When Bob Dylan appeared with an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival, in July of 1965, he virtually stopped the folk revival of the 1950s and ‘60s in its tracks and awakened folkie youth culture to the joys of rock music.
That year, the festival presented an amalgam of world music, including mountain folk as represented by artists like the Carter Family, both electric and acoustic blues, protest songs, gospel, and more other styles than I can list. It also included popular performers like Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, and for the third year in a row, Bob Dylan. Dylan came on stage carrying his Stratocaster and played three songs to a mixed reaction. (Read Elijah Wald’s almost minute by minute description in his new book Dylan Goes Electric for an exploration of the reactions.) The outcome, however, was a splintering between so-called folk music and rock and roll that nearly destroyed the Newport Festival so much it has taken years to recover.
About six weeks later, the first multi-day bluegrass festival was held at Cantrell’s horse farm near Fincastle, VA, creating an ongoing bluegrass festival movement that has continued, despite its ups and downs, for 50 years. It’s spawned ongoing interest in traditional bluegrass festivals while encouraging the development of many alternatives.
There was at least one performer who was prominently in evidence at both Newport and Fincastle: Bill Monroe. Monroe’s appearance at two such different events can be seen as either a unifying point at a time of division, or the beginning of the emergence of a larger musical tradition.
The signature event of the bluegrass festival at Fincastle was Carlton Haney’s invention of “The Story of Bluegrass” as narrated by Monroe himself. Seated to the side of the stage was Monroe, Haney, and Ralph Rinzler – the latter a major manager of bluegrass and folk musicians himself and a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. (Rinzler, incidentally, had also been at Newport.)
One of our sons (age 49, a relevant statistic for this column) has recently come to several of the bluegrass festivals we attend. He says he enjoys the environment and some of the music, but finds it “too white” for his tastes. Bill Monroe, one of the crustiest people in music history, was a proud, often defensive, often angry man who, once his music was identified as a unique genre, defended it relentlessly. His comment “That ain’t no part of nothin’,” uttered about the arrival of the Dobro in bluegrass, has become a watchword for resistance to change. For many years, Monroe successfully resisted the admittance of Flatt & Scruggs and Alison Krauss into the Grand Old Opry. Meanwhile, according to Sam Bush, Monroe encouraged other musicians to find their own music and develop it in their own directions.
Bluegrass was his, though. For many people, the label “bluegrass” was locked in place with the music of Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys as it emerged that day in 1946 when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs stepped on stage, and Earl’s banjo created a furor of excitement.
A few weeks ago, we had a chat with an executive of a major record distributor who commented that bluegrass has always been caught between folk music and country music. The folk community, this person said, had always viewed bluegrass as being too commercial to be considered folk. On the other hand, country music has always looked at bluegrass as being insufficiently commercial to be fully included as part of country. Bluegrass music has, therefore, become caught in a double bind. Performers can hardly earn enough money to make a living, while those who become a large commercial success – Alison Krauss, Chris Thile, the Steep Canyon Rangers – are accused of deserting their origins, getting above their raising.
Pete Seeger was well aware of a similar split within the Newport folk community and within himself as well, and it bothered him a lot. Monroe, meanwhile, had spent years performing at dances and on small radio stations, polishing his music and developing his skills to be able to make a living as a professional musician, to be different, to stand out. It worked. These days, most Americana festivals (Merlefest, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, even more mainstream events like Bonnaroo) include some bluegrass. But how many bluegrass festivals include any music from across the Americana spectrum?
Thanks a least in part to Bob Dylan and Bill Monroe, we have a large, eclectic body of music that reflects a singer-songwriter sensibility and appeals to an audience that looks diverse and consumes music that often crosses genres. They have come to this music by a number of different routes, probably more than can be catalogued. Streaming audio has made this range more available and more easily identifiable to a broader constituency than ever. As I listen, I find performers who interest me and catch my attention. Others, I’ll listen to for a few minutes or more before deciding they’re not for me. I find some of these artists exciting beyond my expectations. Jason Isbell is a good example. More lately, I’ve listened much more carefully to some I’ve dismissed or forgotten – Townes van Zandt, Steve Earle, and Harry Chapin – only to reassess them. Some, like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, I still blow hot and cold on. But in each case, I can follow my taste. If I wish to sample other people’s tastes, there are playlists that others have posted. And I’m continuing to develop my own route to my own roots.