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Date this web site was last edited:  02/09/2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Roots of "Thumb Picking" 

by Palmer Moore

Let me start off by quoting the Country Music section from a book called "Guitar – From the Renaissance to Rock", by Tom & Mary Anne Evans – 1977….

"The British settlers of America brought with them the ballads and folk songs of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, usually sung unaccompanied by a solo performer. These were sung for entertainment and for passing on the history of a society that had little time or energy for formal education. The ballad-making tradition has been an integral part of country music ever since.

In the Southern states where country music was developed, a rigid agrarian economy and rural environment encouraged an often inflexible traditionalism. Coupled with a defensive feeling toward slavery, which was being increasingly criticized during the first half of the nineteenth century, the South was determined to preserve its way of life and adopted an isolationist stance. Moreover, the communities were often remote from any agents of change. Physical conditions and emotional attitudes were equally important in helping preserve cultural traditions undisturbed.

Wherever the pioneers settled and formed a community, they entertained themselves by the age-old tradition of music making. It was not only in the lonely Appalachian Mountains that country music flourished, but also in the lands further to the Southwest – Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. The original meandering solo style of the early ballads was modified by the practice of harmony singing and the introduction of instrumental accompaniment. A variety of instruments were adopted. The dulcimer, of German origin, remained popular in the remote mountain areas where other instruments took longer to appear; more widespread were the fiddle and banjo. The guitar made is appearance in the 1880s, at about the same period when black musicians were beginning to use it (for blues).

But the guitar was not so decisive in the development of country music as it was in the blues. In the blues, the guitar became a second voice; its qualities were exploited to produce sounds, which in turn added an extra dimension to the music. Morever, in the early history of the blues, the guitar was the principal solo instrument. The number of good black guitarists in the Southern state, the development of different styles and techniques in different areas, and the intermingling of musician helped to build up a strong tradition of guitar playing among blacks.

In country music the story is rather different. Country music was usually played by groups of musicians and where there was a solo instrumentalist he was a fiddler. In white country music, the early guitarists usually played in a simple fashion – using three or four basic open chords (like Palmer still does) to provide rhythmic background which could be interspersed with the occasional run. Nonetheless, in the history of the music there are a number of notable guitarists, who invariably had learned from blacks a for intricate style of playing which came unfortunately to be known as "nigger pickin’." For wherever poor whites and blacks mixed – on railroads, down coal mines or along the river – there was an interchange of musical ideas. As traditional white ballad-making was taken over by black singers, so the white country musicians learned to pick a melody on the treble strings of their guitars while using the thumb to give a steady rhythm on the bass

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the black influence on country music increased. The cities held just as much attraction for the poor white as for the poor black. In Beale Street, Memphis; Deep Elm, Dallas; or Decatur Street, Atlanta, blues, ragtime and jazz could be heard by anybody for the price of a drink. In this way the styles and songs of such great bluesmen and guitarists as Blind Lemon Jefferson (based in Dallas from 1917) must have found their way into the music brought back to the white homesteads. For those who remained on their farms, the medicine and tent shows which traveled around the Southern states brought white and black musicians, performing a variety of styles: straight blues, dance tunes, religious songs and the latest Tin Pan Alley hits.

The great expansion of country music came, like the expansion of the blues, in the 1920s, when the recording companies discovered the potentially large audience. The first recordings were of solo fiddlers and string bands, which consisted of fiddle, banjo and guitar. ………

The radio did far more to disseminate white country music than it did for the blues. Sales of radios increased nationally from $60,000 in 1922 to $548,000 in 1929 (mostly to whites). With such a large audience the program directors were eager for new ideas, and in the early 20s the radio barn dance concept was born with the start of the two longest-running and most popular programs. The World’s Largest Station (WLS), own by the World’s Largest Store (Sears Roebuck), started its National Barn Dance in 1924, beaming the program to a Midwest and Great Plains audience. A year later the founder, Geo Hay, moved to WSM in Nashville and began the grand Ole Opry. The first performer was a fiddle player, and the program was an instant success:  …. After three of four weeks of the fiddle solo business, we were besieged with other fiddlers, banjo pickers, guitar player and a lady who played an old zither.

From 1925 to 1935 the Grand Ole Opry was dominated by string bands. Dr. Humphrey Bates and his Possum Hunters, the Crook Brothers, the Gully Jumpers and the Fruit Jar Drinkers were all regular contributors. It was in the Fruit Jar Drinkers that Sam McGee, one of the pioneers in country guitar playing, first started out as a professional entertainer.

Sam McGee (born 1894 in Tennessee) was the first guitarist to introduce fingerpicking into country music (to Dave Macon on the Grand Ole Opry - around 1925.) Sam grew up surrounded by plenty of home-made music - his father a fiddler, his brother banjo - so, he just took to playing accompaniment with them. But, the guitar was rare in the Tennessee hills before the First World War and he didn't have anybody to learn from. The first other guitarist that young Sam heard was Tom Hood (black guy?) who was fingerpicking the guitar in the way that Sam was trying to teach himself.

After Sam’s family moved from the farm to town was where he had his first contact with black people: "My daddy ran a little store, and these section hands would come over from the railroad at noon... Well, after they finished their lunch, they would play guitars... that's where I learned to love the blues tunes. Black people were about the only people that played guitar then."

(End of Quote)

Conclusion

Tom and Mary Anne Evans (writers of Guitar – From the Renaissance to Rock) research seems to indicate that country music got its fingerstyle influence from southern black blues players, thus helping propel the guitar out of the back line of the "band":

Nashville (Grand Ole Opry) got introduced to fingerstyle guitar from Sam McGee – who learned from blacks eating at his folks store. Circa – 1900 - 1910

Chet says one of his earliest guitar influences was Blind Lemon Jefferson records that his "soused" step-dad used to play over and over. And, Jefferson was heavy into playing intricate melodies with his fingers while keeping rhythm with his thumb. Circa 1930s Another major influence was Merle Travis over the airwaves.

Merle Travis’s connection seems to be back through Kennedy Jones, Mose Rager, & Ike Everly (father of the "Brothers") – via blacks, Arnold Schultz and Amos Johnson down in western Kentucky. Circa 1910 – 1940’s

Bill Monroe learned a bunch of his music as a kid from the same Arnold Schultz. Circa – approx 1920 - 1930’s (No wonder Pat Kirtley wrote a song about that Arnold Schultz dude…..)

The southern black blues singers/players of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s had a need to have a rhythmic accompaniment instrument that could also absorb some of the solo action. It’s pretty obvious to me from my quick research that their "need" pretty much gave birth to the "essence" of our Merle – thumb picking and Chet - alternating bass style guitar music. The fact that the blues players were finger pickers (probably because they couldn’t afford picks) forced them to develop it. It sounds like that the blues players were broken up into a couple of groups like Merle and Chet were: the heavy thumbed whackers that got by with energy and personality, and those that had a more intricate control of the strings that "probably" were also using alternating and moving bass lines wherever possible.