Two banjo greats

by niamh on April 20, 2012

Further to Chris’s post, other recent losses merit a mention too – coincidentally, two legendary banjo players died within a couple of weeks of each other recently.

One is Barney McKenna, last surviving member of The Dubliners, whose quirky turns of phrase were almost as famous as his tenor banjo playing, the instrument which he introduced into Irish traditional music.

The other is Earl Scruggs, champion of the three-finger banjo playing style in bluegrass music (born in North Carolina as it happens, not far from where I am at present).

These two musical traditions are brought together every year in a festival in Ireland. And not coincidentally, for as Irish musician and broadcaster Philip King has documented in his TV series Bringing It All Back Home, they share common roots.



Aaron Adams 04.20.12 at 8:41 pm

No discussion of banjo players can be complete without at least mentioning Bela Fleck!


maidhc 04.20.12 at 8:46 pm

While Barney McKenna was certainly a musical giant and a tremendous influence, I don’t think he can be credited with introducing the tenor banjo into Irish traditional music. A better candidate might be Mike Flanagan of The Flanagan Brothers, who I think was the first to record Irish traditional music on the tenor banjo back in the 1920s. But Barney was the leading figure in defining its role in the last 50 years or so.

The last of The Dubliners — that’s certainly the end of a long and colourful era.

When he started out he had the choice to join either The Dubliners or the Chieftains.

Both Barney and Earl created new paths for the banjo at a time when it was mainly associated with Dixieland jazz.


marcel 04.20.12 at 9:11 pm

I was in jr. high school during the height of the sixties’ culture wars, paying more attention to Frank Zappa than to music that reminded me of Hee-Haw, so I was amazed to learn from Scrugg’s obit that he performed at the November ’69 Moratorium (my parents having dropped me off at my aunt and uncle’s apt. in NYC rather than take me along!)


JanieM 04.20.12 at 9:23 pm

Bringing it All Back Home was fantastic. I happened to be going over to Ireland a few times a year when it was first aired in the early nineties. Just thinking about it now makes me want to go back…back in time as well as back to Ireland, but never mind that. I still keep, as treasures, a couple of VCR tapes that my Irish girlfriend made for me of some of the shows. I didn’t know at the time whether I would ever be able to get them in any other format. How times change!

Here’s a link to CDs of the music.

Thanks for this, Niamh.


niamh 04.21.12 at 1:59 am

Janie M, thanks for this – I’ve added your link into the original post.
Aaron Adams, I hope Bela Fleck is still alive and well though – they’re performing in Chapel Hill Memorial Hall next week!
Maidhc, I’m sure you are right about the Flanagans.
And I wouldn’t want to overstate the Irish origins of bluegrass/ country either – see the eclectic tastes of The Carolina Chocolate Drops for example, from Piedmont NC African-American music, via the Banjo Project, to Dylan.


Belle Waring 04.21.12 at 6:50 am

Damn, if I’d have had Earl Scruggs standing there next to me backing me up the whole time, I bet I could have sounded pretty fine on the banjo myself (yes, good woman, getting shot, etc.). Not that the other banjo players weren’t nice and all, but really. That’s like Aretha Franklin is singing back-up while you do karaoke on some soul songs.

That said, Pink Shirt Guy, Awesome Beard Mc70s-pants, and the ginger pompadour are the best.


Belle Waring 04.21.12 at 8:03 am

OK, you want to know how bad tiredness/in-pain Southern accent-induced syndrome is? And grant that I was just listening to Earl Scruggs. Do you talk to the computer? I do. I haven’t been looking all this time but came back to look for a strawberry shortcake recipe for my daughter’s birthday…cakes, I suppose, her request. Which I don’t actually need but one likes to be reassured. So I just searched “strawberry shortcake recipe” and some of that stuff that came up…Paula Deen was on there. So I told the computer: “ain’t none of that right!” Fuck it. I have a southern accent. Whatever. Having a wandering one is difficult, though. And american people I already know will be a little–uh?


Helen 04.23.12 at 2:26 am

Heard the one about the banjo player who was warned not to leave his instrument unattended in a parked car overnight but did it anyway?
He returned to his car to find 18 more banjos in the car.


rm 04.24.12 at 8:16 pm

It starts.

What do you call someone who follows a group of musicians around to all their shows and knows all their songs? The drummer. What if it’s a bluegrass band? The banjo player.

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