New York City has been a folk music center since before the post-war folk revival. The book “Folk City,” by Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen, published in 2015 to accompany the exhibition of the same name presented that year at the Museum of the City of New York, details the City’s role in folk music since the 1920s. By 1940, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Burl Ives (among many others) were based there. After the war, folk musicians began gathering for impromptu Sunday afternoon jam sessions in Washington Square Park in the heart of Greenwich Village. Among them were the banjo pickers, including Roger Sprung, Billy Faier, Tom Paley, and (somewhat later) Eric Weissberg. Sprung was among the first, maybe the very first, of the City pickers who were beginning to play in the hot new style with which Earl Scruggs was dazzling Opry audiences in Nashville.
Bluegrass in the late 1940s was considered part of country music (then often referred to as “folk” or “hillbilly,” although use of the latter term was discontinued as derogatory) and was most popular in the southeast United States. Northern bluegrass fans tended to come to the music from a folk, rather than a country, background, and northern banjo players were among the first in the north to follow bluegrass bands. In his book, “Bluegrass A History,” Neil Rosenberg relates that in 1954, when Flatt and Scruggs were part of a short-lived Broadway show (“Hayride”), Earl was met at the stage door each night by Washington Square banjo pickers eager for a glimpse of the master. (In addition to the Rosenberg and Petrus/Cohen books, this column draws on liner notes by Ed Ward and Bruce Winkworth accompanying CD reissues of the Greenbriar Boys’ recordings.)
By the mid-1950s, the Washington Square scene included a group of very talented younger musicians, including Weissberg, who had become a banjo virtuoso by the time he was 18, John Herald, a powerful singer and guitar player, Bob Yellin, another up and coming banjo picker, and Ralph Rinzler, who was playing Monroe-style mandolin. Herald told of an early visit to the Sunday jam; he asked a dubious Sprung if he could sing a song, Sprung somewhat reluctantly said OK, and the next week Sprung asked him to sing. Soon Weissberg, Yellin, and Herald had formed a band. Weissberg’s mother suggested the name “Greenbriar Boys” from the Carter Family song “Girl on the Greenbriar Shore.”
The Greenbriar Boys quickly proved popular at Washington Square and attracted the attention of Vanguard Records founder Maynard Solomon. Weissberg left the band early on to join the Tarriers, a popular folk band, and his replacement, Paul Prestopino, also did not stay long with the band. Ralph Rinzler then joined, and this trio-Herald, Yellin, and Rinzler- brought the Greenbriar Boys to prominence in bluegrass.
In 1960, the Greenbriar Boys won the band contest at the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina, and Bob Yellin won the banjo contest (he won again the following year). These accolades, at a prestigious southern old time festival, gave the band credibility among traditional music enthusiasts to whom “authenticity” meant everything. Back in New York, Solomon brought the band into the studio to record several tracks for a Vanguard compilation album featuring several folk acts. The recording, “New Folks,” included “Stewball,” which features Herald’s distinctive high clear voice, and Rinzler’s lickety-split take on the Bill Monroe mandolin showpiece “Rawhide,” on which Yellin’s banjo also shines.
While the Greenbriar Boys were recording “New Folks,” Joan Baez, by then a folk music superstar, heard them and invited them to record with her on her next album and to tour with her. Baez’s 1961 record “Joan Baez Vol. 2” included the band playing and singing with her on the Carter Family song, “Little Darling Pal of Mine.” The joint tour brought the Greenbriar Boys’ music to a large new audience.
Also in the fall of 1961, the band had the dubious distinction of being upstaged in print at the prestigious New York City club Gerde’s Folk City by their opening act, a young folksinger named Bob Dylan. The New York Times review by folk music critic Robert Shelton gave the band a few nice sentences but raved at length about Dylan. This review helped launch Dylan’s spectacular career.
The following year the Greenbriar Boys released their first album, simply titled “The Greenbriar Boys.” This recording announced that a distinctive new bluegrass band had arrived, with its own urban sensibility and attitude. Their music had the sparkle and vitality of all great bluegrass, but their arrangements and song selections were their own. Who else would have covered “We Shall Not Be Moved” as a bluegrass barn burner? The recording also contain John Herald’s stunning rendition of “Amelia Earhart’s Last Fight,” a song that, like “Stewball,” became closely associated with Herald, one that he performed for the rest of his life. On “Other Side of Jordan,” the band showed that they could rework an old time number into something new and exciting.
On their next record, 1964’s “Ragged But Right,” the band dug deeper for unusual material that would work with their style of bluegrass. The title cut was definitely outside the bluegrass mainstream, but the band’s sprightly tempo propelled by Yellin’s driving banjo and the novel vocal arrangement made a memorable performance. Bob Yellin shines on his banjo composition “A Minor Breakdown” and the band updates another old time classic, “Let Me Fall.” Finally, John Herald again demonstrates his mastery of classic country ballads on an early Marty Robbins song, “ At The End Of A Long Lonely Day.”
By the time of this record Ralph Rinzler was involved in several other musical pursuits, including managing Bill Monroe (to the extent that was possible) and getting the Smithsonian’s Institute of American Folklife up and running. He left the band and was replaced by legendary mandolin virtuoso Frank Wakefield, who was well known in bluegrass for his recordings and performances with Red Allen and others.
Wakefield brought southern credibility to the band, along with his strong voice and extraordinarily inventive mandolin style. The Wakefield edition of the Greenbriar Boys released the band’s last album, “Better Late Than Never,” in 1966. Frank shows off his vocal chops on his “The Train That I Ride,” and Herald his on “Up To My Neck In High Muddy Waters,” a beautiful and riveting performance. This record also contains the first recording of (then future Monkee) Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum,” a hit for the Stone Poneys and their vocalist Linda Ronstadt the following year. In addition to releasing this album, the Wakefield version of the band also appeared on Pete Seeger’s television program “Rainbow Quest.”
By 1967 the Greenbriar Boys had parted company. Bob Yellin moved to Israel for several years and then settled in Vermont, John Herald ultimately settled in Woodstock, led his own band for many years, and sometimes attended the HVBA jam sessions, Ralph Rinzler continued his work for the Smithsonian, and Frank Wakefield, a longtime resident of Saratoga Springs, continues to make groundbreaking music.
The Greenbriar Boys were among the first New York City bluegrass bands and among the first “citybilly” bands. Together with Boston groups like the Charles River Valley Boys and the Lilly Brothers (although the Lillys were West Virginia expats), they helped popularize the music in the north. Moreover, with the Country Gentlemen, they brought a wry sensibility and humor to the music that, perhaps, came from their not being from the upland south. Their broad appeal helped bluegrass to grow beyond its regional roots and attract new audiences in cities and on college campuses. They showed that bluegrass was music for everyone.
A personal note: I first saw the John Herald Band at a club in the Catskills in 1985. I was immediately captivated by John’s marvelous singing. Nobody would ever mistake him for a southern singer but his vocal power, intensity, and depth of feeling for his music ranked him, in my estimation, with the greats of the music. In that way he was like Joe Val and Dan Tyminski, two other northern singers who capture that mountain soul. I worked a couple of shows with John over the years, and he was always very pleasant. He was also a virtuoso guitar flatpicker, and I needed my A game on his shows. John Herald died in 2005; his music remains, and still gives pleasure.