The Origins of Bluegrass Music

Here is an animated, opinionated, discussion re. the origins of bluegrass music as a style of playing. My own belief is that there is no definitive response to this question. Even though the style may be traced to the inspiration of one person, William Smith Monroe of Rosine, Kentucky, the factors contributing to the style Bill crystalized in his band The Blue Grass Boys (named after his home state) become very complex under close examination. Nevertheless, it can be fun to check out various opinions. Comments welcome at all times.

An early version of Bill Monroe's band, The Blue Grass Boys.

An early version of Bill Monroe’s band, The Blue Grass Boys.

Joseph Scott: Old Time (music) and Early Bluegrass

Bluegrass started in the 1940s because and when Earl Scruggs joined an already jazz-influenced (e.g. taking turns taking solos a la Count Basie and Benny Goodman, swing rhythmic feel a la Count Basie and Benny Goodman) professional C&W band that had a remarkable bluesy and jazzy mandolinist a la Charlie McCoy “Jackson Stomp” 1920s and not a la e.g. mandolinist Matthew Prater. Old-time in contrast describes music that could have been played by folk musicians in the 1910s. It had that name “old-time music” as of the 1920s because there was significant interest then in listening to music that predated the 1920s. And it has ever since.

If it’s really old-time, it’s not bluegrass.

Zach N Tiff: What about all the players from Galax in the 60s ? As an example you had OT Fiddlers playing with 3 finger banjo pickers (with picks) I know quite a few OT Fiddlers that are documented saying they preferred the BG banjo behind them but they surely weren’t playing BG style fiddle…

Tony Thomas: Monroe had all options open when he was moving around the band in the mid 40s before he hired Earl, Lester, and the bassist. That included just getting rid of the fiddles and banjos and having a five-piece band and trying to be a singer like everyone else. If anyone has ever heard the live air checks of Monroe with Earl at the Opry in late ’45 and early ’46, the level of velocity and intensity and sheer virtuosity involved in that band especially in the machine gun fire rolls and mandolin playing, it really tastes of Jazz or even Rock and Roll, it’s strictly performance, show music of the highest calibre. Monroe’s version of Blue Yodel # 4 (that he later cut as California Blues) from the Opry with Earl is just the most startling, over powering,l overwhelming Performance I have ever heard and I cannot imagine actually hearing and seeing it.

Joseph Scott: “it really tastes of Jazz” It swings, because swing was the thing by then.

Zach N Tiff: Wouldn’t that be an overlap if they are mixed together ? So if a BG style Fiddler plays with a Clawhammer/OT banjo player it’s OT ?

Joseph Scott: It isn’t OT because bluegrass isn’t OT. OT is whatever was actually OT.

Joseph Scott: When Grieg rearranged Mozart in romantic style, it was better than Mozart imo, and it was romantic style, not classical style, even though some of what was in there was straight Mozart.

Jim P: The second Camp Creek Boys LP had BG banjo, but it wasn’t bluegrass. Not strict old-time either, but more old-time than much of what passes at festivals as old-time i.e. huge free for all jams.

Zach N Tiff: Jim P I’m with you there…To say there was no overlap or period of transition with OT&BG imho you are ignoring a lot…

Joseph Scott: Zach N Tiff, There actually was no “period of transition” between OT and BG. And that isn’t about ignoring anything. It’s like someone imagining that when Roy Brown made “Butcher Pete,” it was because he had been listening to Charlie Patton. It wasn’t because of that and he hadn’t been. Time had marched on over decades with more transitions than that. Of course a BG musician can be familiar with OT and mix BG with OT (and the resulting mix is BG, like Grieg’s versions of Mozart were in romantic style and Gillespie’s version of “All The Things You Are” was in bebop style). No one has been disputing that.

Joseph Scott: “Not strict old-time” Old-time music describes such an incredibly massive amount of music that having a place to discuss that actual old-time music is a good idea.

Zach N Tiff: Joseph Scott Thanks for your opinion ??

Austin Stovall: Just thought I would add my 2 cents I consider myself an old-time musician but I see tons of overlap between old-time and bluegrass music with actual country and mountain people. Here in East Tennessee there are many people who play stuff you would call old-time that also play stuff you would think of as bluegrass. Without a doubt when Bill created Bluegrass music it was something new and exciting but it quickly became very popular with rural and mountain folk musicians to me when elements of Bill and Earls music was taken up by average folks is when it really started mixing with the earlier old-time styles. Ralph Stanley is a great example of this he was an old time banjo player that heard and liked Scruggs playing and came up with his own version heavily influenced by his earlier old-time 2 finger index lead banjo style how is this not overlap between old time and bluegrass? Or the 1960s lineup of J.E. Mainers Mountaineers that included a Scruggs style banjo player the music was still old time J.E. was still playing the same old time tunes in the way he always played them. This intense separation between old-time and Bluegrass seems to be most prevalent in the more urban and academic old time music crowd. They are different styles but to say there is no overlap is ignoring a lot of great music that falls somewhere in between.

Joseph Scott: Austin Stovall, No one is saying that bands don’t incorporate old-time elements into bluegrass. I’m saying that when they do, they’re making bluegrass.

Joseph Scott: And aren’t making old-time, because old-time refers to whatever folk musicians played by the 1910s, and folk musicians in fact didn’t play that hybrid by the 1910s. Same reason we don’t call bebop or rock and roll old-time music, that style doesn’t fall within what was actual old-time music.

Joseph Scott: Rock and roll can include boogie woogie piano by one member of the band that is consistent with 1910s folk piano. But the whole band can’t sound like a rock and roll band and sound like old-time at the same time, it can’t be done. Because no one was playing in rock and roll style in the 1910s. Just like no one was playing in bluegrass style in the 1910s.

