Essence of Punk: Flatt & Scruggs, “Earl’s Breakdown” (1951)

[Creem‘s] point of view was vulgar, belligerent, often less respectful to rock’s major institutions . . . with the result that all of us—and especially me—were frequently assaulted with the epithet:  “You are such a punk.”  I decided this insult would be better construed as a compliment . . . in order to emphasize our delight in rock’s essential barbarism.
—Dave Marsh [1]

“Punk” is a bad thing.  A punk is a loser—not just underendowed but a self-defeater—an ugly, skinny kid, probably carrying a nasty little weapon like a switchblade, someone you wouldn’t trust with anything.  “Punk” isn’t “spunk”; a punk may be a savage, but not the noble kind.

Do you disagree?  I admit “punk” is a word very variously used.  But I want to remind you of a deep provocation in what the great punks themselves meant:  not to stir us up as spunky rebels, but to make us sick.

Given this premise, I was shocked when I heard myself shout “What a punk!” while listening to my new-bought CD The Essential Earl Scruggs. Scruggs is a legendary banjo player and Grand Ole Opry type best known for playing on the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song, not usually considered a milestone of radical music.  I was checking out his Essentials because I love bluegrass in general and the folk-festival staple “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in particular.  But I ran into something unexpected on Track 12 of Disc 1, “Earl’s Breakdown,” recorded in 1951 in Flatt and Scruggs’ first set for Columbia Records.  An amazingly ugly note bursts out in the middle of a lick, something like the sound of a string breaking, a major clam.  Scruggs does it on purpose by manually detuning the string.  Breaking down indeed!

Scruggs’ note

The banjo’s sound in general is already so brash and sour that it’s only borderline-acceptable in musical society; it’s the guest at the party that makes the rest of the instruments nervous.  It must be kept within bounds, used for rhythm chords or else, on what might be called the car-racing side of bluegrass, given its own little fast lane for pickin’ à la Scruggs.  We learn to accept the sound and forget what a punk the banjo itself is.  But then Scruggs violently reminds us with his punk note.  (Gene Krupa does something like that for the drums with his shocking snare strike in “Sing, Sing, Sing.”)

Of course the Scruggs note is really nothing more than a downward bend, just one of the tricky licks a slick picker would pick, and it sounds smoothly integrated when I hear it again on some of his later essentials.  To tell you the truth, it sounds okay now on “Earl’s Breakdown.”  The punk moment has passed.

So?  Did I have a point?

According to Dave Marsh, who influentially embraced the label “punk rock,” for a rock ‘n’ roll lover the alternative to “punkish behavior” is “acting like a dignified asshole.”[2]  I admit it seems unpunkishly pretentious to sit around connoisseuring punk.  (Where would that be headed?  Would we try to determine whether Johnny Rotten or Patti Smith is the better punk vocalist by rating each one for Vitriol, Irreverence, Nonchalance, Nauseating Tunelessness, and Falling-Apartness?)  Above all, punk is an event.  As Pete Townsend said, “what immediately strikes you [in listening to the Sex Pistols] is that this is actually happening . . . It’s like somebody saying, ‘The Germans are coming! And there’s no way we’re gonna stop ‘em.’”[3]  This is an event in which you are skewered.

Beyond being immediately threatened by the punk musician’s act, however, you still get to decide, on reflection, what kind of gesture that act is.  You get to organize your response and pursue your thoughts.

I don’t regret calling Scruggs a punk in “Earl’s Breakdown.”  I know it’s only a single odd note, not a massive assault on convention, but I know I felt skewered when I heard it.  More important, this sets me wondering about relationships of styles—in this case, the relationship between the more aggressive manifestations of “old-time music,” including bluegrass, and rock (and their supporting cultures).

To construe an essence is to convene a community of things, to get on board with something, to share with someone.  The bluegrass genre was created by other bands copying the sound of the late 40s Bill Monroe line-up that included Scruggs.  Rock in its most definitive form grew out of young British guitarists sharing the blues with African-Americans, starting bands in the early 1960s with names like “Blues Inc.” and “The Blues Syndicate”—it depended on the essence, theme, and affinity of blues.  So too with punk later.  As ridiculous as the notion of an “essence of punk” is, an enormous amount has been said about it (google and see).  And you know where you can find your paradigm instance:  the needling essence of Johnny Rotten is available on a Sex Pistols recording like Chanel No. 5 is available in a bottle.

But you can listen for it in 1951, too, on a larger scale of community.

[1] Dave Marsh column in Creem, May 1971, quoted by Jim DeRogatis in Let It Blurt (New York: Broadway Books, 2000), p. 119.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quoted by Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces:  A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 1.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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5 Responses to Essence of Punk: Flatt & Scruggs, “Earl’s Breakdown” (1951)

  1. Brad Proctor says:

    What’s really punk is that he recorded “Earl’s Breakdown” a few
    months before he finished building the automatic tuners he later used
    (which he constructed from cannibalizing parts from a vacuum cleaner).
    He’s doing that tuning and detuning totally by hand (and ear). Though I
    tend to prefer “Flint Hill Special” (his other majorly famous tuner-tune),
    “Earl’s Breakdown” is crazy-go-nuts. If my math is right he’s picking a
    string roughly six to eight times a second. I think it’s fair to say
    that’s punk rawk.

    Then there’s “Foggy Mountain Special,” which is pure 50s drive and swing, sharper than a greaser’s razor.

  2. Erik says:

    What do you think of how Sufjan Stevens plays the banjo like it’s a regular guitar?

  3. Steve Smith says:

    What would be a good SS track for us to listen to for this?

  4. Erik says:

    This is a good example,

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