“Cannonball Rag” is known as The Thumbpicker’s National Anthem (or so it’s called in the picking circles). There have been a lot of versions of this recorded, but we’ll be looking at the Merle Travis Version in this performance. Kennedy Jones originally composed the tune, but when Travis recorded the tune in the 1940s, the latter received the credit.

Merle Travis was the son of a coal miner whose family lived on the brink of poverty. Travis began playing 5-string banjo as a child and switched to his older brother’s homemade guitar at the age of 12.

Travis became enamored by black guitarists such as Blind Blake, the foremost ragtime and blues guitarist of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the Western Kentucky finger-picking traditions of guitarist Arnold Shultz, who had taught the style to several local musicians, including Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of the Everly Brothers), neighbors of the Travis family.

The technique utilized a thumb and index finger-picking method, creating a soloing style that blended lead lines and rhythmic bass patterns picked or strummed by using a thumb pick. Ranger and Everly passed on this unique picking style to the teenage Travis, who soon grew astonishingly proficient at it, applying it to an early repertoire of blues, ragtime, and popular songs.

Video Performance


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