Joseph Scott: These are quite parallel examples chronologically, because musicians started making bebop in about 1943, bluegrass in about 1945, rock and roll in about 1946

Joseph Scott: Austin Stovall, “This intense separation between old-time and Bluegrass seems to be most prevalent in the more urban and academic old time music crowd.” It’s most prevalent among those who have bothered to understand what happened chronologically and why people who care about old-time music call old-time music “old-time music.” Some people don’t know or would prefer to not care what “old-time music” refers to. It refers to music that could have been played by folk musicians before the 1920s. It meant that in the 1920s, it meant that in the 1960s, and it means that now.

Joseph Scott: “Rock and roll can include boogie woogie piano by one member of the band that is consistent with 1910s folk piano” For other analogies see the mentions of Grieg/Mozart and Dizzy/”All The Things You Are” above. IIRC Dizzy had traditional pop strings on (one of?) his recordings of “All The Things.” If so, that would be an example of his recording incorporating pre-bop sounds, but being a bebop recording he made.

Joseph Scott: “old time music crowd” If you tell the ragtime crowd that Carly Rae Jepsen is ragtime, they’ll correct you. The reason for that is they know ragtime.

Zach N Tiff: Seems like the debate topic keeps being moved around here..Of course there is a distinction between Old Time and Bluegrass. But to say there was no transition from OT to BG or an overlap or a mixing from where BG was born just doesn’t make any sense to me..So BG didn’t evolve from OT ? If not where did it come from ? It had to come from somewhere and there for having to evolve out of that…Making a transition period..

Joseph Scott: Zach N Tiff “So BG didn’t evolve from OT ? If not where did it come from ?” Hip C&W of the ’30s-’40s

Zach N Tiff: No I disagree with that entirely…BG for sure evolved out of the practice of the Old Time Stringband practice for the majority..

Joseph Scott: Bill was influenced by the Prairie Ramblers, for instance. And they weren’t old-time either. You couldn’t sell old-time in 1936-1945 (e.g. Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly recorded during that period, but those recordings didn’t sell well). Bill knew that you couldn’t. He was hip.

Zach N Tiff: He had plenty of influences including blues…But to say BG as a whole evolved from early C&W more than anything just doesn’t make sense..

Joseph Scott: You’re mistaken, BG was a new kind of C&W that evolved from the C&W before it.

Zach N Tiff: I reckon me and thousands of others are “mistaken” because that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that…BG as a whole evolved from early C&W…Yeah that don’t don’t sound right..

Joseph Scott: “me and thousands of others are ‘mistaken’” Right.

Joseph Scott: “Of the performers on the cast of the National Barn Dance, the Monroe Brothers were particularly struck with the infectious jazzy sounds of the band known as the Prairie Ramblers.” — Wayne Erbsen. All “hillbilly jazz” isn’t old-time because all jazz isn’t old-time.

Austin Stovall: Joseph Scott, So when J.E. Mainer had a Scruggs style banjo player he was a bluegrass musician? Even absent of any other quality that make bluegrass unique like breaks and tight vocal harmonies etc? To me it’s still old time. So an old time fiddler becomes a bluegrass fiddler just by switching accompaniment that doesn’t make sense to me. I also think there is a much bigger difference between a contemporary pop singer and rag time musician. Than early bluegrass and old-time.

Tony Thomas: Monroe was convinced that there was certainly no room for a traditional string bad on the Opry except doing what he was determined not to do, being a corny, stage hillbilly act shying away from musical excellence, and shying away from meeting the intensity that was coming out of the jazz going on around him.

Tony Thomas: The other thing is that in the late 50s and especially the 1960s under the impact of trying to cash in on the folk revival Monroe as well as Flatt Scruggs added a greater number of traditional tunes and fiddle tunes to their repertoire, but until that point Monroe didn’t talk that much about “ancient tones” but both he and Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanleys had a repertoire especially in recordings much closer to non bluegrass country performers’

Joseph Scott: Once bluegrass was identified as a distinct thing for a few years, some scholarly fans (who loved it, and why wouldn’t you) chose to lump it in with folk music, promote it as folk music, wave their ancient-authenticity wands at it as if it were folk music. It wasn’t folk music. It was invented by showoff pros as part of the evolution of show off pro C&W stage and radio and jazz-feel soloist-star entertainment. It was about as old as bebop jazz. Monroe and Scruggs together were about as hip as it gets in C&W. Which was different from being as unhip, unmodern as Jake Staggers or whoever.

Tony Thomas: Joseph Scott, I have talked to bluegrass musicians who have talked to Earl about where ideas for things like Foggy Mountain Breakdown/Bluegrass breakdown came, and lots of references to swing instruments or to people like Blind Boy Fuller.

Tony Thomas: Oh Lomax’s “folk music in overdrive” was just a way for him and his crowd to possess//appropriate it. One has to look especially at the increasing harmonic complexity of Monroe’s work especially albums like Masters of Bluegrass. Kenny Baker, who was playing swing and jazz in a lounge before Monroe hired him, always said that to play bluegrass fiddle you have to know jazz

Tony Thomas: Naturally there is a phony ideological attempt to claim authenticity that Monroe latched on to and that Louise Scruggs propagated but both were very progressive and anti-traditional musicians within the string band tradition. Monroe was pretty much in favor of rock and roll. Listen to the Stanley Brother’s recording of Blue Moon of Kentucky in the mid 50s, which sounds like a doo wop version of Elvis’ hit. BILL MONROE TOLD CARTER TO RECORD THE SONG THAT WAY AND CAME TO THE STUDIO AND ESSENTIALLY PRODUCED THAT RECORDING.

