Ethics Quote of the Week: Earl Scruggs, Banjo-picker (1924-2012)

“If you don’t let things develop, it’s like keeping something in a bag and not letting it out to fly”

—-Bluegrass innovator and legend Earl Scruggs, who died yesterday, in an interview he gave in 2000. He was talking specifically about creating new sounds and kinds of music, but his larger point applies to everything in life, and is an ethical one.

Earl Scruggs almost single-handedly changed the banjo from an instrument associated with clowns and minstrel shows to a vital element in American music. His single-hand was his right hand, as he perfected a three-fingered playing style that gave the banjo as much range and depth as a guitar, cello or violin. With his long-time partner Lester Flatt, he injected bluegrass music into the American mainstream with his music for the film “Bonnie and Clyde,” and, of course, TV’s “The Beverley Hillbillies.”

What Earl Scruggs recognized was that just as the fact that “everybody does it” doesn’t make something right, the reverse is also true. The fact that “everybody” hasn’t been doing something, or even that it has never been done or even considered, doesn’t automatically make it wrong. Ethics doesn’t impose rules to freeze societal standards and values, but to give us systems to evaluate whether standards of conduct and values need adjustment or reconsideration. Often we hear the verdict “Now that’s just wrong!” to condemn something that may not be wrong at all, but just surprising, non-traditional and strange to those who never imagined such a thing. Too often that confusion of wrong and different inhibits creativity, innovation, and change for the better. That’s why innovation and condemnation are frequently linked, and why boldness and courage are prerequisites for positive change.

There can be a dark side to Scruggs’s bag. Those who get exciting results by opening bags and letting thing fly often lose the ability to know which bags shouldn’t be opened. This is why, for example, most of the great trial lawyers who contributed new tactics and strategies to litigation and criminal defense, lawyers like Clarence Darrow, F. Lee Bailey and Melvin Belli, eventually crossed ethical lines that should never be breached. Ethics also helps us identify when what seems like a good idea at the time should be setting off our ethics alarms.

As Earl Scruggs knew, however, “this just isn’t done” can be a false alarm. He could pick his alarms as deftly as he picked his banjo.

8 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Week: Earl Scruggs, Banjo-picker (1924-2012)

  1. The five-string banjo was and is my (happy) mid life crisis, and Earl is part of the reason why. Not all that Earl did was ethical; for example, his book “Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo” was originally based on music painstakingly transcribed by Bill Keith (who filled the banjo slot in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys many years after Earl left), and the revised edition doesn’t even mention Keith’s name.

    But it can be fairly said that only a handful of people have ever completely changed the way people think about something – be it music, art, literature, food, you name it. Earl Scruggs was one of these rare people. He had a long and meaningful life, and left a legacy that will impact others for hundreds of years.

    That’s as close to immortality as any of us will ever achieve – in this world, anyway.

  2. Pairing Earl Scruggs with radical activist singer Joan Baez on several rousing and politically arousing albums was a shocker for fans of both — thitherto polarized-to-the-death. I’m not sure whether this comes under your “dark side of the bag,” Jack. I’m sure it will strike some of your regular riposte-rs that way; for me, I can’t remember whether I wore down the needles or the grooves first.

    A quote from the book Telltale Hearts: Origins and impact of the Vietnam antiwar movement ….
    shows what kind of bag this man could open:

    “Southern folk music was associated in the minds of most Northern Americans with stock southern political attitudes: racism, patriotism, and passivity in the face of foreign policy issues. This is why it was so striking when Scruggs showed up with his son, Randy, at the [1969] Moratorium in Washington to play for the crowd. . . . . After his part of the music was over, Scruggs was interviewed. He said ‘I think the people in the south is just as concerned as the people that’s walkin’ the streets here today. . . . I’m sincere about bringin’ our boys back home. I’m disgusted and in sorrow about the boys that we’ve lost over there. And if I could see a good reason to continue, I wouldn’t be here today.'”

    • No, I’d say that’s the good side of the bag. Musicians using their talents in political rallies and protests is fine citizenship and activism—when I get annoyed with artist is when they subject regular audiences to their amateur punditry when the audiences paid to hear professional musicianship.

      The only dark side was that the Viet Nam War and diverging politics broke up Flatt and Scruggs.

      • Actually, that wasn’t what broke them up, Jack. The differences were musical; Lester wanted to keep playing the same old stuff (or new stuff the same old way). Earl wanted to stretch his musical wings and try other things (ironic in that so much of the bluegrass world, even today, is hard-core traditional and doesn’t much like its players expanding much beyond what Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs created originally – and Scruggs was a musical revolutionary).

        There was a quote I stumbled across in the past 24 hours that was specific to Baez: paraphrasing, Scruggs said “I wanted to play with her because she was one of the best singers I ever heard.” Though Scruggs was definitely opposed to the Vietnam war, his reasons were musical, not political.

        • ACTUALLY, the accounts I’ve been reading cite both causes—musical choice and politics. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that they split at the height of the Vietnam protests.

        • I’ve noticed that a lot of truly groundbreaking groups have two major forces-the Visionary, a Joe Strummer/Robbie Robertson/Raul Malo type, a transcendent genius who happened to be brought to a specific genre, and the Virtuoso, a Mick Jones or Levon Helm or Robert Reynolds* who’s inimitable in–because he’s religiously devoted to–the style. Their delicate balance creates something incredible–the Virtuoso keeps it grounded while the Visionary keeps it fresh. That same conflict tears them apart; the Visionary tires of the confines of his genre and the Virtuoso strains at how far from “pure” genre they’ve gotten.

          *Not entirely true for The Mavericks

  3. Scruggs’ quote got me to thinking about a Bible verse: (also Luke 8:16)
    Amazing, immortal music, what that man played. I’m grateful for his courage and inspired by it. With the baseball season in its early stages, I am reminded again of the amazing, inspiring courage of Jackie Robinson.

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