Washington Square in Greenwich Village, New York, has an arch modeled after the Arc de Triumph in Paris, France, by the great American architect Sanford White. The arch was ereceted to honor the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States. It is located at the south side, commanding the park. In the middle of the park is a large, circular pool with a fountain in the middle. Often, on hot days, you can find children and their elders wading there. On any Sunday during the 1950s and ’60s, you might also have found folksingers, leftist labor organizers, and high school kids there, playing and singing together. There were also bluegrassers like David Grisman, Peter Wernick, Tony Trischka, Happy Traum, and many others, who were there learning their bluegrass chops.
In 1965 many of them traveled to the Cantrell horse farm in Fincastle, Virginia, where the first bluegrass festival took place. In Fincastle, hippies, future music scholars, and performers mixed happily for the weekend with mountain people and local farmers, to hear Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and Mac Wiseman perform. Reminiscences from that historic weekend still resonate in the memories of those who were there. Bill Monroe, known as the Father of Bluegrass Music, was also at the Newport Folk Festival that year. So was Ralph Rinzler.
Rinzler was born in 1934 in Passaic, New Jersey, and was educated at Swarthmore College in suburban Philadelphia, where he first heard the banjo played by Pete Seeger. Seeger had attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and, briefly, Harvard University in Massachusetts. His instructional book, How to Play the Five String Banjo, first published in 1955, taught thousands of people — slowly, painfully, joyfully — to play the banjo. Rinzler was a member of the Greenbrier Boys, the first non-Southern national touring bluegrass band, according to Fred Bartenstein’s very useful book The Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
Three students at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, meanwhile, were helping work their way through college by promoting music events in Boston. The efforts of Bill Nowlin, Marion Levy, and Ken Irwin mushroomed into what became the most influential and largest label recording roots and bluegrass music: Rounder Records.
Recently, in an article in the Smoky Mountain News, reporter Garrett K. Woodward sat down with Eric Gibson, who still lives near his hometown in rural Ellenburg Depot, New York, where he grew up with his brother Leigh on a dairy farm less than two miles from the Canadian border. Woodward asked Gibson whether bluegrass was a Southern thing, or perhaps more of a rural music. Gibson replied, “Bluegrass is never far from the mountains, nor were we, up there in the foothills of the Adirondacks.”
But as our country has gradually and implacably moved from a largely rural nation to a majority of its population living in urban or suburban locations, so has its music communities — both performers and consumers.
When Charles Seeger — Pete’s father and a professor of ethnomusicology, who took influential university positions and worked for the federal government in the Works Progress Administration — or Alan Lomax went looking for “people’s” music to collect, they were drawn to the Appalachian region. Right behind them were record companies, who sought music to record so that they could sell the new technology of record players to country folk in the South. They also sought a market among the newly resettled factory workers around the Great Lakes and in the southern Piedmont, stretching from Virginia to Alabama.
The spread of rural music to urban areas followed the migration of workers seeking to escape the loss of agriculture during the Great Depression and to take advantage of the greater opportunities in manufacturing in and around cities that grew during World War II.
Just as the recording industry was required in order for Southern, rural music to spread, these days it seems formal study of music in colleges and universities is the new way professional musicians are emerging.
Once, parents would leave tuned instruments leaning against the fireplace, warning their children never to touch them. Of course, as soon as the parents left the scene, the kids picked them up and started to experiment. The children grew up with music on the front porch. Music was flowing into the parlor over early radios powered by the car battery and tuned to Nashville’s powerful WSM station, where they listened to the Grand Ole Opry. But today, music is everywhere. With so many styles available everywhere one turns, introducing and inculcating a love of traditional music has become the mission of professional educators.
Programs for teaching both performance and appreciation of traditional music have spread throughout learning institutions, not only in Appalachia, but across the country.
For instance, Junior Appalachian Musicians has 40 affiliate organizations in schools and communities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Their mission is “to provide communities the tools and support they need to teach children to play and dance to traditional old-time and bluegrass music.” With the decline of music education in schools, this mission and these organizations have become even more important in keeping music alive in rural communities.
Some students catch the enthusiasm, take up the instruments, form bands, and gravitate to old time fiddler’s conventions and festivals like HoustonFest, where they begin to get performance experience. Some of these young people go to schools and colleges around the country for advanced training. Others pick up guitars and banjos in their middle-class suburban homes.
Colleges across the country offer programs at the undergraduate to advanced graduate level in performance and ethnomusicology. We’ve been impressed by the Rennaissance program of Bethel University in Mackenzie, Tennessee, which has produced a couple of touring bluegrass bands who are playing the festival circuit.
The well-known program at East Tennessee State University has a pride band that performs widely. Meanwhile, Berklee College of Music in Boston has renowned programs in jazz, rock, bluegrass, and traditional music. South Plains College in Texas, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Georgia all sponsor music curricula that continue to grow in popularity and influence. Many of the finest young bluegrass pickers today are receiving their advanced training in college, rather than on the road — although the road will always, I suppose, provide the polishing and competition that separate the wheat from the chaff in the intensely competitive search for fame and fortune.
For most musicians, music will remain a part-time avocation, which means that advanced education will remain increasingly important, to help provide a decent living, while minors in music will proliferate.
I conclude, then, that bluegrass music isn’t a Southern thing — nor a rural one, either. Instead, it represents a uniquely American mixture of rural and urban, informal and formal, amateur and professional, local and national. These combinations create and maintain musical forms that will continue to present our roots while responding effectively to changes that are inevitable, across cultures, regions, states, and nations.
What separates bluegrass from some other genres must, therefore, continue to be recognition of our own roots, celebration of the music of our founders, and inclusion of the new musical ideas that have sprung from this exciting, intriguing mixture.