Joseph Scott: Tony Thomas, Mr. Thomas know his stuff. “folk music in overdrive” As if there wasn’t countless old-time folk music that flew along! It’s as pointless to look at it that supposed way as saying “Rock and roll was swing, but with guitar,” or something equally ridiculous.

“to play bluegrass fiddle you have to know jazz” All “hillbilly” jazz fiddle went back to the likes of Venuti. The hillbilly jazz violinists and pianists really liked Venuti and Earl Hines, for whatever reason, what records sold best where when.

Peter Feldmann: “folk music in overdrive”, a quote attributed to Alan Lomax in Esquire magazine, 1959, was an attempt to describe the new style of music to an urban readership that had never heard either bluegrass or old time music. While Lomax was arguably the most productive folklorist in the 20th Century, he was not attempting a definitive statement, just coining a name for this music of Monroe’s which, to this point *did not have a name*! It was Lomax who, in a concert at Carnegie Hall, first presented the music to NYC. Lomax had been described as a communist to Monroe, who subsequently did not appear but declined in favor of Earl Taylor.

Tony Thomas: The problem with that and the whole Stalinoid school he represented is that it ascribes some special value to something for being folk music, and condemns commercial show business music,. BLUEGRASS BEGAN AND WAS LED BY PROFESSIONAL, COMMERCIAL SHOW BUSINESS MUSICIANS, whose business was making records, getting people to pay for shows, and appearing on radio and television. J

Tony Thomas Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs looked to peers in commercial country music and pop music and small group jazz for ideas of what to do because they wanted a way to advance string band music competitively in the commercial Market Place.

Tony Thomas: Much like the bop generation, their peers in Jazz, they raised the level of musicianship and musical knowledge required to play their music to a level that excluded amateurs, and pushed aside the previous generation of string band musicians especially on the banjo, but also on fiddle and mandolin.

Tony Thomas: Lomax was simply wrong to say that Bluegrass had much of a relationship to folk music, and you cannot understand how bluegrass developed, how it works if you proceed from what he said.

Tony Thomas: To Lomax’s defense he made the statement after he had spent about 10 years outside the United States. Lomax was not particularly liked by either people doing serious studies of folklore or by revivalists of old time music and people in the folk music community interested in Bluegrass. He tried to appropriate a scene where all involved were really beyond his ability to explain . Bluegrass is something you can explain if you look at the problems that post war white performance music and string bands faced, but has nothing to do with the way folk music works except insofar as it represented the unraveling of folk music and its replacement by professional, commercial, show business.

Peter Feldmann: Tony, None of your comments above contradict what Alan Lomax said about “bluegrass”, a word he himself most likely coined, to describe the new musical style. To make any suggestions about bluegrass being or not being “folk music” is patently absurd, since the term “folk” has had such broad usage as to be completely useless in any scholastic treatise. I agree completely with your assessment that bluegrass began as a professional, commercial form, and comparisons to bebop and jazz are very valid. To claim that bluegrass was not strongly rooted in Appalachian balladry and string band music, plus black blues, is ridiculous. Those are the building blocks that Monroe used when piecing the style together,. Lomax would have had no argument with this either. That bluegrass now has a strong amateur following does not invalidate this outlook. Neither I (nor Lomax himself, probably) would shed any tears at he was “not particularly liked” in the field. Too, too bad! He may have stepped on a few toes, but he amassed a collection of field recordings that will undoubtedly remain unsurpassed in the fields of folklore and ethnomusicology for the foreseeable future. I and any serious student of American music remain indebted to him and his work.

Joseph Scott”: “To claim that bluegrass was not strongly rooted in Appalachian balladry and string band music, plus black blues, is ridiculous.” They knew some Appalachian ballads, definitely. Bill Haley knew some old nursery rhymes, too, and when Haley did a rock and roll version of an old nursery rhyme, the style it was in was… rock and roll. What “string band music” and “black blues” are you referring to, specifically? Because if we look at e.g. the 25 years of professional black blues that immediately preceded Scruggs joining Monroe’s band, how much of that stuff was old-time music? Whatever you are looking at there, specifically, what influence did it have on Scruggs and Monroe in the late ’40s? Prairie Ramblers, e.g., wouldn’t qualify as old-time influencing Monroe, because the Prairie Ramblers weren’t old-time either, because old-time describes much older styles than the Prairie Ramblers liked to impress people they were hip with.

“To make any suggestions about bluegrass being or not being ‘folk music’ is patently absurd, since the term ‘folk’ has had such broad usage as to be completely useless in any scholastic treatise.” <– That’s patently absurd.

Joseph Scott: “That’s patently absurd.” I’ll give you a concrete example. When people talk about the folk and stage blues artists of 1910-1919, they give John Hurt, who played for friends in his town, as an example of a folk artist, and Charles Anderson, who sang blues professionally on stage in the U.S. and Canada, as an example of a stage artist. Pretending that distinction cannot be made is unmotivated and counterproductive.

Tony Thomas: Peter Feldmann, How can you say Lomax coined this term? His focus and his body was outside the United States in the rather formative period of Bluegrass’s emergence and crystallization into a distinct style.

Joseph Scott: I don’t recall reading anyone saying Lomax coined the term, I recall reading that bluegrass musicians used it in the early ’50s

Peter Feldmann: Joseph, I think “early ’50s” may be pushing it a bit. And general usage (including by Monroe himself – as applying the name to the music rather than the band) came later.

