to sit down with the body of the banjo resting to my right. I would slide it around quite a bit depending on which position on the neck I was trying to reach. That was pretty rough on a banjo if I happened to be sitting on the hardwood floor or outside on the porch or in the yard. Needless to say, Junie wasn't too pleased with me whenever he caught me playing his banjo."
The alternative for Earl was an instrument of reduced size owned by Smith Hammett. Earl recollects: "Our families visited each other fairly often, and we always ended up playing some music before the visits were over. Smith's banjo picking inspired me, too, but what 1 remember most about him was a little banjo that he owned. The banjo head on Smith's little banjo was about nine inches in diameter, and the neck was quite a bit shorter than the length of a standard banjo neck. It always thrilled me to pick that little banjo, because I could hold it in my lap and pick just like the grownups did with their regular-sized banjos." [Earl Scruggs, Earl Scruggs And The 5-String Banjo, Hal Leonard, 2005; "Earl Scruggs," Banjo Newsletter, Nov. '06.]
That the banjo still exists (as does Earl's father's instrument, exhibited in the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville) is a small miracle. At one time, the banjo belonged to Rex Brooks, who ordered it through a store in Sunshine, N.C., just north of Bostic. Made by the Henry C. Dobson Company of New York City, it is stamped with the patent date: 11/08/1881. It has a later addition of a metal "pie plate" resonator labeled "Bestone." Banjo collector James Bollman dates the instrument to the "late 1880s into early 1890s."
Through family stories, newspaper stories, Scruggs' writings and interviews, and genealogical information, the story of Smith's life began to emerge.
Jesse Smith Hammett was born the fourth of six siblings February 21, 1887, in Limestone Springs Township outside of Gaffney in Cherokee County, South Carolina. Earl Scruggs writes that Smith's father, John Martin "Mart" Hammett, was a fiddler and obviously influenced his children musically. Earl also reports that, in addition to Smith, two of his brothers also played musical instruments. Scruggs's comment that Smith Hammett "could play almost any kind of instrument" is supported by other surviving recollections of Smith playing fiddle, guitar, Hawaiian guitar, and organ. There are no surviving family stories of how Smith learned to play the banjo, although one tale tells of him injuring his first finger causing him to use his second, third, and fourth finger and giving up clawhammer playing for picking.
Smith Hammett was married in 1907 to Essie Ola Harris, whose family helped found the Cherokee Church community where they lived. The couple eventually had nine children. By 1913, the Hammetts had migrated over the border from Cherokee Church to Caroleen in Rutherford County where Smith worked in the local cotton mill. Smith returned to farming by 1917, although like many farmers, he may have alternated working the fields in good weather and the mill in the winter. Hammett is also known to have lived in Bostic, working in the local railroad yards.
As a sharecropping cotton farmer, he moved around the area a great deal. By 1920, the Hammett family was residing on Webb Bridge and Bostic Roads in Cool Springs Township of Rutherford County. In 1922, they were living just over the county line in the Cleveland County township of Mooresboro. By 1930, the Hammetts had also lived in West End and Limestone Mills.
From a surviving photograph made around 1920, we know some of Smith's musical compatriots. They included a number of musicians who worked at the Cliffside Cotton Mill at High Shoals (sic): fiddler and mandolinist Dewey McDaniel, a textile mill doffer and piano tuner; 12-string guitarist and mill doffer Bernard Clement "Big Mac" McDaniel; fiddler Rector Roland "Rex" McCraw, a speeder at the mill; and Coley Fisher, guitar player. Smith may have known these men from his own time working in the Cliffside mill. Others in the Hammett band of unknown origins were Will Grady on fiddle and Jim Grady on guitar.
Smith Hammett Band, front, L-R: Will Grady, Jim Grady and Coley Fisher; standing,
L-R: Bernard "Big Mac" McDaniel, Dewey McDaniel, Rex Brooks, and Smith Hammett. (Photo courtesy Herb Brooks)
Dewey McDaniel went on to lead his own band and compete against Smith Hammett in local fiddlers' conventions). Big Mac McDaniel, also a member of Smith's band, joined this musical aggregation that included Coy Hamrick (banjo and mandolin), Solon Smart of Cliffside (banjo and guitar), Ode Jackson (12-string guitar), Paul Jackson (banjo and mandolin), and McDaniel's nephew Grady Lee Wilkie. Wilkie, the son of Dewey's sister, Ollie, was taught to play by his uncle and was best friends with Coy Hamrick. A mill worker all his life, Grady was working as a doffer in the Cliffside cotton mill when he began playing with Dewey's band and later moved to Shelby to work for the Lily Mills Company.
