The Music That Matters Part One: Bill Monroe and Ralph Rinzler

[3 November 2009]

By Juli Thanki

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.)

cover art

Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound

Robert Cantwell

(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.”

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.

Monroe's Leitmotif

Monroe’s Leitmotif

Rinzler would later say that Monroe’s vision problems would create a “leitmotif” in his life that would become evident in his music, which often addressed themes of loneliness, faithlessness and lovelessness.

William “Bill” Smith Monroe was born in September, 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky, the youngest of eight children. As a child, he suffered from impaired vision due to an eye that turned inward. Mocked by other youngsters—including his siblings—for this disability, Monroe grew up distant, lonely, and self-conscious, even after he had corrective surgery in his late teens. Rinzler would later say that Monroe’s vision problems would create a “leitmotif” in his life that would become evident in his music, which often addressed themes of loneliness, faithlessness and lovelessness. 

When he was a young man, Monroe met Arnold Shultz, the son of a slave who was also a talented blues guitarist. Despite the fact that no recordings of Shultz’s music exist, he is often considered to be one of the best blues guitarists in history by those who heard him or who were influenced by him; besides Monroe, seminal American musicians such as Kennedy Jones, Merle Travis and Ike Everly were all first- or second-generation Shultz disciples. 

Shultz gave Monroe his first paying gig; years later, Monroe would cite Shultz’s guitar playing as one of his two major musical influences. The other was his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, a fiddle player with whom Monroe lived as a teenager after both parents died. Monroe would one day pay tribute to Vandiver with the song “Uncle Pen”, a tune still popular among bluegrass musicians including fellow mandolin picker Ricky Skaggs (who, interestingly enough, shared a stage with Monroe as a seven-year-old; Monroe would later appear in Skaggs’ “Country Boy” music video).

Bill Monroe, 1946

Bill Monroe, 1946

At 18, Monroe became another member of the urban migration, finding factory work in Chicago and eventually recording songs with brother Charlie for RCA Records. The Monroe Brothers were very successful but soon broke up due to irreconcilable differences. Each formed his own band, and Monroe’s found much more success: Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys were invited to join the prestigious Grand Ole Opry in 1938. 

They soon became a favorite act among country music fans who were drawn to the hard-driving string band sound. When fiddler Chubby Wise, guitarist Lester Flatt, and banjo player Earl Scruggs joined the Blue Grass Boys, the bluegrass sound—spurred on by the revolutionary banjo picking technique of Scruggs—became solidified, drawing both fans and imitators. 

However, Flatt and Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys in 1948 and started their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys, achieving stunning commercial success after flour company Martha White hired them to peddle their products on weekly television and radio shows. They became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, much to Bill Monroe’s disdain. He didn’t see Lester and Earl’s bluegrass music as a tribute or sincere form of flattery; he believed that they were stealing his music.  As such, Monroe didn’t speak to either Flatt or Scruggs for over a decade.

While Flatt and Scruggs were raking in money and sponsorships while separating themselves from the Monroe name and legacy, lest it completely define them as artists, the public desire to see Bill Monroe perform began to dry up. Instead of playing lucrative concerts, Monroe was mostly performing on the Grand Ole Opry; while this brought his music into thousands—if not millions—of homes across the South, it did not pay as much as headlining a concert. 

He was anxious about performing on the new medium of television; due to his vision problems, Monroe was not always aware of which camera was on him, becoming embarrassed when he looked at the wrong one. He was barely scraping by, and a number of musicians left the Blue Grass Boys to find other work. Bill Monroe’s career was hitting rock bottom.

Next month: The Sing Out! article that changed everything.

Juli Thanki is a graduate student studying trauma and memory in the postbellum South. She tries to live her life by the adage "What Would Dolly Parton Do?" but has yet to build an eponymous theme park, undergo obscene amounts of plastic surgery, or duet with Porter Wagoner (that last one might prove a little difficult, but nevertheless she perseveres). When not writing for PopMatters, Juli can generally be found playing the banjo incompetently, consuming copious amounts of coffee, and tanning in the blue glow of her laptop.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/115315-the-music-that-matters-ralph-rinzler-and-bill-monroe-part-one/