The Music That Matters Part One

Bill Monroe and Ralph Rinzler

by Juli Thanki

3 November 2009

 

The New River Ranch

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys 1966.LtoR (top): Richard Greene, Lamar Grier, Bill Monroe, Bill Monroe, Peter Rowan and James Monroe. Photo by Dixon Smith

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys 1966.LtoR (top): Richard Greene, Lamar Grier, Bill Monroe, Bill Monroe, Peter Rowan and James Monroe. Photo by Dixon Smith

The New River Ranch

The New River Ranch was the primary inspiration for what was to become one of Rinzler’s most lasting and important contributions to the world of folklife: the creation of the folk festival, an event which can be enacted for the people to celebrate different elements of folklife; material culture, folklore, or, as we would see in Rinzler’s conception of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a combination of the two.

Indeed, Rinzler was correct: playing old style music with acoustic instruments jumpstarted Watson’s career, landing him a spot on his first recording, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s and garnering him a performance slot at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, which exposed him to the young, college-age fans of Dylan and Baez. This is the first instance we see of Rinzler mindfully altering his subject in order to present a carefully engineered “authentic” folk figure for the public’s consumption, but it wouldn’t be the last, as Monroe would later prove on the bluegrass festival circuit.

Rinzler would eventually put his musical leanings to practical use when he joined The Greenbriar Boys, a New York City-based string band, as the mandolin player.  Eventually the band became popular enough that they were approached by folk and blues label Vanguard Records about possibly recording an album. Rinzler wasn’t enthusiastic about this prospect—he seemingly had no desire for music stardom or commercial and financial success—but friend and New York Times music critic Robert Shelton convinced him that making a record could lead listeners back to the traditional folk music that Rinzler had spent his entire adult life preserving and promoting:

“[Shelton] said if you record what you fellows do, the people that you admire and learn from, that you’re trying to encourage people to listen to, will be heard by the people who are listening to you. But they won’t be heard if you don’t pave the way, because you’re an interpreter, you’re a middle road for city listeners. And the city listeners can go from digesting your music to the more strident or deeper rural based material, but they won’t go to that if you don’t serve as a transition group.” (Neil V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005, p. 181.)

cover art

Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music

Benjamin Filene

(The University of North Carolina Press)
US: Jun 2000

Rinzler finally assented to the recording session, but subsequently wrote an essay in the liner notes of The Greenbriar Boys’ 1962 self-titled album which focused not on the band, but those influential bluegrass musicians that came before in hopes that Greenbriar fans may become inspired to seek out the recordings of seminal bluegrass artists such as Monroe and the Stanley Brothers: “I thought it was preposterous for us to play [Monroe instrumental track] “Rawhide” or any bluegrass on a recording and take it seriously.”  The Greenbriar Boys didn’t play any Monroe classics or typical hard-driving bluegrass instrumentals on this first album, instead choosing to alternate traditional songs such as “Nine Pound Hammer” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” with original songs like the Rinzler-penned “Coot from Tennessee” and the lighthearted “We Need A Whole Lot More of Jesus (And a Lot Less Rock & Roll)”.

It was around this time in New York City that Rinzler would begin associating with other folk enthusiasts and revivalists, including the late musician/folklorist Mike Seeger with whom Rinzler shared a close friendship. In fact, it was at Seeger’s urging that Rinzler first saw Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys perform in 1954 at New River Ranch, a country music park located in Rising Sun, Maryland.  According to Rinzler, New River Ranch “was like going into another world. I was fascinated by the totally different lifestyle—dinner on the ground, different speech patterns—a whole different way of life.  The whole idea of it really astounded me—that this existed.” (Jim Rooney, Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters, New York: Dial, 1971, p. 77.)

From that moment on, Rinzler was a Monroe devotee, learning everything he could about the man and his unique style of music. It seems that both Rinzler and Monroe became frequent visitors to the New River Ranch; in the Ralph Rinzler Archives there exist several tapes of performances staged at the ranch by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys and recorded by Rinzler throughout the years. It’s very possible that this moment at the New River Ranch was the primary inspiration for what was to become one of Rinzler’s most lasting and important contributions to the world of folklife: the creation of the folk festival, an event which can be enacted for the people to celebrate different elements of folklife; material culture, folklore, or, as we would see in Rinzler’s conception of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a combination of the two.

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