Tony Thomas: Joseph Scott, In his post above my friend Peter says “None of your comments above contradict what Alan Lomax said about “bluegrass”, a word he himself most likely coined to describe the new musical style.” This is the kind of idolatry of Lomax of people without critical knowledge of music history of his work get into. How could Alan have coined the term bluegrass when Bill Monroe ascribed that name for his band when he set up a separate band from the Monroe Brothers in 1938 or 1939?????

Joseph Scott: Well, I think he’s referring to “bluegrass music,” a term musicians began using in about 1950.

Tony Thomas: It is true Monroe himself for a decade and a half insisted that his band did NOT play any special kind of music and that bluegrass was just what his band did and that his band was just another Country or Country Western band like others on the Opry.

Tony Thomas: In September 1950 Lomax left the United States for Europe and did not return until 1959 Now I was 12 in 1959 but I knew the term Bluegrass music, didn’t think i liked it then. Lomax had nothing to do with that. Lomax was a self aggrandizing person who was deeply immodest, but I do not think he would ever claim that he invented the term Bluegrass or Bluegrass music.,

Tony Thomas: Joseph Scott, Blues scholars I know wo knew and worked with Alan Lomax talk about how while he appreciated the blues, he had a hard time really accepting it as a form of folk music or much of the professional blues as folk music. Certainly my own research about the banjo and black music and particularly my work on Gus Cannon suggests that understanding the blues as a financial performance music and the economics of it in the first 3rd of the 20th century provide good explanations along with the musical and dance ones for the disappearance of the blues

Tony Thomas: What I most strongly object to is the idea there is something wrong with commercial show business, with professional musicians, with non-folk musics and something “elevating” or pure of connection with society for “folk music” or that such music provides some kind of escape from the cultural and social problems of life in a sexist, racist, capitalist, dollarist society. I say that in a room that has 4 banjos, 5 guitars, a gambian Riti, a violin, an autoharp.some hand drums and flutes from Africa, Mexico and Guatemala as I am supposed to be practicing tunes for the Bluegrass jam tomorrow

Scott Odell: Peter Feldmann Yes, back in the early years of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and allied enterprises, I remember how Ralph Rinzler always made a special point of seeing that Alan Lomax was included and appreciated, despite – as you correctly recall – the hostility and condescension he frequently got from established academicians!

Joseph Scott: Tony Thomas “Alan Lomax… had a hard time really accepting it as a form of folk music or much of the professional blues as folk music.” He was an eccentric whose more sober (but also sometimes intellectually dishonest) father handed him an important job working for the government. Sometimes what Alan wrote made perfect sense, down to the letter. Sometimes what Alan wrote made no sense, down to the letter. I’m not saying this idly, I know my Alan Lomax and he deserves credit for both of those! He knew what folk music meant and as I say, whether he was concerned about whether he was describing what folk music was with precision would have depended on what day it was. Could Forrest City Joe tell us anything about old folk music, no, basically. Would Alan take money from someone to record Forrest City Joe for a folk set, yes. Alan knew that e.g. ’40s T-Bone Walker wasn’t folk music. (So does everyone here, I hope.) T-Bone began playing electric guitar about 5 years before Scruggs joined Monroe’s band.

Joseph Scott: Scott Odell “the hostility and condescension he frequently got from established academicians” Some of what he wrote was so childlike and obviously false that the condescension is understandable.

Scott Odell: Joseph Scott, Ralph and most others I knew back then were certainly very well aware of the enthusiasms, and unproven and disproven theories beloved and published by A.L.. But I was on the Festival’s advisory council back then and appreciated Ralph Rinzler’s ability to see past all that to the very real contributions made by A.L. and insist that his experience and knowledge was honored and included in planning discussions.

Joseph Scott Here’s another Mudcat thread involving Alan Lomax that may well interest Odell or Thomas or whoever else

Joseph Scott: “the very real contributions made by A.L.” His taste in music was wonderful and he went and recorded it and recorded it and recorded it. Who gave Jelly Roll Morton another drink and got stories no one else got, him. (Was Jelly Roll Morton a folk musician, no, but as noted you’re smart to take the good with the bad with Alan and there was so much of both.)

Scott Odell: Joseph Scott Glad to agree with that, and I’ll stick with the good stuff!

Joseph Scott: NPR played a radio show about Alan in 2015. It was HORRIBLY unfair to him. My defense of him is here starting about a fifth of the way down, if anyone is interested.

MUDCAT.ORG Alan Lomax: Racist stereotypes&all/NPR

Joseph Scott: Speaking of being fair to Alan, here is him describing bluegrass in 1959: “a sort of mountain Dixieland combo in which the five-string banjo… carries the lead like a hot clarinet….”

Peter Feldmann: Well, I can sort of agree with that if I squint . . . 🙂

Peter Feldmann: Wow! At least 18 replies to one post I made yesterday. Before I venture to tread into this morass, I will make a request of the other commentators here: May I copy this thread to my music blog, “Pete’s Place”? I ask this to preserve it in a fairly stable environment, where it will not be swept away in the billion comments / day found on this corporate website. You are welcome to email me at:

My university education was in physics, and later in the biological sciences, with graduate work in the chemotaxonomy of terpenes found in pine resins. I do keep friends in the social sciences, however. These social sciences tend to be handicapped by a lack of precise definitions, and that was part of what I was addressing previously. The term “folk music” for example, can mean anything played by a human as opposed to by a clam, shall we say. It is therefore meaningless (or absurd) to try to have any sort of discussion as to whether a music is “folk” or not. Note also that such usage often places an implied value judgement on the music. We can say that some musicians play for money (the favorite American title, “Pro”), while others play as a hobby and/or for the love of it “amateur”.

