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Jim Smoak: A "Hidden Figure" of American Banjo Music

A collection and oral history of 3-finger style bluegrass banjo player Jim Smoak by 2013 Appalachian Sound Archive Fellow Joe O'Connell.

Hearing Snuffy Jenkins

Joe: Ok.  So you listened to the radio every day, and that caught your attention—Snuffy Jenkins did. 

Jim: Well, ever since I was like three years old, I listened to Snuffy Jenkins and his group on WIS radio in Columbia.  They were on like five or six days a week.  And they were called the WIS Radio Hillbillies.  And they were sponsored by like a flour company I think.  The company was called Adlou Flour.  Anyway they came on every day on the radio, and we listened to that every day.  And Snuffy Jenkins played the five string banjo, like I would learn to play later on.  And so, of course there’d be fiddle and guitar.  Just regular good old hillbilly music, you know?  And that’s where the farm news came from, you know, radio stations like that, and, so, then, you know, when I got older, I met Snuffy Jenkins.  And that’s why I actually saw him play with three fingers on the banjo instead of two, like I was doing.  And so that’s when I changed my ways right there. 

After I finally met them in the schoolhouse, you know, my dad asked them to go over there.  To come down, bring the whole group to the house, you know, when they were going to play music at the school for the PTA, well, they came down and visited us first.  Of course, this is when I was older, now.  I must have been thirteen or fourteen now, twelve or thirteen anyhow.  And, so, I had bought a Sears Robuck five string banjo.  I had a four string banjo before that, playing with two fingers.  But anyway, my dad, through Snuffy Jenkins, got him to get me my first nice Gibson banjo.

Joe: That was a bigger influence.  And in particular Snuffy Jenkins was very important to your development.

Jim: Absolutely.

School & Meeting Snuffy

Joe: So, you bought a five string banjo and you started imitating what you heard Snuffy Jenkins doing.  And how did you come about meeting him?

Jim: Well, see, groups like Snuffy Jenkins—he wasn’t the only group of course that played on the radio.  All over the country you’d have different cities and they would have live music, hillbilly bands, country bands, whatever, but that’s mainly what it was because--more folk oriented music.  So, groups like that would play, they’d travel the state and play, sponsored by the local PTA to raise money.  And so here they were hired to come to Canadys—that’s where I went to school first.  It was a four-room school house, and they had a little auditorium in there, and so they were brought there to play for the PTA.  And that’s why I first saw him play, and that’s why I first realized that he was playing with three fingers. Whether I met him that day I don’t know.  But at that schoolhouse is where I did finally meet him.  And he asked me to play on the stage, you know.  Maybe the second trip.  I must have learned something in the meantime.  He asked me to play.

Joe: So you saw him play at your school a few times. 

Jim: Yeah.

Joe: And what was his stage show like.  What was it like to see him in person as opposed to over the radio?

Jim: Well, just with all travelling groups like that, it was more like a vaudeville show.  You know, it wasn’t just one song after another.  It was —Snuffy Jenkins—really, in the hillbilly groups; the funny man was always the banjo player or the bass player.

Joe: I wonder why.

Jim: I don’t know.  It was a baggy pants guy, you know.  With oversize shoes, you know, and an ugly hat.  Well, that was Snuffy Jenkins’s whole persona.  So, he could play the washboard, you know.  He could dance a step or two, and so, anyway, their shows would be all the music and stuff that you hear on the radio, but then they would go into a routine where they would actually—like a slapstick routine, you know.  And I can remember one called Going to Niagara Falls, where—I know you’ve never heard of that.  But anyway, what it is they pretend that—they get somebody to talk about Niagara Falls.  And so what happens is they pour water down your britches.  You got your eyes shut and you describe Niagara Falls, and then they try to get somebody else, you know.  And so he comes out and so they go through the same routine, but he has a water bottle, you know, and so they pour water down his pants you know, like that.  And he reaches—and says, “but I’ve been to Niagara Falls before.”  So it was routines like that—the audience would just be rolling in the aisles, you know, with groups like that.  You see, you didn’t get to watch everything on television, and you didn’t get to see all kinds of entertainment, so that was just, you know all these farmers and people in local communities would come out and just fill up the place and it would be knee-slapping laughter. 

