Do you know the history of this song, made famous by the movie Deliverance?
“Dueling banjos,” (the banjo tune from the movie Deliverance) is probably the most famous and definitely one of the most popular instrumental banjo tunes ever written. It is also the most requested banjo tune by students to learn how to play.
The song was based on the piece “Feudin’ Banjos,” written by Arthur Smith and originally recorded in 1955 when Smith and Don Reno performed the tune that featured the interplay of Smith’s tenor banjo with Don Reno’s 5-string banjo.
According to a 2014 obituary of Smith: The tune first reached a wide audience in 1963 when the Dillards bluegrass band (in its role as the Darlings) played it with Andy Griffith on The Andy Griffith Show in the episode “Briscoe Declares for Aunt Bee.” But the song “went stratospheric” in 1972 after it was spotlighted in the movie Deliverance, based on James Dickey’s novel of the same name.
According to banjo player, author, and teacher Dick Weissman, in a two-part article he wrote for Banjo Newsletter about Eric Weissberg, the song became part of the Deliverance movie after author James Dickey heard musicians Ron Brentano and Mike Russo play “Feuding Banjos” at a coffeehouse in Portland, Oregon. He became friends with the men and promised them they would play the song on the movie soundtrack. The gig did not happen for various reasons, and banjoist Bill Keith was initially approached to do the song. He was in Europe and unavailable, so he gave the filmmakers Eric Weissberg’s number.
Recorded for the film by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell, the song was released on record in early 1973 under the title “Dueling Banjos.” It went to No. 1 on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart, No. 2 on its all-genre Hot 100 chart and No. 5 on the country chart.
Unfortunately, the 1972 version of the song was used in the film without composer Arthur Smith’s permission — and credited to Weissberg as the composer — leading Arthur to successfully sue the filmmakers, ultimately receiving songwriting credit as well as royalties.
According to Dick Weissman, Eric Weissberg never claimed to have written “Dueling Banjos;” Warner Brothers Records apparently claimed the song was in the public domain so they could avoid paying royalties on it. Ironically, Weissburg, like Arthur Smith, had to consult a lawyer to get royalties for the record.