“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.