Playing with Snuffy Jenkins

Joe: And, so, he came back through and you were able to join him on stage?

Jim: Right, he just asked me to play a tune, you know.  I didn’t get to go anywhere, you know, until I became a member of the 4-H club, and then I would get to go 30 miles from home to a camp out.  But traveling, we didn’t travel anywhere, you know.

Joe: And so did they accompany you when you came on stage and played?

Jim: Oh yeah, I would play a tune that probably I heard him play anyhow—like "Cumberland Gap" or "Cripple Creek" or one of those tunes like that.  They didn’t have any trouble playing on tunes like that.

Joe: That must have been fun.

Jim: Well, it was.  It was kind of unnerving at first, you know, to get up and see all these people looking at you.  But I got through it so. 

Joe: So you developed a relationship with him over time, and would go and visit him. Is that true?

Jim: Yeah after I got to be about fifteen to sixteen, he invited me to come to Columbia in the summertime when I was out of school on the weekend.  So I’d go and stay at his house.  He had a sixteen year old or fifteen year old son--the same age as me.  And his wife Margaret and so I’d just stay there and I would go to the radio station with them on Saturday morning and they would do a thirty minute radio program and I would play on that.  I’d just play maybe one tune.  Then if they had a place to play that night somewhere I would travel with them and go play that.  Then on Sunday I’d catch a bus back to my home. Walterboro—that’s 90 miles away.

Joe: So you did that several times.

Jim: Several times.

Joe: Did he kind of show you some technique on the banjo as well or was it just purely letting you—

Jim: No, he would—like at his house, I remember sitting around the living room and he would try to show me tunes that I didn’t know, like "Sally Goodin".  I remember that, and he was trying to show me how to play "Sally Goodin."  That was a common tune that you played on the five string banjo.  Because I already mentioned—the whole technique was invented in central-western North Carolina in the 1920s.  And that’s where Snuffy Jenkins came from.  That was his home.  Harris, North Carolina, which is right on the South Carolina-North Carolina border.  That’s where Earl Scruggs came from.  The same area.  And the people who started that whole style—one guy was named Smith Hammett.  I know another name.  I can’t think of it right now [Rex Brooks]. But three old guys and they lived about 75 miles apart.  But they started this three finger playing as—what we know today as the three finger banjo style—Scruggs style.  And so, then Snuffy Jenkins, what he did, he played for square dances and he and his brother played, you know, around that community, but at WBT radio, which is a 50,000 watt radio station in Charlotte, which is not too far away from where they lived, you know.  So, in 1934, Snuffy Jenkins got a job playing on that station, so that’s the first instance of the three finger banjo picking being publicized by broad media.

Joe: Ok.  That was the first time it was out in the public—

Jim: Right—out in the public.  So Earl Scruggs, you see, growing up in that area, he could have heard that—he would have heard that same program.  And Don Reno, another important banjo player from that era—he would have heard Snuffy Jenkins.  In fact, Don Reno, I think I heard him say, or rather quote—he didn’t like the sound of the banjo.  It always sounded scratchy and rough, you know.  But when he heard Snuffy Jenkins, it sounded smooth and put together, you know, in a fashion that he liked.  That’s when he liked the banjo, was Snuffy Jenkins, you see.  Then, Snuff Jenkins worked there for three years, then he moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 1937.  And that’s when I would have first heard him, see, is when he moved to WIS radio in Columbia.

Joe: So he influenced a lot of people.

Jim: Yes, sir, he certainly did.  Yeah.

Joe: What was he like as a person?

Jim: He was a likeable person.  His wife Margaret, you know, they were just kind of happy people.  Because he was—he had a dry sense of humor about everything all the time.  So his whole family was like that.  And all the rest of the fellas in the group, everybody seemed to be regular family people.  I’m sure that’s why my dad let me go. 

Snuffy & Jim's Gibson Banjo

Jim:  I sold a hog in the 4-H club.  And they asked me what I wanted to do with my money.  I said I want to buy a banjo, a five string banjo.  And then, so, what made me want a Gibson banjo was Snuffy Jenkins had an old 1934 model Gibson banjo and it was a beautiful instrument, so I guess I must have talked about that or whatever.  And so my dad when—he decided he was going to buy me a Gibson banjo.  So that’s what he did.  He got ahold of Snuffy Jenkins and Snuffy got another musician who owned a music store in Florence, South Carolina to get the banjo.  And it was shipped to me to Walterboro by train, by railroad express. 

