Sunday, February 06, 2005

Flailing the Banjo? Or Frailing?

"She plays ... banjo in the old flailing style Uncle Dave Macon used."

So the sentence appears in Johnny Cash's "Cash: the Autobiography." This puzzled me because I always thought the term used for a style of banjo playing was "frailing," not "flailing."

A few minutes spent with Google brought only a small amount of light. The term indeed is normally "frailing" (see here and here). And yet there are other examples like the one in Cash's book of the term "flailing" being used:

Here: "He's one of the best flailing banjo players I've ever heard."

Here: "Blair accompanies in a pre-bluegrass picking and flailing banjo style."

But judging by the number of hits, "frailing" is the standard term. Hence, the question arises: Whence "flailing"? Is it an eggcorn (nascent folk etymology)? Since "to frail" is not used outside the world of banjo-playing, it might attract a folk etymology, especially since "to flail" meaning "to beat" well describes the action: someone who is frailing the banjo appears from the audience to be just beating or striking the resonator.

And yet apparently there is also some evidence that "frail" is just a dialectal form for "flail." In which case "flailing" is not a folk hyper-correction, but just an adjustment of the lexeme towards the standard dialect. But I can't answer the question definitively: Is the current use of "flailing" an eggcorn which in fact inadvertently restores the original etymon? Or is it a survival that has always been used alongside the dialectal "frailing"? — in which case it is not an eggcorn at all. I don't have the time or resources to solve this question, but maybe a reader has some specialized knowledge?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Johnny Cash, Cash, the Autobiography, with Patrick Carr (Harper Collins, 1997), p. 133. For previous mention of "eggcorns," see here and follow the links to the discussions at Language Log.

3 comments:

Seth L. Sanders said...

I am reminded of the Carter Family's preference for "chimbley," which bluegrass scholar John Fahey, I think jokingly, connects to a taboo deformation (cf. "Gosh darn you to heck") of words that include body parts in their names (*chim-knee>chimbley). See Fahey's remarkable liner notes to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music vol. 4

Patrick O'Hannigan said...

I can only opine about "frailing" vs. "flailing" as a close reader of liner notes and a fan of bluegrass music. On the "String Wizards" album, ex-Nitty Gritty Dirt Band frontman and banjo god John McEuen writes about how much fun it was for him to play with original banjo god Earl Scruggs. The two of them collaborate on a piece called "Carolina Traveler," and liner notes mention that McEuen is frailing on those parts of the song where Scruggs plays lead. Given the awesome control and finger-picking prowess both men display, "frailing" seems a better descriptor than "flailing."

See also Slavek Hanzlik's "Spring in the Old Country" where "newgrass" hotshot Bela Fleck shows mastery of traditional banjo styles as well.

"Flailing," for me, conjures images of the animatronic old man strumming a folk tune in the "swamps" that front Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" theme ride. No doubt many pickers "flail" in jams or on porches. But the musicians we all look up and listen to "frail."

EMC said...

Thanks to both of you for your comments. Obviously my CD collection needs to get bigger to deal with these issues.