The Music That Matters: Ralph Rinzler and Bill Monroe, Part Two

[8 December 2009]

By Juli Thanki

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

When we last left Bill Monroe, his career was nearing rock bottom. While former sidemen Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were now achieving considerable success peddling Martha White Flour products on television and radio as their own bluegrass act the Foggy Mountain Boys, his own performing opportunities were drying up and a number of musicians left his Blue Grass Boys. In addition, Monroe genuinely believed that Flatt, Scruggs, and other up-and-coming bluegrass acts were stealing his style of music, further raising his ire. But things were about to turn around for the Father of Bluegrass, thanks to a little help from folklorist Ralph Rinzler.

Following the wild popularity of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Peter Welding, a writer for the folk music magazine Sing Out!, wrote an article in 1962 proclaiming that banjoist and former Blue Grass Boy Earl Scruggs was “the undisputed master of bluegrass.”  [“Earl Scruggs and the Sound of Bluegrass”, 12 (1962)]

Rinzler was incensed at Welding’s neglect to mention Bill Monroe’s role in creating bluegrass music and asked the editor for equal space to refute Welding’s claim; the editor agreed, though he told Rinzler that the stand-offish Monroe would never give him an interview. But Rinzler snared the interview with Monroe, and subsequently wrote “Bill Monroe: The Daddy of Bluegrass Music”” for the February-March, 1963 issue of Sing Out!. The piece effusively praised Monroe’s music while also attributing the creation of bluegrass music solely to Monroe:

At this point it is an easy task to evaluate the contribution of Bill Monroe. It was a combination of musical traditions, both the Anglo-Scots and the Negro, meeting as they did in that area of Kentucky, which enabled Monroe to blend these two powerful strains in his own instrumental and vocal style.  In his choice of instrumental treatment and repertoire, it was Monroe who set the trend to play traditional songs on traditional instruments, and this he did at a time when the trend in commercial country music among performers of his generation was directly opposed to him.


To this day, it is widely believed that Ralph Rinzler coined the phrase “The Father of Bluegrass” in his Bill Monroe article for Sing Out!. Monroe’s biographer, Richard D. Smith states that Monroe had been termed the Father of Bluegrass in Linnell Gentry’s A History and Encyclopedia of Country, Western, and Gospel Music published two year’s prior in 1961. However, Smith writes that Rinzler “brilliantly exploited” the idea of Bill Monroe as the Father of Bluegrass in that:

Forevermore, Monroe’s life and persona would hand on the powerful and catchy phrase ‘Father of Bluegrass.’  It honored his achievement as progenitor of this musical genre.  It depicted him as a powerful elder figure with hints of cultural divinity.  And it was a major improvement over his image as a distant stranger.  Rinzler’s thoughtful questions about Bill’s childhood and influences had implications far beyond the Sing Out! piece…Monroe had never really thought of his roots as being historically significant.  Now he began to incorporate statements about Pen Vandiver and Arnold Shultz into his stage shows.  The answers given the probing Rinzler provided rich material for the stories that Bill Monroe would tell audiences and journalists for the rest of his life.

The Sing Out! article had further positive repercussions than even Rinzler could have imagined. After reading it, the normally defensive and standoffish Monroe became open with his life, impressed by Rinzler’s honest nature as well as his respect for and knowledge of bluegrass music. Soon Rinzler began taping a series of interviews he conducted with Monroe in hopes of one day writing Monroe’s biography.  However, he wanted to wait to write this planned biography until after Monroe had died; whether this is out of respect for Bill’s privacy or a desire to compose ‘a warts and all’ look at Monroe—who was known for directing the silent treatment toward those who he felt slighted or offended him in some way —is not entirely clear. 

Unfortunately, Rinzler died of AIDS in 1994 (Bill passed away just two years later, in 1996).  Although Rinzler never got to write his biography of Monroe’s life and career, the numerous reel to reel tapes of his interviews are one of the very few—if not the only—primary sources that provide such an intimate and detailed view into the life of Monroe, an intensely private man. On these tapes Monroe expounds at length on his personal and familial history, his decades in the music business, and the ways in which he approaches the art of music making. 

Rinzler’s knowledge and appreciation (some might say borderline idolization) of Monroe and traditional music enabled him to engage Monroe in a way that other journalists may not have been able to; even answer to questions such as “What is a wheel hoss?” (the title of one of Monroe’s instrumentals) provided a look into Monroe’s personality as well as a brief glimpse into rural Kentucky folklife in the early 20th century. (While Monroe’s definition of a wheel hoss is a bit vague, it appears to be a colloquialism learned from a childhood spent hauling lumber with a team of horses: the “wheel hoss” is the one nearest the cart’s front wheels.) Today, these interviews (currently on compact disc at the Ralph Rinzler Archives at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage) are an absolute treasure for folklorists, historians, musicians, and nerds like me with an afternoon to kill hunched over a CD player.