Joe: Were you surprised to get it?

Jim: Oh yeah, I was tickled.  So was the railroad agent at the depot.  Nothing would do him for me to open the box right there and tune it up and play it. 

Joe:  Really?  He wanted to hear a tune?

Jim: He wanted to hear it right then.

Joe: That’s pretty funny.

Snuffy, Earl Scruggs, and Don Reno influence

Joe: And the style that Snuffy Jenkins was playing and that you were learning, how close to that is what became the Scruggs style?  Are they pretty much similar, or was the three finger style that you started out with pretty different from what became the Scruggs style?

Jim:  I didn’t have any written instructions from Snuffy Jenkins on how to play three finger style.  You just learn to interpret the song that you you’re hearing with that three finger style banjo playing.  You didn’t call it bluegrass, you played whatever song is in front of you.  You had to.  That’s all you could do.

It was a lot less than Earl Scruggs.  It was lots of notes.  Say, eight notes per measure if you’re playing in two-four time.  So, Snuffy Jenkins did that, too.  And Earl Scruggs did that, too.  But what Earl Scruggs did, from his standpoint, he learned a lot more, maybe, say, cute licks, or things that you would hear from a guitar player or maybe a clarinet player.  You would hear somebody play something and it just impressed you.  And you would try it out on your instrument.  And that’s what Earl Scruggs did.  He had a lot of innovations on his banjo over what Snuffy Jenkins had.  Snuffy Jenkins had a lot of smooth playing, especially for the background.  You hear him playing in the background, and you just hear those flying out of the banjo, you know.  But Earl Scruggs had more—if you can think of it like this, like he’s singing songs, a song, and the word line ends and you have a little space before the next line starts, Earl Scruggs had some nice things to add in those places.  And that’s where he improved on the banjo.

Joe: So he took the rhythm, the rhythmic style of the three finger, the basics of it, and he added a lot of embellishments and he dressed it up.

Jim: Yeah, that’s exactly right.  And that’s really what became Scruggs style is the way he dressed it up.  Don Reno was a banjo player back in the same time as Earl Scruggs and his banjo playing had more of a Snuffy Jenkins sound than Earl Scruggs did.  But Don Reno then was interested in a little different kind of music, more Tin Pan Alley New York songs, like I mentioned, “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise”.  That was a big hit song for Les Paul and Mary Ford in the ‘50s I guess.  But it had more chord changes is what I’m saying.  More than I – IV - V.

Joe: It kind of had more of a jazz influence.

Jim: That’s exactly right.  So Don Reno was interested that way.  And yet Don Reno could have almost been in the place of Earl Scruggs but Don Reno got drafted into the service.  And that’s probably—because Don Reno also played in Nashville with Bill Monroe, too, later on.  After Earl Scruggs left Bill Monroe.  But, see, when Earl Scruggs went to work with Bill Monroe that was the first time that people had heard a banjo like that.  He was setting it on fire, you know.  And in Nashville, people had never seen anybody do a thing like that.  See it was common to me in South Carolina.  I could hear Snuffy Jenkins everyday doing the three finger style, but Bill Monroe in Nashville didn’t have a banjo player like that, so here comes Earl Scruggs and he’s setting the woods on fire.  And people just liked it.  And I almost did the same thing in 1953 when—because of Nashville music being confined to the southeast, maybe up as far as southern Indiana.  Bill Monroe was popular in Indiana, but because of that WSM 50,000 watt station.  But I worked for Little Jimmy Dickens in 1953, so we went to California.  Well, they didn’t listen to WSM in California, so they’d never heard Earl Scruggs, or never seen anybody with three fingers picking the banjo.  Well I could play on the stage out there and encore, you know, with that three finger style.  Because it was just—I was setting it on fire to them, you know.

Joe: People were amazed?

Jim: That’s right, they were amazed because they’d never heard that before.  They had heard a few record maybe by a few people, but that just wasn’t the popular thing, see.  In the southeast you could hear Earl Scruggs every Saturday night.

Joe: It was normal.

Jim: It was normal music over here.