Bluegrass Enters the Folk Revival: Week 9

Pete Seeger

The week seven blog post discussed the 1965 documentary “Bluegrass Roots,” which focused on the old time and folk roots of bluegrass. A lot of us, this writer included, first heard bluegrass during the “folk revival” of the late 1950s and early 1960s. By that time, bluegrass had already begun to be thought of as its own genre of music, separate from the country music that it grew out of. What accounted for the popularity of bluegrass among folk music fans?

Perhaps the most influential factor early on was the fact that bluegrass was promoted as an authentic musical expression of southern rural culture by the people whom bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg referred to as the “folksong ideologues who shaped American thinking about bluegrass.” Rosenberg was referring in particular to Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Mike Seeger, and Ralph Rinzler. These men viewed bluegrass, despite its origins in commercial country music, as a modern version of the unadulterated Appalachian folk music whose fatalistic lyrics, jagged melodies and stark harmonies had captivated them.

Pete and Mike Seeger were the sons of musicologist Charles Seeger. By the late 1950s, both brothers had helped to promote bluegrass, especially Scruggs style banjo, among folk music fans. Pete had been involved with folk music since his father had introduced him to Bascom Lamar Lunsford at Lunsford’s Asheville, North Carolina festival in 1936. By the 1950s, he was the banjoist and a vocalist with the Weavers, a very popular folk music quartet that had placed tunes like Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” at the top of the pop charts. He was also the author of a manual on how to play the five string banjo, and in the mid-fifties he revised the book to include a chapter on the Scruggs style.

Mike Seeger had by his early twenties become a master of old time and bluegrass vocal and instrumental techniques, adept on banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, autoharp, and other folk instruments. In 1959, he formed the New Lost City Ramblers in New York City with two other revival musicians, John Cohen and Tom Paley. The Ramblers performed mostly pre-bluegrass string band music, including Monroe Brothers songs, on a variety of instruments in a traditional style that closely followed the old time sound. They played many college concerts and helped to spread the word about traditional music and bluegrass among young fans. Also, Mike Seeger produced and recorded the Folkways record American Banjo Scruggs Style, released in 1957. This recording featured a number of banjoists (not Earl, but including his older brother) playing in the style that Earl had refined and popularized.

Alan Lomax and his father John Lomax were important folk song collectors and scholars. In 1959, Alan promoted an influential Carnegie Hall folk music concert called “Folksong ’59.” The concert featured among its folk acts the Baltimore bluegrass band Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain boys, who were the hit of the evening. Later, Lomax produced a major label record featuring Taylor and his band, Folk Songs From The Blue Grass. Including Taylor’s music in his high profile folksong concert, and using the words “Folk” and “Blue Grass” in the title of Taylor’s record, were strong signals to the folk music community that bluegrass was properly regarded as folk music.

Ralph Rinzler, like the Seegers a northern fan of southern music, began following Bill Monroe and other bluegrass performers in the mid-50s. He became a disciple of Bill Monroe, playing the mandolin in the Monroe style. Around 1960, he joined the Greenbriar Boys, a New York City-based folk revival bluegrass band that also featured guitarist and vocalist John Herald and banjoist Bob Yellin. Together with the Boston-based Charles River Valley Boys, the other well known northern revival bluegrass band, the Greenbriar Boys helped spread the music among folk fans in the North. Later, in the early 60s, Rinzler became Bill Monroe’s manager and promoted Bill’s legacy as the Father of Blue Grass through articles and reissue LPs focusing on Bill’s earlier recordings.

Folk music fans were receptive to the efforts of the Seegers, Lomax, and Rinzler to promote bluegrass as authentically folk. In the 1950s, popular folk bands like the Weavers and the Kingston Trio, together with the recordings included in the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, had kindled an interest in the older forms of folk music and the banjo in particular. Younger northern and urban musicians viewed these forms as more authentic than the popular music and the more commercial sounding folk music of the day. All the experts were telling them that bluegrass was legitimate folk music. And so, notwithstanding its association with commercial country music and the fact that several of its foremost practitioners were members of the Grand Ole Opry, bluegrass was “in” with the folk revival. And that, together with the fact that they were Decca recording artists, helps explain how Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers wound up on the Decca LP All Time Hootenanny Folk Favorites Vol. 2 that I had as a boy.

One Response

  • Excellent discussion of a powerful element in the SURVIVAL of bluegrass when rock ‘n’ roll was absolutely killing country music sales. I’ve seen in a private collector’s of Monroe ephemera, Bill Monroe’s 1040 short form tax returns for 1957 and 1958. He had a VERY respectable income in 57; it dropped by about 50% for 1958. Due to rock ‘n’ roll. Acceptance by the folk revival was a blessing. I believe another reason that “folkies” accepted bluegrass was that it was NON-AMPLIFIED. Like folk music, it sounds the same when the power goes out. By 1959 the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival also was including bluegrass, which continued for many years. I’ve read a report where barefoot little Joan Baez, an unknown at the time, asked if she go on stage and sing with Flatt & Scruggs. Earl replied in alarm, “NO!!!!”.

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