Andy Bing’s Bluegrass Blog, Week 7
This week’s subject is a 1965 documentary film by David Hoffman with Jonathan Gordon called “Bluegrass Roots.” (Thanks to Bill Walsh for calling this film to my attention.) The film is available on YouTube with a short introduction and afterword by Mr. Hoffman. The film initially aired on public television in 1966.
The documentary is not long; with opening and closing statements it runs a little more than 45 minutes. It follows an elderly western North Carolina lawyer named Bascom Lamar Lunsford and his wife Freda, as they round up talent for the Mountain Dance and Folk Song Festival in Asheville, which Lunsford had founded in 1928. Lunsford himself was a well known old time musician-he sang, played banjo and fiddle, and danced. Most of these talents are displayed in the movie, although the focus is on the other prospective performers. He wrote “Good Old Mountain Dew,” now a bluegrass jam session standard. In 1936, at his festival, Lunsford met a teenager named Pete Seeger, introduced him to the five string banjo, and loaned him the five stringer that Pete learned on. Not a bad day’s work.
“I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground
And one more thing–in 1928 Lunsford recorded two songs with his banjo accompaniment, “Dry Bones,” and “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground,” which turned up a quarter century later on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Folkways Records issued the Anthology on six LPs in 1952, and it became a founding document of the folk/old time revival. (As one example, Bob Dylan quoted a line from Mole in the Ground in his song “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”) The Anthology included 84 songs and tunes in various roots genres that had originally appeared in the late 1920s and early 1930s on commercial record labels (in other words, someone thought there was money to be made on these tunes). Lunsford’s contributions were #51 (Dry Bones) and # 63 (Mole in the Ground). Harry Smith’s notes to his Anthology referred to Lunsford as the “Minstrel of the Appalachians.” In the 1990s, Smithsonian Folkways reissued the Anthology on CD.
One of the reasons David Hoffman’s film is properly called “Bluegrass Roots” is that many of the songs and tunes featured are well known in the bluegrass repertoire. Lunsford’s first stop was the home of his friend Obray Ramsey, banjoist and singer, and, we see here, crack shot when hunting ground hog. He sings and picks “Ground Hog,” familiar to bluegrass audiences from recordings by Red Allen & Frank Wakefield, and the Dillards, among others. Ramsey is a fine three finger style banjoist and a great old time singer. Parenthetically, it’s notable that most of the banjo picking in the movie is Scruggs style, or other up-picking banjo styles, not clawhammer, a downpicking style that is today more closely associated with old time music. Western North Carolina was a hotbed of three finger style banjo picking when Earl Scruggs was learning and apparently remained one at least into the 1960s.
Next up is dancer and banjoist Bill MacIreath, who dances to “Johnson Boys,” and picks a few banjo numbers, and then Mrs. Lunsford, who sings “East Virginia Blues,” a song done in bluegrass by Ralph Stanley, accompanying herself on guitar. There is some Appalachian dulcimer and some unaccompanied singing, and then a dance at the Lunsfords, featuring fiddle, banjo (again played in the Scruggs style), and an electric guitar (!). Dance tunes included “Paddy on the Turnpike” and “Old Joe Clark.”
Later we are treated to a fiddle version of “East Tennessee Blues,” a tune that Bill Monroe himself picked, and then three tunes from fiddler “Lost John” Ray, described by Lunsford as “one of the best traditional fiddlers in the whole section.” Lost John and the band play “Twinkle Little Star,” “Little Maggie,” and “Home Sweet Home.” Then Lunsford picks up the fiddle and plays/sings “Cumberland Gap,” best known to bluegrassers from Earl Scruggs’ iconic banjo recording. The movie wraps with the Lunsfords singing “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” and “Heavenly Light is Shining on Me.”
Although one senses that most of the musicians featured did not make their living as performers, their performances have that ragged but right feel that this music has when it’s played by people who grow up with it as part of their day to day lives and thus are steeped in it from childhood. By the time of the movie, the mid-1960s, bluegrass in its current form had been available on radio, recordings, and live shows for about 20 years, and it’s not completely clear in which direction some of the influences ran. But one senses that the performers in Bluegrass Roots had been singing, playing, and dancing to tunes like those featured here for most of their lives, before they heard Bill Monroe or the other professional bluegrass musicians. Certainly Lunsford had. These songs were part of the culture of the southeast, especially the mountain southeast, for generations and were part of the musical well from which Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and their founding colleagues drew in shaping their music. For this reason, Bluegrass Roots is aptly named, and definitely worth the time of anyone interested in how bluegrass came to be.