This was written and recorded in 1955 as "Feuding Banjos" by the Country star Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith. A group called The Dillards popularized the song in the mid '60s on the folk circuit, and it was their version that the author James Dickey heard and thought would fit nicely in the film version of his novel Deliverance. The song became famous when it was used in the 1973 movie in a scene where a city guy from Atlanta trades licks with a young simpleton in the backwoods. The film version was performed by Eric Weissberg on 5-string banjo and Steve Mandell on acoustic guitar. Weissberg and Mandell were folk musicians from New York City, but their musical inspiration was the Bluegrass sound of Appalachia. Weissberg had been playing in folk bands since the '50s, and was a popular studio musician who played on Judy Collins' albums. Mandell had been with the Phoenix Singers and was also an in-demand session pro. When the song became a hit, Arthur Smith had to file a lawsuit to get credit for writing it.
By the '70s, folk music was more of a niche genre; gone were the days when The Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary could reach the top of the charts with a true folk song. This song had tremendous nostalgic appeal to listeners who fondly remembered those days, and to younger listeners, it was a quirky and fun new sound. Weissberg and Mandell seized the moment and formed a band that they called Deliverance. They played state fairs, colleges and other assorted venues, and made several TV appearances, playing "Dueling Banjos" until the novelty wore off.
This song was recorded two years before the movie was released. It was the first track on the soundtrack for the film, and the only newly-recorded song. The rest of the soundtrack was made up of songs recorded in 1963 by Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman and released on an album called New Dimensions in Bluegrass.
Largely as a result of its use in the movie, this in often associated with country bumpkins. The first few notes are often used in movies and TV shows to imply a hillbilly mentality.
The Dillards version of this song that gained popularity in the '60s was titled "Duelin' Banjo," which makes more sense, as there's only one banjo in the song. The Weissberg/Mandell version used in the movie was retitled "Dueling Banjos."
This song has been used in TV commercials for Toyota and Mini Cooper. It was also used in a popular Showtime promo.