I like to use the Harry Smith Anthology as a good rule of thumb when discussing old time music, a term I still find has some validity. Anything on those three volumes will find an appreciative listener in me, and I am ready to attempt to play it, and to discuss it for hours at a time, perhaps over a good single malt Scotch. I am happy to have had relationships with some of the people whose music is on the anthology, a fact for which I remain ever grateful. Speaking of “bluegrass” I first heard Mr. Monroe mention that term (with reference to his music) in May of 1963. I misspoke when I mentioned that Alan Lomax “coined” the term in 1959. What I meant to say was that his article on bluegrass was the first time the musical term was used in a national magazine. Indeed, Mr. Monroe was slow to use the term, the Stanley Brothers did not use it, and Lester Flatt expectorated after mentioning it in an interview I helped conduct with him in 1986. I am very unclear whether “bluegrass” will survive much longer — perhaps in name only.

Re. Alan Lomax: True, he did obtain a “government job”! Not on the salary level of say a Scott Pruitt, but earning probably enough to pay for Pruitt’s chauffeur’s fees. You don’t care for his writings? Cantometrics? Politics? (A good reason to leave the USA during the McCarthy era). Each to his own. I find his music collections fabulous and offer a little prayer of thanks every time I encounter yet another chapter in his collections.

As for professional vs amateur musicians, this hearkens back to the old folk singer era, as if someone doing something for a living somehow invalidates their credentials. Really not interested in discussing this. Simply not to any point of value in my opinion. I have made my living about 1/3rd of my life performing, presenting, and teaching the music. I still love it, I intend to keep performing it until I no longer can.

Joseph Scott: “The term ‘folk music’ for example, can mean anything played by a human as opposed to by a clam, shall we say.” Was there something about the 1910s blues example above you didn’t understand? And you may quote me my friend.

Peter Feldmann: Thanks Joseph. Re. 1910s blues, do you mean your post about a stage artist vs. folk artist? “Folk artists” on stage can present a problem, if what you mean by a folk artist is one that plays as an amateur. It takes a professional *performer* to put across a stage presentation. Running a music club for four years taught me that lesson.

Joseph Scott: “do you mean your post about a stage artist vs. folk artist” Yes. Charles Anderson (black, born Alabama) learned e.g. “Baby Seals Blues” off the sheet music, and as I say was hitting Canada. With written blues in 1913. And sang very unlike Hurt. Contrasting him and his peers with Hurt and his peers (only in some ways, of course) is very real and meaningful. Which is why, e.g., in 1913 people called musicians like Anderson “stage” musicians and in 1913 called people like Hurt “folk” musicians.

Tony Thomas: For what he was trying to do, and for the tools and bad social and political context he became an advocate of, Lomax was a hero, but someone with the limitations of his political and social outlook, someone who never fit into a collaborative critical framework, and most of all, someone who didn’t know much about Bluegrass when he called Bluegrass folk music on overdrive in 1959 a month or two after being out of the US for 9 years.

Tony Thomas: Believe me 20-25 years ago when I got back into old time, blues, bluegrass and fell into the banjo world , I had all the hoary ideas about folk tradition and the superiority of the true sounds and all of that, but every serious effort I have made to look into this explodes that idea and demolishes these kind of simplistic ideas. It does nothing to denigrate the music to say what it is and what shaped it and describe the world as it is with all its warts and carbuncles, dirtiness, and sweat. How else could we enjoy it

Joseph Scott: I love John Hurt and Dizzy Gillespie. John Hurt really made folk music. The fact that he really made folk music doesn’t somehow have to do with me loving him relative to Dizzy. But he made it, so if you want to understand American folk music of about 1900-1915, you listen to Hurt, not Dizzy. That fact does nothing to denigrate Dizzy, and vice-versa on all that if you love bebop, which I do.

Tony Thomas: Joseph Scott, Dizzy was also a great player of the jaws harp and could beat some mean hambone and had worked in a Black minstrel show. If I listen to Hurt, I also see also sorts of influences of popular music around 1905-15, and ragtime lurking in the background and how some set composed ragtime pieces like Creole Belles floated down into what hurt was doing. There are no pure states in the world. Before he was educated as to what he was by people who had been to Yale and Harvard, Roscoe Holcomb told people he knew that he could be best described as a blues singer!!! I’ve got a recording of John Lee Hooker singing “Rabbit in a Log Need a Rabbit Dog” at a private party in Detroit around 1947. The pure states the searches for holy grails disable us more than they empower us,.

Tony Thomas: I didn’t listen to it but from the chat about it on the music group, the NPR thing on Lomax must have been pure slander. BTW Joseph I limked your desanctification of Carl Hagstrom Miller who back when this was written had all these fools thinking he was so wonderful when he proved in his book he didn’t get outside the university enough and know how the real world worked.

Joseph Scott: “the searches for holy grails” Searching for X is fine, just don’t stop when you get to the pop song “Creole Belle” unless it’s X. You want “Hop Joint” instead. It’s a freakin’ Rosetta Stone.

“Roscoe Holcomb told people he knew that he could be best described as a blues singer” I agree with him. I’ve never heard a better version of “Graveyard Dream Blues” than his.

“I like your desanctification of Carl Hagstrom Miller who back when this was written had all these fools thinking he was so wonderful when he proved in his book he didn’t get outside the university enough and know how the real world worked.” Thanks Tony, it’s gratifying to see someone put that so accurately.

Joseph Scott: “The term ‘folk music’ for example, can mean anything played by a human as opposed to by a clam, shall we say.” Was there something about the 1910s blues example above you didn’t understand? And you may quote me my friend.