Following the Sing Out! article, Rinzler became Monroe’s manager, dedicating himself to restoring the musician’s flagging career and booking Monroe for performances wherever possible. In the ‘40s, Monroe’s travelling show included acts such as a gospel quartet, comedians, buck dancers, old-time fiddlers, pop singers, and “girl singers” (at the time women musicians did not tour without a male as the main act), in addition to the primary attraction of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys.  During the height of his career, Monroe even fielded a baseball team that would organize pickup games in each town in order to drum up publicity for that evening’s concert.

But by 1960, this type of extravaganza had long since collapsed and the public’s desire for Monroe’s music was fading fast. Monroe was unable to keep his musicians on salary, and thus could barely keep a band roster together for more than six months at a time.  In short, Monroe was becoming something of a has-been, well on his way to being forgotten by all except the most dedicated folklorists and music buffs.

“What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul”?

Perhaps the most important single moment of the Rinzler-Monroe partnership was the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.

Rinzler scrapped the idea of a multi-act traveling show and instead got Monroe and his band performing the college and coffeehouse circuit, situating his client within the folk revival as well as drawing a different (and more wealthy) audience at different types of venues: “…during earlier visits to the West Coast, Monroe had mostly played gigs at blue collar social halls that drew transplanted southerners and longtime country music fans.  Now he was also playing white collar-style coffeehouses and nightclubs, which drew folk music fans and paid better.  He saw his station in life being elevated, largely because of his new manager.” (Smith 180).

Rinzler also persuaded Decca Records to compile Monroe’s songs which had only been available as 78 rpm singles into LP albums. Rinzler wrote the liner notes for these three albums: Bluegrass Instrumentals, The High Lonesome Sound, and A Voice from on High. Not only did these LPs make it easier for Monroe’s new, young fans to purchase his music, the liner notes also educated them on the history and significance of bluegrass, creating a whole new, informed demographic that would soon become third generation bluegrass fans and musicians.

Perhaps the most important single moment of the Rinzler-Monroe partnership was the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. At first, Monroe appeared skeptical, according to fellow musician Alice Gerrard, who said “I think [Monroe] was mildly distrustful and he wasn’t about to take the whole thing on faith. Maybe one of the feelings he had was that they’d hold him up as some kind of curiosity. Eventually he really did appreciate what Ralph and others were doing with his work.”  Monroe played the festival’s opening night, sharing the stage with artists such as Doc Watson, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez.

The New York Times would later write that Monroe’s rendition of 1930’s Monroe Brothers’ hit “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul” (which the New York Times described as “that taut, Faustian white gospel song”) was the “high point of the weekend.” (Robert Shelton, “Newport Folk Festival Opens 3-Day Run Before 13,000”, 27 July 1963) Regarding Rinzler’s influence on Monroe and the folk music scene of the early ‘60s, Bluegrass Breakdown author Robert Cantwell writes:

By introducing Monroe into the mainstream of the folk music revival, through university, nightclub, and folk festival appearances, articles and notes, and record albums such as The High Lonesome Sound [for which Rinzler wrote the liner notes], which surveyed Monroe’s career retrospectively, culling a set of recorded performances from which the total shape of Monroe’s achievement could be adduced, Rinzler was able to rescue Monroe and to free him from the intense sense of rivalry with other bluegrass bands which had impeded his own growth. 

Most importantly, Rinzler helped to awaken Monroe to his own centrality in a culturally resonant popular movement which by the middle 1970s had generated scores of summer bluegrass festivals, dozens of new professional bands, and hundreds of amateur bluegrass musicians, as well as thousands of enthusiasts who formed a vast new market for record albums, instruments, song and instruction books, and In Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, Richard Peterson cites a ritual that Rinzler and Monroe would enact onstage at festivals or other events in which multiple bluegrass bands performed: “…with all the bands massed on stage the final evening, Monroe would introduce each of the other bandleaders who had earlier been Blue Grass Boys, at the same time showing the unity of bluegrass music and identifying its source.

Of course in doing so, Monroe was resituating his former sidemen who have found solo success as just members in his rotating roster of Blue Grass Boys, which gave Monroe the role of elder statesman as a counterpart to these perpetually youthful “boys”. In Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music, Benjamin Filene cites instances in the Lomaxes’ treatment of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter in which the former prison inmate—normally a sharp dresser—was made to wear raggedy overalls (occasionally his former convict uniform), a straw hat, and go without shoes in his promotional pictures and live performances, exoticizing and sensationalizing Leadbelly while simultaneously “[shocking] his hearers into attention.” (Filene, Romancing the Folk)  As a middle aged white man who had never been in prison, never been arrested, never even drank alcohol, Monroe could hardly be sensationalized in the manner that Leadbelly was by the Lomaxes. 

However, by having Monroe introduce his ex-bandmates, it was almost as though he was taking credit for their success in that, if it weren’t for him, these men who were now celebrities would instead be spending their days “[plowing] a lot of furrows,” as he once said in a thinly veiled reference to Earl Scruggs’ agricultural background.  Thus Monroe wasn’t sensationalized Leadbelly-style at these festivals as much as he was recreated as an artist, idolized as the epitome of a dying breed of traditional string band musicians struggling in the face of rampant commercialism and flour company sponsorships, while ignoring the fact that Monroe himself was the beneficiary of a sponsorship or two early in his radio career.