Two unrelated strands came together to tell the story of Earl Scruggs' tenure at Lily Mills. Tommy Forney owns a booklet published by the mill during the early days of World War II that was meant to raise the morale of the local boys overseas in the service. Between cheesecake shots of local beauties posed in bathing suits was a group photo of mill workers exempt from service due to age or other deferments. A teenaged Earl is seen at the end of one row and Grady Wilkie is on the other. In a phone conversation with Grady's daughter, Patricia Camp, she unexpectedly began telling me the story of how Earl Scruggs was hired by Lily Mills. Earl's mother, Lula Georgia Ruppe, and her father, Grady, were friends. One day, Lula Scruggs called upon Wilkie, asking for Grady to help her teenaged son to get a job at the mill. "We're not making it down on the farm," Pat remembered Mrs. Scruggs telling her father, "and we're about to starve out." Grady Wilkie not only got Earl a job, he also allowed the young Scruggs to board with his family. One can't help but conclude the two probably played music together as well.
One branch of the Smith Hammett's descendents is based around Asheboro. Smith's son, Tommy Thirston, had moved north and east from the Rutherford/Cleveland County area of his birth to Randolph County and raised a family. I found out from Tommy's offspring that Smith's children, James Nathan, Ruby and Howard Luke, all played the guitar and Tommy also played the fiddle and banjo. Smith's grandson Smith "Smitty" Irvin played banjo, first in a family band that included Roy Clark and later with Bill Harrell and then with Jimmy Dean.
For the longest time I had no idea where Smith passed away. I couldn't find his death certificate or obituary. When Larry Hammett took me to the graveyard, I was finally able to nail down his actual birth date and death date. After hitting dead ends in North Carolina, hints from the family directed me to the Gaffney, S.C., newspapers where 1 finally found the truth about Smith Hammett's death.
As reported in the Gaffney Ledger, late in the evening of Saturday, February 1, 1930, an altercation took Smith's life. He was only 42 years old. The day of his funeral at Cherokee Church found the largest crowd ever assembled at the house of worship, proving the banjoist's local popularity. Earl's brother, Junie, was one of the pallbearers.
Rex Brooks (with fiddle) and Verle Jenkins
(Photo courtesy Herb Brooks)
"DeWitt 'Snuffy' Jenkins was born in Harris, North Carolina, on October 27 1908. In 1927 [Jenkins] met two men who were playing in a three-finger style. One was Rex Brooks and one was Smith Hammett and they both lived in Cleveland County, North Carolina, right around where Earl Scruggs was born and raised. So, I heard those fellas playing and that kind of stuck with me a little bits. Rex Brooks was working at the local telephone company and played with his fingernails and a thumbpick. It made a good clear sound, but it wasn't too loud, you know.—Hofer, Michael. "History Of Banjos," 2001, <banjobasics.julieferris.com/BANJOPLAYERS/2.html>.
Rex Brooks, the second banjoist to be named by Snuffy Jenkins and Earl Scruggs as a pioneering area three-finger picker, was also listed on an ancestry Web site. Luckily, his nephew Roy was a genealogist and wrote an essay about the Brooks family. Unfortunately, Roy Brooks recently passed away and did not leave any of his research to the genealogical society where he worked. I could already tell that if researching Hammett's life was like putting an unraveled sweater back together, finding out about Rex Brooks was like having five or six pieces from a hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle. True, I had a couple of the corners, but little else.
Rex has one surviving offspring, a son, still living in southwestern North Carolina. He was too ill to be interviewed. I spoke with his wife by phone and she referred me to several other descendants. that are scattered around the South. I obtained a photograph of Rex Brooks playing the fiddle, but not much in the way of information. After much digging, I located Ellen Brooks, who is married to one of Rex's grandchildren and, again, doesn't know a whole lot about Rex's life. So, most of what I know about Rex Brooks comes from the small amount published by Roy Brooks and the public record.
Liston Rex Brooks was born on his family's farm August 23, 1899. His father, Madison Monroe Brooks, operated a sawmill in the Corinth Community in eastern Rutherford County. Matt was also a fiddler of some local renown and had begun playing at the age of 12 or 13. In addition to Rex, the elder Brooks passed his love of music onto his many children, most of whom took up a stringed instrument or two.
When he came of age, Rex Brooks left the farm. First, he worked as a machinist in the cotton mill at High Shoals, where he was listed in the 1920 census. In the same year, he married Verdia Hester Bridges, three years younger than himself. By the following year, the couple had moved back to the Brooks homestead where their first child was born.
However, farming didn't hold Rex's interest. By 1926, Brooks had gone to work for the local electric utility and moved closer to Mooresboro in western Cleveland County. Rex Brooks eventually rose to the position of manager for the Mooresboro unit of Duke Power. He and Smith Hammett became friends, with Brooks possibly drawn to the older man because of his knowledge of the three-finger technique. Brooks played the banjo, but was also a guitarist and a fiddler (fiddle being the instrument he probably played in the string band featuring Hammett's banjo playing and a young Snuffy Jenkins on the guitar).