Joseph Scott: I love John Hurt and Dizzy Gillespie. John Hurt really made folk music. The fact that he really made folk music doesn’t somehow have to do with me loving him relative to Dizzy. But he made it, so if you want to understand American folk music of about 1900-1915, you listen to Hurt, not Dizzy. That fact does nothing to denigrate Dizzy, and vice-versa on all that if you love bebop, which I do.

Tony Thomas: The rest of the Esquire piece was actually quite astute in Lomax’s more apt comparisons of bluegrass to Dixie Land and the clarinettists role in it.

RG Hocuff: Earl Scruggs when he played with Monroe was an OT banjo player, if you don’t think so, you really don’t understand “old-time” music nor have you heard much of what was recorded in the 20’s, 30’s & early 40’s…as a collector of 78’s primarily before 1940, your statement is blatantly wrong…as most absolute statements are…

Joseph Scott: “was an OT banjo player” What that band was playing was bluegrass. As an analogy, some of the session musicians who were hired to play on early rock and roll were swing pianists. They could play swing piano as such on those recordings and the recording…See More

RG Hocuff: Listen to Earl and Arthur Smith play their duets and tell me that’s not OT. The way Earl approached the banjo was firmly rooted in straight OT finger style banjo, you can hear it in Snuffy Jenkins, Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Fisher Hendley, Lucius Smith, Uncle Dave, whoever is playing on the McVay/Johnson recordings, Gus Cannon, Wade Ward, Oscar Jenkins etc. Gotta listen to more old 78’s before you make such a unilateral blanket statement…saying something like “if it’s really old-time, it’s not bluegrass” must just boil down to semantics then instead of actual music…



Tony Thomas: What Earl did in Banjo playing is pretty explicit and easy to hear, If you had any kind of respect for the world you might have familiarized yourself with how Scruggs described his style what components came to it. His official claim is that he took …See More

Tony Thomas: The key thing that Earl and Snuffy and others of their generation–Earl was not the only one but was the main and the best one– was to apply the roll and other technical approaches that came out of classic banjo and show business banjo and ragtime ba…See More

Tony Thomas: Since I have done an enormous amount of work on Gus Cannon over the past 12 years, it is appropriate for me to refute the stupidities this guy makes in regard to Cannon playing like Earl. Now it is true that toward the end of his life when afflictions…See More

Peter Feldmann: Tony, Yes I agree with most of what you are saying about banjo style. Gus Cannon was a fine exponent of the three-finger “classical” style of playing. You can hear this in much of Charlie Poole’s work as well, especially in his Gennett recordings. This kind of playing was big at the turn of the nineteenth century, and appeared often on the vaudeville stage – and before that, in minstrel shows, so it is quite old. So what is all this fuss about Earl Scruggs? As Tony has mentioned, he applied syncopation to the classical rolls to carry the beat of the music forward, resulting in the intense drive of bluegrass music. Monroe had experimented with David Akeman, who played a more primitive two-finger banjo style with the BGB; it is my guess that Stringbean was added more as a comic element than for his musicianship. But I want to go back to that “drive” in bluegrass. *This* is what completely sets it apart from what people call “swing”. The stress is on the one beat, not the two, so that the music has a forward-leaning feel to it, the opposite of the “laid-back” feel in swing. I find this drive very stimulating, and that’s why I play bluegrass, not swing.

Joseph Scott: “Gotta listen to more old 78’s” There is no problem with how much old-time I’ve listened to. Bluegrass was named after the sound of a band in which Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs both played.

RG Hocuff: If you make a statement such as “if it’s really old-time, it’s not bluegrass” is again a straight semantics/labeling issue, not a musical one. Again. the proof is in the listening and playing…

Joseph Scott: Labeling and musical issues are both unavoidably involved in what people have called old-time and bluegrass.

Peter Feldmann: Yes, don’t get lost in semantics / labeling. That’s what I’ve been trying to preach here. Re. finger-style banjo players, don’t forget Frank Jenkins. His “Home Sweet Home” is a real masterpiece.

Tony Thomas: Woolbright was Earl’s neighbor. Earl could see Woolbright playing Home Sweet Home on Woolbright’s relative’s front porch across the street from his home and Woolbright was a friend of his father. People I know who socialized with Earl in the 1970s and 80s said that he could play Woolbright’s Home sweet home note for note even then.

Tony Thomas: Jim Beaver Louise imposed a lot of hokum on Earl’s public utterances about where his banjo playing came from once the folkies came around and for a while she even revived the Joel Sweeney myth. However, people I know who had direct conversations with Earl about where his early music came from, Earl had pretty specific references to a variety of musicians, most of whom were not banjo players, but including swing instrumentalists, and blues players, especially Blind Boy Fuller who must have been a sensation given the way both Black and white North Carolinas around in the 30s and 40s mark how music changed by references to fuller

Tony Thomas: In the parlor music of the late 19th Century and early 20th century, especially in the style erroneously called classic today, “Home Sweet Home” was on of the set pieces that every banjoist had to learn and that the masters perfected fancy versions, and the publishing composers and players performed and published and performed their variations to., It also was played a lot, insofar it was often the last tune played at a dance or a concert, a signal to get your butt home!

Peter Feldmann: Tony Thomas, Someone was planning a book on Louise, but to my knowledge it never happened. She certainly deserves some attention as she seemed to be a very responsible party in the success (and later demise) of the Flatt & Scruggs band. I had some interesting encounters with her, especially a 25-minute phone conversation which ended when she declared: “I do not think . . . that I want the name ‘Scruggs’ . . . associated with bluegrass music.” Lots going on there.