Rinzler fabricated authenticity in other ways, as well.  As a musician and folklorist, Rinzler was largely uninterested in the contemporary bluegrass of the time, which was, like the rest of the music business, a commercial enterprise. Thus, in order to save “real” bluegrass from obscurity, he “[forged] links with the folk revival. But in the process, he downplayed bluegrass’s history as part of commercial country music. Bluegrass was now being promoted as a stout branch of the mighty tree of tradition, an offshoot of the trunk of old-time southern string band music that in turn had deep roots in British Isles folkways. Ralph genuinely looked on Monroe as a folk artist who happened to work within country music.” (Smith 182) 

This brings to mind Filene’s analysis of populism and purism—and the constant battle between the two ideologies—in folk music. Much as Pete Seeger scorned fame and Bob Dylan shrouded his middle-class roots in secrecy and changed his name in an attempt to make himself seem a more “authentic” folk performer, Rinzler masked Monroe’s commercial success as a country artist and Grand Ole Opry member in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. In order for bluegrass music, and by extension, Monroe to be part of this “mighty tree of tradition”, (and earn his folky street-cred among the youngsters of the folk revival movement) he had to be severed from the slick world of commercial country music and corporate sponsorships that groups like The Foggy Mountain Boys

Not everyone agreed with folk music’s forced dissociation from the “business” aspect of the music business. Mitch Jayne, the bass player for bluegrass band The Dillards (like Flatt and Scruggs, who in addition hosting to their own television show, were semi-regular guest stars on The Beverly Hillbillies, The Dillards frequently appeared on the sitcom The Andy Griffith Show as the musically talented but otherwise inept Darling Boys), once said this about the rabidly anticommercialist ideologies of folk music revivalists: “We’d left our jobs, left our homes, sold everything we had, to go make some money. And here are all these people saying ‘God, you’re not playing for the money, are you?’ I always wanted to say ‘What the hell do you think I’m doing out here?’” (Smith 181-2)

Rinzler continued as Monroe’s manager until 1965, but arranged for others to take over the responsibility of booking concert performances. Rinzler was not able to manage Monroe and keep up with his musical commitments to The Greenbriar Boys. And although making large sums of money was never Rinzler’s prerogative as Monroe’s manager, during his time with Monroe, Rinzler actually lost money. Furthermore, he was named to the board of directors for the Newport Folk Festival and thus had those extra responsibilities preventing him from devoting full attention to Monroe, a man who, to be honest, needed it. 

However, Rinzler championed Monroe until his dying day. In 1969, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival—still in its infancy, having been first initiated in 1967—was celebrating the state of Kentucky; Rinzler, in his role as the Folklife Festival’s founder and director, tapped Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys as performers, undoubtedly introducing Monroe and bluegrass music to a large crowd, many of whom may have merely been there to experience the free entertainment on a summer day in the nation’s capital.

The bluegrass festival movement is alive and flourishing to this day. Literally dozens of bluegrass festivals can be found each summer in nearly every state in America. The Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival is still held every summer in Bean Blossom, Indiana; in 2010 the festival will be celebrating its 44th anniversary, making Bill Monroe’s creation (now entitled The Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival) the longest running bluegrass music festival in history. 

Rinzler’s two biggest successes have taken on lives of their own. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an integral element of summertime in Washington, D.C.  It’s the largest annual cultural event in the nation’s capital, and is estimated to reach 40 million readers and viewers through print and other media each year.  Like the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, the Folklife Festival has been flourishing for over four decades. 

Unlike Bean Blossom, the Folklife Festival does not sell tickets or charge attendance fees, likely an extension of Rinzler’s anticommercialist views of folk music and other forms of folk culture. Free admission has the added bonus of attracting a larger number of fans as well as a wider spectrum of fans who otherwise may not have been able to afford ticket prices were the Folklife Festival more interested in making a profit than disseminating folk culture to Americans of all socioeconomic demographics, which appeared to be more important to Rinzler in his role as folklore preservationist than merely hearing the performance on a record album (this is perhaps one reason why Rinzler was so resistant to recording that first album with The Greenbriar Boys in 1962).

Thanks to Rinzler’s efforts, the Monroe legacy is in no danger of fading away. He’s been posthumously elected to the Country, Bluegrass, and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame, the only musician to be a member of all three halls. In addition to the Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, which is equally about celebrating Monroe’s life and achievements as it is hearing live music, Monroe’s disciples, which include Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, Earl Scruggs (the two ended their feud decades ago and were close friends at the time of Monroe’s death) and Peter Rowan, all have extremely successful bluegrass careers, which they readily admit is partly due to Monroe taking them under his wing and showing them the ropes of the country music industry. Monroe’s hits from the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, including “Rawhide” and “What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul” are now part of the bluegrass canon, songs any picker worth his or her salt knows.

Most recently, a campaign has begun petitioning the US Postal Service in hopes of getting a commemorative Bill Monroe postage stamp released in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2011.  The campaign notes Monroe’s numerous achievements, his multiple Hall of Fame inductions, and yes, his status as the Father of Bluegrass, that grassroots form of American music that inspired thousands of musicians from numerous genres. Ralph Rinzler would be proud.

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