Uncle John Scruggs

The above footage was taken by the Fox Movietone News, in Powahatan, VA on November 8, 1928. According to USC’s Center for Southern African American Music:

Uncle John Scruggs was born a slave, [and] is a good example of white-influenced black music as it probably sounded at the end of the 19th century. He is performing the folk ballad “Little Log Cabin Round the Lane” in a minstrel style.

Whereas, according to the “for old times sake” blog, “[Scruggs’] music is an example of an Afro-American banjo playing tradition than predates that of white settlers in the Appalachians.”

Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta has some interesting things to say about Uncle John Scruggs, particularly the tradition of black banjo playing and the significance of the “Uncle” in front of this performers name at the time. He also has some interesting things to say about minstrelsy and its enduring popularity amongst black and white audiences through the 1950s.

This video clip not only captures some amazing music, but the setting itself (with the children dancing and chickens feeding) seems like an almost archetypal vision for how our culture has come to think about the post-bellum conditions for black share croppers in the South, and all of this right here in our own Virgineyeyeah.

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11 Responses to Uncle John Scruggs

  1. Leslie M-B says:

    Mr. M-B is going to squeal in glee when he sees this clip. This is exactly the kind of old timey music he’s always including on his compilation CDs. Thanks!

  2. Jami says:

    Very cool find Jim. Thanks for the blues, jazz and folk clips this week!

  3. joe gelb says:

    is this guy in wikipedia?

  4. Johnny says:

    I believe the ” ‘white-influenced’ black music” part of the snippet is debatable.

  5. Luther T. Gravitt says:

    I stumbled across uncle john scruggs while looking for some of earl scruggs music, I moved to georgia in 1983 and can show you at least four black banjo players in and around where I live that play the old claw hammer style of banjo pickin’ you see in uncle john scruggs film clip. That stlyle still exist among black folks.

  6. Barbara says:

    I have a question about Uncle John Scruggs being “born a slave” since this recording was made in 1928. If he was an infant before the Emancipation Proclamation, he would still be close to 90 years old in this video. He doesn’t look that old to me. I love his banjo style, but think the info is a bit “off”.

  7. J Pevahouse says:

    Someone on another post stated the scene was staged using “actors”.
    I remember the small black population of Perry County Tennessee being desperately poor. The house, dress and setting would not have been unusual in rural areas of the south before 1960.
    There is nothing unique about Mr Scruggs banjo style. The style of playing is well documented among both black and white rural musicians.

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