Like Smith Hammett, Rex Brooks' death was rumored to be premature, but, like Hammett, I only had vague notion of the year. The cemetery record led me to the death certificate which led me to his obituary. On a rainy Sunday evening, October 20, 1935, the car Brooks was driving skidded on wet pavement, overturning and crashing into a telephone pole at the Beaver Dam filling station. He was killed instantly.
"There were a few good three-finger banjo pickers I admired who lived near Flint Hill. Mack Woolbright, a blind banjo picker who recorded with Charlie Parker for Columbia Records in the late 1920 stands out in my mind. I remember him from a visit he made to my Uncle Sidney Ruppe's home. Mack rocked in a rocking chair while picking 'Home Sweet Home' in the key of C while in C tuning. The G7 chord he played in that tune sent chills down my spine. I was six years old then and couldn't help but wonder how a blind person could pick a banjo so beautifully."--Earl Scruggs, Earl Scruggs And The 5-String Banjo.
All one has to do is to compare Woolbright's recording of "Home Sweet Home" (played as the instrumental break on his recording with Parker of "The Man That Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was A Married Man") with the one Scruggs made in 1960 to hear the impact that the older man had on Earl. Its also obvious that Earl owned or had access to the 78 record in order to make such a thorough study of Woolbright's playing.
Mack Woolbright is probably the least mysterious of the three legendary banjoists that influenced the young Earl Scruggs. Public records contain a wealth of information about Woolbright's family in Gaffney, and the dates of his recording sessions have been well documented in Guthrie Meade's excellent work on early country commercial recordings, Country Music Sources, as well as in Tony Russell's book on the same subject, Country Records. Woolbright's family life is a different matter, and I had few if any leads. Mack married late in life and I was unaware when I began my research it his wife or any other family members were still alive. So, I headed for Gaffney to look deeper into the public records not found online, as well as search the local newspaper around the dates of the two Parker and Woolbright recording sessions.
Mack Woolbright and his wife Ruby
(Photo courtesy Bob Carlin)
Public records show George Mack Woolbright was born in Pinckney Township, Union County, South Carolina on September 18, 1890, the son of farmer James and Louise Woolbright. Partially blind from birth, his father died when Mack was 17 years old, his mother passing away 12 years later in 1919. Although nothing is known of how Mack began playing music or who were his influences, it was not uncommon for the vision impaired to turn to music for their livelihood.
Fortunately for him, Woolbright was able to team up with local mill worker Charles Monroe Parker, who probably transported the banjoist to local music events where Mack could earn a living. Parker is somewhat of a mystery man, as efforts to locate his descendants have been unsuccessful. Born around 1884 in North Carolina, Charlie Parker lost his first wife at the end of 1924 and remarried the next year. Named a "well-known musician" by the local newspaper. I couldn't find out much else about the guitarist, banjoist, and fiddler.
It is opportune for banjo scholars that Mack Woolbright was tapped to record for Columbia Records in the late 1920s. The ensuing newspaper coverage of the recording sessions and of Woolbright's life during the period in which the 78 rpm records were made opens a window into his existence that would otherwise have been lost.
As reported in the Gaffney Ledger in 1927, Lawrence Eular Weaver, manager of the local Columbia Records distributor, received an invitation to bring Woolbright and his performing partner to Atlanta to make "test" recordings (or auditions). In early April, Weaver, Woolbright, and Parker journeyed to Atlanta where they made "a number of test records and signed contracts as Columbia Phonograph Company artists, exclusively." On Wednesday, April 6, four sides were committed to wax. Two, "Where Shall I Be" and "While Eternal Ages Roll," were in a religious vein and remained un-issued. "Rabbit Chase" and another single, featuring Parker's clawhammer-style banjo playing, were issued on Columbia 15154-D and were possibly available locally in Gaffney by later that spring.
Back in South Carolina by the end of the week, Parker and Woolbright returned to area appearances. On Friday, April 22, the duo was paid to entertain at the local Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention held in the county courthouse. Many of these local events were run by a musical associate of Charlie Parker's, the famed "one-armed" (one of his arms was paralyzed) fiddler John W. Ross.
