The 1963 Newport Folk Festival boasted a roster filled to the brim with up and coming young performers including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Ian and Sylvia. Though the folk music revival was, of course, the main focus of the three-day event, other forms of traditional American music were present as well, including the Delta Blues of Mississippi John Hurt. Next, four men in suits and Stetsons stepped on stage, accompanied by a well-dressed lady lugging a bass fiddle. They were Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, a group that was once the hottest thing to hit country music since Jimmie Rodgers recorded for RCA in 1927.
But the intervening years since his 1938 big break had not been kind to Monroe. He nearly died in a horrific car accident after being struck by a drunk driver and spent months in recovery, lost two of his best sidemen as they went solo (and achieved far more commercial success than Monroe had), and lost fans to both wild rock ‘n’ roll music as well as the heavily ornamented, pop-flavored “Nashville Sound” era of country music, spearheaded by producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley who wanted to erase the hillbilly, honky tonk image of country music and replace it with a refined sound and image that they thought would appeal to citizens in urban and suburban America.
When Monroe appeared onstage at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, he did so after a number of years spent toiling in relative obscurity, his contributions to the body of American music largely ignored by not only the general public and fans of country music (minus those dedicated souls who turned their radios to the Saturday night broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry, where Bill was still an active participant), but those who considered themselves to be traditional music enthusiasts as well as active participants in the folk revival that occurred during the ‘60s.
In the late ‘30s and ‘40s, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys were the biggest new stars in country music, having pioneered the hard-driving string band subgenre that eventually came to be known as “bluegrass”, named after the tagline of Monroe’s home state of Kentucky. When two of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys —guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo revolutionary Earl Scruggs—left Monroe’s band and found considerable commercial and critical success as a duo, many thought that they were the ones who had spearheaded this new form of music; fans were captivated by the sheer skill of Flatt and Scruggs as well as their charming, folksy image—especially in comparison to the haughty Bill Monroe.
Even Sing Out!, the primary magazine focusing on folk music at the time, wrote in 1961 that it was Flatt and Scruggs who brought bluegrass “to its fullest flowering”; the contributions of Monroe dismissed as the mere “[prototype] of the new musical form ultimately titled “‘bluegrass”. In short, Monroe was well on his way to being forgotten after barely a decade in the spotlight.
It wasn’t until Monroe enlisted folklorist Ralph Rinzler as his manager in 1963 that he began to receive recognition for the vital role that he played in the shaping of 20th century American roots music. Rinzler not only resuscitated Monroe’s music career by distancing him from his past commercial country music success and instead aligning him squarely with the folk music revival and festival scene of the ‘60s (thus introducing him to a younger generation), he also rescued the genre of traditional bluegrass from musical obscurity through his tireless efforts as a writer, folklorist, Smithsonian Folklife Festival founder/coordinator, and appreciator of traditional music, and as a musician himself. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without a visionary such as Rinzler, the founding father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, could have been erased from the minds of the American public.
Rinzler was born in 1934 in Passaic, New Jersey. His father was a doctor and of Russian-Jewish descent, perhaps making Rinzler’s foray into folklore and traditional American string band music as an adult a little unexpected. However, as a boy he was fascinated with the family’s phonograph; thus he learned at an early age to appreciate traditional and folk music thanks in part to his uncle Samuel Joseph, a lawyer who at one time was a student of folk studies pioneer George L. Kittredge.
This burgeoning interest in folk music led the young Rinzler to the Lomax Library of Congress field recordings as well as to other forms of traditional music when he was a preteen; this hobby would eventually become his career. Of Rinzler’s folk music leanings, Monroe biographer Richard D. Smith writes, “like many of his generation, Rinzler was entranced by The Anthology of American Folk Music. While some folk revivalists began seeking out Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and other African-American blues players represented in Harry Smith’s collection, Ralph was among those who sought its southern white string band musicians.” (Can’t You Hear Me Calling?:The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 164-65.)
Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound
(University of Illinois Press; US: Oct 2002)
Before “finding” and remaking the faded legend of Monroe, Rinzler “discovered” two other string band musicians who would also prove essential to the American folk music canon: Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. Ashley, a clawhammer banjo player, was a medicine show performer whose early recordings were featured on Harry Smith’s The Anthology of Folk Music under the name Tom Ashley. This is almost certainly how Rinzler became aware of the musician before stumbling across him in the hills of North Carolina.
When Rinzler first discovered Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, also in rural North Carolina, the musician was at the time supporting his family as a rockabilly electric guitarist. It was with “the utmost difficulty” according to Bluegrass Breakdown author Robert Cantwell, that Rinzler persuaded Watson, a blind musician who played with a unique flatpicking style that would soon be known to aspiring guitarists nationwide, to revert to playing the old style folk music with an acoustic guitar.
Ralph Peer did the same thing in the late ‘20s when discovering hillbilly artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and signing them to record contracts. According to scholar Benjamin Filene in Romancing the Folk, Peer primarily “wanted to record artists who were comfortable enough with traditional music to sing songs in the older styles that attracted hillbilly music’s audiences.”