Tony Thomas: Well someone should write an honest, musically informed, non fanzine book about Earl Scruggs. I was deeply disappointed about the fanzine book that is passed off as a book about Earl

Tony Thomas: Jim Beaver, I remember being at a Party at Cece Conway’s house in Boone in 2010 where the great Clarke Buhling was playing his rendition of classic variations on Home Sweet Home. John Cohen was a bit shocked, and came over the Clarke and asked are those the same rolls and a dressed up version of Mack Woolbright’s Home Sweet Home

Peter Feldmann: I agree! During the 1980s – 90s, I became friends with Dr. Nat Winston, supposedly Scruggs’ best friend (and Johnny Cash’s psychiatrist!). He had lost of interesting tidbits about Earl, and took me over for a visit on Saturday morning . . .

Visiting Earl Scruggs

Tony Thomas: The three finger style erroneously called classic today was the dominant form of banjo playing IN THE WORLD in the late 19th and early 20th century. If you went to get banjo lessons somewhere this is pretty much what you would get taught if you went in NC or in Australia or England.

Tony Thomas: Peter Feldmann, This is a great clip Pete. I got a program to download and save YouTube Video just to keep that permanently Thank you for all you have done, the generosity and seriousness to the music and to others. Though we never met, you are one of my heroes.

Peter Feldmann: Tony, Your thoughts are regularly stimulating, even when i disagree!

Tony Thomas: Bluegrass emerges from old time music largely due to commercial and performance pressures. It was not a folk or community music performing atmosphere that Monroe aimed at or developed in. He was a professional musician from his late teens (although Monroe actually started out as more of a dancer on the National Barn Dance in the Chicago area and Iowa). Monroe’s aims and problems was not playing for dances or in communities, but how to make his string band commercially relevant in the SHOW BUSINESS of the grand ol’ opry and the recording industry as it emerged from WWII with amplification taking over one segment of country music coming from Western Swing but also cutting down band size, and changing dancing. There is nothing about folk sensibility, community dancing or anything else that governed the problems and decisions that Bill Monroe made from 1944 to 1946 that created bluegrass

Tony Thomas: Monroe contemplated just becoming a singer and playing a guitar and setting up a five piece band like everyone else was doing. He did not see any future or have any desire to become one of the surviving token old time players like String Bean or Gran…See More

Tony Thomas: What Monroe came up with was the string band as a jazz combo, focusing on the virtuoso solo performances of the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin developing solos like Jazz or 2nd generation (postwar not the original) Dixieland, including the virtuosic singing that Bill and later also Lester Flatt and folks like Mac Weisman and Jimmie Martin provided. THIS IS SHOW MUSIC, not intended to power a dance (for the most part too fast to dance to) but to get people who come to the show to be impressed and thrilled. Listen to the Opry go crazy in the 45-46 outtakes from the Opry when Bill or Earl go into their breaks, or when Earl fires those machine gun rolls. Above all listen not so much when Lester sings with this band, but with the excitement generated when Monroe sings, especially when he sings the blues. I can only think of a few of the most exquisite classical performances I have seen live, or seeing Dizzy, Charles Mingus, James Burton behind Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Rollins, to the pure ecstasy of listening to Monroe’s Blue Yodel #4 from the Opry especially the first version recorded before the band recorded a tamer version on the record and tailored the next Opry performance to sound more like the record. I am afraid to listen to that because I might not be able to do anything else, and I have to work up some guitar calluses to play bluegrass this afternoon

Peter Feldmann: Practice up, kid, and I’ll hire ya!

Tony Thomas: LOL one reason I know bluegrass is a professional music is that no bluegrass band would hire me as while I practice up on jam day I am working my banjos or doing banjo research with my other music time. We have some really great bluegrass pickers here in S Florida even in the summer and then when the winter comes we get snowbids coming down who have played in professional bands, appeared on the opry.

Peter Feldmann: Yes, bluegrass is show music, not dance music! This fact makes it a difficult sell in clubs and bars, where owners want dancing, with breaks for the people to return to their tables and order more drinks!!! And this is why I so happily discovered playing casino show bars in Nevada in the 1960s. They wanted us to hype up the customers with a fast-paced show and send them back out to the gaming floor. A perfect fit! And they paid!

Tony Thomas: Well Monroe traveled with everything for a show, black face comedians at the start, even had a baseball team that would challenge the local baseball team. though that was a common thing for bands then, I have seen film of Duke Ellington’s baseball team practicing! Monroe who was incredibly strong would do a strong man act where he would challenge local strong men to weight lifting. In the 40s he could pick up two or three band members and hold them up as part of the show.

Peter Feldmann Ha! Well, yes, Monroe learned his entertaining in the “old days” of show business. Bill was at a disadvantage when it came to fronting a band, due to his innate shyness, brought about in part because of his childhood crossed eyes. His older brother Charlie, was much more of an extrovert and did the front man duties in the Monroe Brothers, When Bill left to go it alone, he was presented with a problem: who was going to front the band? Clyde Moody did some of that work. I think Bill might have hired Stringbean more as a comedian to break the ice than for his banjo picking. Either that or because he was a good shortstop! Many early bluegrass bands had at least one member who did the rube comic act . . . a relic from minstrel and medicine show times. It was often the bass player (eg. “Boatwhistle” w/ Earl Taylor) or the banjo player. I spoke with Earl Scruggs about the famous comment Uncle Dave made about him from the wings at the Opry. Uncle Dave was asked “Well, what do you think about Bill’s new kid banjo player?” Macon answered, “Well, he ain’t a bit funny.” Looking at that comment from this perspective, it was a valid professional criticism. Earl agreed with this, and laughed, saying that he and Uncle Dave were good friends.