Woolbright and Parker returned to Atlanta in November of 1927. This time all four recorded selections were issued. "The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was A Married Man," with the instrumental rendition of "Home Sweet Home" that inspired a young Earl Scruggs, was issued in May of 1928 and paired on 15236-D with "'Ticklish Reuben." Modern listeners can hear "The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home" on "The North Carolina Banjo Collection" (Rounder Records') and "Ticklish Reuben" on "Good For What Ails You" (Old Hat Records). Originally titled "The Party That Wrote Home Sweet Home," Fleta Jan Brown's composition was first published in 1908. Cal Stewart's turn-of-the-century recording of "Ticklish Reuben" launched the song into popular circulation and is possibly where the duo learned the piece. "The Old Arm Chair" was backed on 15694-D with "Will The Weaver" and remained un-issued until September of 1931. "Weaver" has recently been reissued on "In The Pines" (Old Hat Records). "Granny's Old Arm Chair" dates to the late 1870s when both John Read and Frank S. Carr claimed the composition. The song seems to have achieved a modicum of popularity among country musicians indicated by the number of recordings made of the piece in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Upon returning from their second—and last—recording session, Woolbright and Parker competed in a fiddlers' convention held to benefit the Cherokee Falls School. The Tuesday evening November 15th contest drew forty contestants. The audience, five-hundred strong, heard Woolbright take the banjo prize from eight other contestants and win $5. Charlie Parker beat six others to win the $5 guitar prize and the two won an additional $2 for Best Duet.
Charlie Parker and Mack Woolbright were still working fiddlers' events on Friday, May 4, 1928, entertaining at a convention held at the Gaffney courthouse. These contests and entertainment are probably typical of the places where Mack and Charlie appeared during this period.
Since the death of his parents, Mack Woolbright was boarding with local families or in area rooming houses. In 1930, he was living in Pinckney Township With David Garner. Some time in the early 1940s, Woolbright married Ruby Pittman, a young lady who was also vision impaired. Their daughter, Ruby Louise, was born around 1946.
The search for Mack's wife, Ruby, and their daughter, Louise, proved fairly easy, although heartbreaking. Online information that showed Ruby Woolbright died in 2004 gave an address for her daughter. I wrote Louise a letter and was surprised to receive a call from her stepson, George Hutchins. George informed me that she had died the previous month, but was eager to help provide whatever information he could about Mack. On my next trip to Gaffney, I drove to the home of Louise Woolbright Hutchins to meet with George. He gave me the only photograph I have been able to locate of Mack with his young bride, Ruby, along with a worn 78 rprm copy of "The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home" provided to Louise by a record collector. Soon after this meeting, the phone at Louise's home was disconnected, and I have been unable to locate George Hutchins again to see what else he might have turned up.
Unfortunately, for Mack Woolbright, his type of banjo playing went out of style. The Depression ended his record making, and calls for his music probably became less and less frequent. Additionally, after a considerable period of declining health, Mack's performing partner Charlie Parker passed away in June of 1931. Following the birth of his daughter, Woolbright's health began going downhill and that, combined with his impoverished condition, caused his death at the age of 69 on June 3, 1960. Mack Woolbright was buried by the county in the Oakland cemetery, forgotten by the public that owned his records and the musicians he had influenced, without a stone to mark his grave because the family couldn't afford one.
Workers at Lily Mill in Shelby, including Earl Scruggs (circled, left)
and Grady Wilkie (circled, right) (Photo courtesy Sam Davis)
George was Rex Brooks older brother, who taught Rex to play the banjo. George's son, Herb, who made this photo at his father's home in Ellenboro in 1960, provided us with a copy of this article and several of the photographs.
"From Swannanoa to Seattle and from Tokyo to London and just about everywhere in
between, Bob Carlin is a familiar figure at old-time festivals, conventions and music
workshops. In the United States and Canada, as well as internationally, Bob is one of
the best known performers, preservers and promoters of Southern traditional music.
Though he is a fine guitar player, he is an engaging and skilled performer on the
banjo. Adept at all of the many styles of old-time banjo from the minstrel stroke style to
piedmont finger-picking, his stock in trade— the banjo playing method that he has
introduced to audiences around the world— is the clawhammer technique of
southwestern Virginia and northwestern North Carolina." —Gail Gillespie, The Old Time Herald
Our thanks to Bob for allowing us to republish his "Roots of Earl and Snuffy," which originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited, a publication dedicated to bluegrass and old-time country musicians, devotees, and associates.
Carlin has been offering performances, lectures and workshops for over thirty years. He had largely left the solo arena in the mid-1990s after an invitation to join the band of songwriter John Hartford.
For six years, Bob toured throughout the United States and Canada with Hartford, even accompanying John on a ten-day Japanese sojourn. Since Hartford's death in 2001, Bob has returned to solo performing, teaching and appearances with other musicians. He lives in Lexington, N.C.
The John Hartford lyrics at the top of this story are from a song written as a salute to Earl Scruggs and all the other three-finger trailblazers. In one of his last live appearances, on September 24, 2000, about eight months before his death, John sang the song, "The Boys From North Carolina," at a tribute performance for John in Nashville's War Memorial Auditorium.
Here's a recording of the song. That's Bob Carlin on banjo.