There is a very old story about czar in Russia who, you might say is struggling with leadership issues. At one point, someone shows him a fly made of sterling silver, by a craftsman from his country. Seeing the fly, the czar realizes he has nothing to fear, for his people have great powers and bring miraculous gifts to the world. This is how I feel when I listen to Earl Scruggs. But Earl is not just the craftsman in the story about the czar, he is also the silver fly itself. By this I mean that it was not so much Earl’s craft, but the man himself who was an incredible gift to the world.
An excellent obituary for Scruggs can be found on the Nashville, Tennessean website. The outpourings of bluegrass appreciators have been immense, and his death has opportuned many stories about the great masters and the good old days. Earl Scruggs was a musician like Maybelle Carter. He and Mother Maybelle didn’t make you want to listen to music; they made you want to play it. Del McCoury, Bela Fleck and many others have said that the unique experience of hearing Earl Scruggs play was their inspiration to become musicians. When I think of Earl Scruggs, I think of his incredible prosody on the banjo, and the way that he and Lester Flatt played so fast, yet still sounded like they were taking their sweet time. Flatt and Scruggs easily played for tens of thousands of hours together, often during early morning radio slots broadcast to farmers and other working people on their way to fields, mills and mines.
My admiration for Earl Scruggs did not make sense until I found out that he had protested the Vietnam War. He was aware on many levels, in other words. With Charlie Daniels as a sideman, he stood with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, but still kept up relations with Ricky Skaggs and the rest of Nashville’s conservative establishment. Earl was one of the only bluegrass masters to embrace folk music. Perhaps this came from being a devoted to father to three sons who came of age during the Vietnam draft. Or because of his connection to Pete Seeger and other folk musicians through the banjo. As a major country star- one who drove around Nashville in a black Cadillac, he bridged genres without concern for the commercial or political impact of his positions.
As a bridge of musical genres and political viewpoints, Earl is epitomized by his song “Home, Sweet Home”. Most youtube entries on “Home, Sweet Home” refer to the instrumental Flatt and Scruggs version found on their Foggy Mountain Banjo album, while iTunes hocks it primarily as an instrumental lullaby. The song itself actually dates back to an 1823 opera, but it peaked in popularity during the Civil War. It is not unlikely that the Foggy Mountain boys learned it either first- or second- hand from veterans of that war, as the song would have been particularly poignant to Appalachian men who had fought in northern and central Virginia and Tennessee.
During the Civil War, Both Union and Confederate armies had regimental bands that included brass and percussion (formally), as well as banjos, fiddles, bones and other less formal instrumentation. Regimental bands would play in the stillness of the evenings, as the soldiers reflected and wrote letters home. Often the warring sides were camped so close to each other that they could hear concerts given by the opposing side’s band. Old timey battles of the bands even occurred from time to time.
But Johnny Reb and Billy Yank had not the heart to compete after the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. Both sides had suffered 17,000 casualties during the battle, which had been an exercise in poor tactical judgment and pointless slaughter. Warring sides were camped on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River as the armies recuperated. On one chilly evening, a Union regimental band closed out its evening set with a particularly moving rendition of “Home, Sweet Home”.
A nearby Confederate band took up the melody in time with the Federals, keeping its plaintive tone. Soon, musicians from every regiment stationed along the Rappahannock had joined in, as soldiers from both sides stopped whatever they were doing and listened, sang or wept. When the song finally ended, the river erupted in a roar of applause, hats flying into the air. One soldier wrote of this particular rendition of “Home, Sweet Home”, that if the river had not separated them, the men would have run to each other, embraced, and ended the war on the spot. Regimental bands and choirs from opposing sides would share the song again when they met in combat at Spotsylvania, Martinsburg, Winchester, and the Battle of the Stones in Tennessee.
Songs and musicians have tremendous power to unite and heal both the personal and societal conflicts that arise in human experience. Thank you Earl Scruggs for being such a bridge, and for passing on the tradition of shared experience through music.