When I was asked to review this book, “High Lonesome Below Sea Level,” by Marieke Odenkerken & Loes van Schaijk, I quickly agreed. Having been a bluegrass musician (fiddler for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys 1965-66), an author (“I Hear A Voice Calling,” shameless self-promotion) and photographer, I am acutely aware of the difficulty in producing a book about musicians that balances the writing and photographs to allow each to provide character and insight.
The photos in this book are all portraits of the musicians. But rather than the plastic and contrived album cover shots we so often see coming out of the Nashville music establishment, these images are shot with natural light with a white background and are all in black & white which, to my eye, is perfect for capturing the colorful characters in this book.
Bluegrass music, as conceived and developed by its creator Bill Monroe, is an amalgam of specific diverse musical sounds indigenous to the rural south, industrial Midwest, and Appalachian culture. Monroe drew from his personal experience and love for the sounds of old-time secular ballads, brother duets, church hymns, fiddle dance tunes, and black blues guitar and singing to create a style that, though reminiscent of its disparate elements, was unique to his performance style. He wanted to perform music that was distinct and different from any other performers at that time. And he was always open to whatever sounds he heard and thought of how to incorporate them into his personal style.
In the early days of bluegrass, Monroe was protective of his creation and annoyed when other bands sought to emulate him. It was a music that was very popular – especially the original quintet of Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater. Many people still believe that this was the best ever bluegrass band of all time. He later realized that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and came to see himself as a mentor of young musicians who he would bring into his band, train and inculcate with his musical ideas, send them out into the world and, as he told me, “play my music right, the way I taught you to.” He became a proud father figure of “his” genre of country music, but he was always surprised to find that crossed so many economic, geographical, cultural, and religious boundaries. When I played with his band, he was mystified as to how a Jewish college kid from New York City could play bluegrass fiddle (so was I).
In later years, Monroe travelled the world to perform his indigenous American music in Great Britain, Europe, and the Far East. He was deeply pleased to find an international appeal for his creation. If he were to see this book, I can imagine how he would appear as he thumbed through its pages – wearing his thick- lensed glasses, with a somewhat mystified look on his face. But I’m sure he would have been pleased with the photos that depict gritty, down-to-earth, unpretentious people. And from the stories told in the text, these are people who came to the music because of the honesty and sincerity with which the music reaches inside and tugs at the heart with stories that are universal. They tell of people becoming hypnotized by the music. Even in the Netherlands, the music is a “niche within a niche.” Yet people that were bitten by the music tell stories of listening to it that remind me of how I learned it: listening to recordings of Monroe over and over again to catch the nuances and inflections. It was a language that was native to me, but I still had difficulty understanding all the words. Imagine then a Dutch native trying to catch the words. “We misheard most lyrics, anyway. We’d sing: ‘Listening to the fountain with my daddum on those hokin tokin hills’ not knowing that Bill Monroe had written; ‘I used to sit and listen to the foxhounds with my dad in the old Kentucky hills ….’”.
I had a Japanese student some years ago that was in the USA for a few years. He told me he was part of a bluegrass band in Japan and although the audience for the music was small, it was very devoted. He wanted to learn bluegrass fiddle from a Monroe protégé so that when he returned home his would be the only band with that pedigree. We worked together for the two years he was here. He was a wonderful imitator, but a bit shaky when left to his own devices to improvise or make up his own solos. Some years later I heard a recording of his band on the internet singing Jimmy Martin’s “Sophrone.” Almost a carbon copy of the original, but the words were unintelligible.
The book is photos and text only, no sound recordings (wouldn’t that have been wonderful to have a CD included with a few tunes of some of these musicians), so I can only imagine what the musicians sound like. But they’re honest in what they say: “What Bluegrass musicians have that Dutch bluegrass musicians don’t, I think, is an impeccable sense of timing, a calmness even at the highest tempos. That, and the vocals.”
That sense of timing was probably the most important element in Monroe’s music. I can remember many times on the bus (infamously called “The Bluegrass Breakdown” you can imagine why), sitting across from Big Mon – he on mandolin, me on fiddle – listening to him play a fiddle line on the mandolin that he wanted me to imitate. It wasn’t the notes so much (that was the easy part), but how he “set them in” as he would say. Bluegrass timing and melody, both uniquely indigenous to the South, has inspired musicians all over the world. Monroe would be proud of the stories and photos in this book.
fotoflex: No CD, but there is music in the book. In the photos, to be exact. If you have a mobile phone or a tablet, you can install “Layar”. This allows you to point your device at any photo in the book and that will take you straight to the internet page of the artist, where you can listen to several songs and tunes. Hours of fun.
Sandy Rothman: I knew this author in the ’60s and in later years have enjoyed his sensitive bluegrass photography. All the more reason I was shocked and surprised by this piece of writing. Aside from things like confusing “pedigree” with “lineage,” his use of the platform to tell his own story is unforgivable. It’s like a first draft he should’ve definitely discarded and rewritten. In saying there was no accompanying CD he completely ignored the Layar technology explained in the book…but more than that, I felt using this platform to speak this much about himself was unfortunate. I’m very interested to learn Gene’s personal history, but not when I’m trying to read a book review.