DeWitt "Snuffy" Jenkins
“There was other fellas that played with three fingers before Snuffy, but he was the first one who ever put it together. It’s like seeing a river winding and you don’t know where it’s going and then finally you see it straightened out going into the ocean; that’s the best way I can explain it. When I heard Snuffy, I could see that he had unwound something and straightened it out to the point where it did have a flowing melody to it and not a bunch of jerks and stops and this, that, and the other thing. He had perfected, as far as I’m concerned, a three-finger roll” ~Don Reno
Dewitt “Snuffy” Jenkins, the grand-daddy of modern day three finger picking, was born October 27, 1908 in Harris, North Carolina. As a child he was surrounded by music. “There was seven of us in the family and, of course, just about a of them played a little bit, not much professionally, but me and my brother Verl, we played more together than anybody, and he was a fiddler and I was playing the banjo. We had a band of our own. I was actually playing guitar a little bit before I got to playing the banjo. And we were playing for dances and fiddler’s conventions around in the twenties.”
At that time Snuffy was working out of the simple, melody-led two-finger style favored by most banjoists in the area. Then, in 1927, he met two men who were playing in a smoother three finger style. “One was Rex Brooks and one was Smith Hammett and they both lived in Cleveland County, North Carolina, right around where Earl Scruggs was born and raised. So I heard those fellas playing and that kind of stuck with me a little bit, and I picked it up from them. I don’t claim I started the three finger style. The only thing I claim is that I was about the first one to go on the air in that part of the country with it.”
Rex Brooks was working at the local telephone company, and played with his fingernails and a thumbpick. “It made a good clear sound, but it wasn’t too loud, you know. And Smith Hammett, I believe he was a farmer. He said he played with his fingernails ‘til his middle finger go so sore from playing for dancing he couldn’t stand it and he went to using his index and ring fingers with picks. He was a good banjo player, Smith—he was a good dancer too—light on his feet, you know—cloggin’. He was a real card. A little short guy.” Unfortunately, Smith never recorded but he left his mark on Snuffy and later on Earl Scruggs.
Having assimilated these influences, Snuffy began working professionally and by the time he was twenty-six he was paying on the popular Crazy Water Barn Dance out of Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1936, he became one of J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, replacing Wade Mainer on banjo. The following year, the band moved from North Carolina to Columbia, South Carolina and radio station WIS. There they teamed up with announcer Byron Parker, the Old Hired Hand. Snuffy describes what it was like traveling around with that band in the late thirties. “We didn’t even have a P.A. system. We’d play a lot of these little old rabbit school houses down there. Wouldn’t hold over a couple of hundred, you know; fifteen and twenty-five cents (admission), and five of us made a living like that. No electricity.” After J.E. Mainer left, the group became known as Byron Parker’s Mountaineers, and later as the Hired Hands. In 1939, fiddler Homer “Pappy” Sherrill joined the band and formed a musical alliance with Snuffy which lasts to this day.
In the late thirties and early forties Don Reno and Earl Scruggs began coming around (independently of each other) to learn from Snuffy. Although Snuffy is often credited with teaching them both to play, he’s more modest about his contribution. “I don’t claim to have taught Earl or Don, either one, anything. It’s gotta be born in you I think. You got it or you don’t have it. But I was always willing to teach anyone anything. I could do it and let them pick it up in a short time. But I’m no teacher, that I know. They’d come around to where we was playing in a show date and naturally I’d show them whatever I could if they wanted me to. Don Reno claims that I taught him everything he knows ‘cause he was playing in South Carolina too. In fact I sold him a banjo. A pre-war gold plated banjo for $90.00. He traded Earl (Scruggs) and now Earl’s got it. I noticed that me and Earl got pretty much the same lick on a lot of stuff.”
So Snuffy had developed a relatively sophisticated forward rolling three finger style in the mid to late thirties. It was a style that Charlie Poole seemed to be moving towards a few years earlier (listen to Poole’s version of “Flop Eared Mule” on Puritan Records 3002). Unfortunately Poole died before his ideas could come to fruition and Snuffy became the man to take the three finger style to the doorstep of bluegrass. (Interestingly, Snuffy claims never to have heard Poole).
In the years that followed, Snuffy continued to play on WIS radio and television. Ultimately, thought, he found it in his best interests to leave. “I quit on account of my heath. I was starving to death.”
Although his ribs were showing, Snuffy forged ahead, developing his talents not only as a banjo player, but also as a guitarist and washboard flailer. “Washboard really goes over almost anywhere. I’ve been playing it I reckon over 20 or 30 years. Just a novelty act. Got some good rhythm. That’s al it is—rhythm in the show.” He also continued in his role as comedian. “I got comedy hung on me when I first went in. You can get by with a lot of stuff on comedy that you can’t when you’re doing straight.”
Banjo, though, has remained his strongest suit. He’s kept the old-time three finger sound in spite of the onslaught of the newer bluegrass styles. “I try not to change anything. A lot of people try to copy someone else. Well you’re only selling them, you’re not selling yourself. It’s a whole lot easier selling yourself than selling someone else.”
Today, Snuffy works for a Chevrolet dealership in Columbia, South Carolina. But that doesn’t mean he’s hung up his picks. He still steals away with Pappy to pay occasional club dates, festivals and yes, even the ballet (he and Pappy performed with New York City’s Joffrey Ballet earlier this year).
In looking back at his contribution to the development of bluegrass banjo Snuffy puts it this way: “At the time I didn’t know what was happening. Didn’t give it a second thought. Since then it’s really blossomed out all over the hills of Georgia.”
Trischka, Tony. 1977. Snuffy Jenkins. Bluegrass Unlimited, October: 20-21.
Full Name: DeWitt "Snuffy" Jenkins
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