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The Fiddling Seventies – Southern California

by Gwen Koyanagi

I first met Gwen Koyanagi a few years ago when she was playing fiddle with Blaine Sprouse, a fiddler transplant from Nashville Tennessee. Born in Hawaii to Okinawaian  mother and Japanese father, and raised in Torrance, Southern California, Gwen fell in love with traditional American fiddling of various styles — as expressed in the fiddling of old timers displaced from many areas of the  United States and Canada. I have encouraged her to write her story. She has some fascinating tales to tell, as they describe the spread and evolution of eastern and midwestern  fiddling and how it changed in the  fast-moving California scene.  As always, comments are welcome.  –Peter Feldmann]

Gwen with her fiddling friends.

Gwen with her fiddling friends.

In the early 70s (1972?) I heard my first fiddling from Canadian street performers on the old wooden Redondo Beach Pier. I ended up picking up what was in the air and playing my fiddle on the street too. One day we went to a fiddle banjo festival and I saw a flyer about a fiddle club, so I went. It was so much fun I went every time it met (twice a month) for the next 3 years…all during my high school years). There were a bunch of old people there. The fiddlers (almost all men) and their wives (the audience) came from different places (Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Illinois, Canada, Ohio, etc.). Most of the fiddlers played all of their lives, and they ALL PLAYED DIFFERENT. And there were so many good players. (I learned from everyone eventually.) They would write their name in the list on a chalkboard and when it was their turn, they would get to play 3 tunes “on stage” with good back up players. This was important because each fiddler played so different and you could really hear what they were doing. They would play their best tunes and were each other’s fan.

In the hallway, there was this scary guy there. He looked at me and played a train whistle sound and a riff and then GROWLED loudly at me. I was soooo scared! He didn’t speak. He kept doing that. So one day I got a tape recorder and taped it. Then I went home and learned the sound and the next time he did that to me I gave it to him right back. He said LOUDLY, “WELL HI THERE! MY NAME IS BOB ROGERS! WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” From then on it was call and response. The game started. Bob Rogers was from the Cumberland Gap area of Tennessee, and he played with his fiddle rocking on his chest bone. He wailed with his bow….a sweet wailing sound. When he changed to another string he would rock the fiddle on his chest bone instead of rocking his bow to hit the next string….and he would tap his foot…a big black shoe. As years went by we became good friends.

We just moved to Torrance from Los Alamitos when I was 15. When I was 10 years old I played in the elementary and Jr. High band room (Orchestra class) because it was free and they had extra fiddles (I borrowed school fiddles until one day mom traded one of her paintings for a neighbor lady’s fiddle) but I couldn’t be a real violinist because I couldn’t afford lessons and when we moved to Torrance there were no music programs at school. I was Lonesome so I would ride my bike to Redondo Pier around Sunset so I could see the sun going down on the water. One day I heard my first fiddling. It was a Canadian guy named Darryl (don’t remember last name) with a guitar player playing Old Joe Clark and Uncle Pen. I liked that and he helped me learn a little and I started playing on the pier too and played blues and joined a string band. We played in bars and around town. These guys were older (in their 20s). The string band changed their name every night. One night we were the “Red Eyed Rangers”. Embarrassing. The girl in the band (Marsha Vore) moved to Colorado and one of the guys (Mark Kroner) ran off to Germany with one of the Labae (sorry can’t spell) brothers and a gypsy named Simon Simone. They were from the Tarzan swing band. I played on the street for hours and then at the fiddle clubs on Sundays. Every Sunday at the fiddle club I would try to put out 3 brand new tunes (simple tunes) so things wouldn’t get boring. They were like my brothers and uncles and were just regular guys. Not famous or hooked into a scene.

Johnny K Nevil, Earl Collins with Gwen                 There were times when a small group would all play in unison together for the fun of it, but there was also a healthy competition to see what the other guy was playing and how they were playing it. One guy would play a tune and another guy would say “Well that’s fine, but let me show you how I DO IT!” Then they would play their version. Many times it was between Bob Rogers and Earl Collins. Bob would say “Let ‘er go Brother Collins!” and get Earl excited. Bob called everyone “Brother”. There was “Brother Collins”, “Brother Mel”, etc. Sometimes people would clog dance.

There was not as much concern about drawing a tine between bluegrass and country and old timey fiddling. In addition to traditional tunes Bobby Fenton would play Bob Wills and country songs. Speedy Smith and Harold Hensley would play really fast bluegrass barnburner style. Bob Rogers would play Kenny Baker tunes. Roscoe White would play everything from swing to Howdy Forrester tunes. IT FELT LIKE FREEDOM. IT WAS NEVER BORING. There were soooo many good fiddlers in one place and at that time I thought that was normal, but now I know it was very rare.

But the “secret sauce” (as with any music) was the good backup players. Mel [Durham] played really good slap bass. Ossie White played really good guitar and could even Back up Texas style tunes. There were other really good players back then too. They made the fiddlers sound good and I believe they were the reason the fiddlers gathered.

Roscoe and Ossie White

Roscoe and Ossie White

When you want to learn a tune, you could ask them to show you how it goes. And they would play it (sometimes a little slower) and you better jump on quick…or you could tape it…but they didn’t give “lessons”. It was sink or swim and you learn how to pick up sounds from the air quickly.

Ossie White was the best guitar player for fiddle tunes backup at the club and she came from Oklahoma. When she backed up Bob Rogers, Bob told her “WHOP THAT THING!” because he wanted a STRONG BEAT. Roscoe White came from Arkansas and was the State senior fiddle champion and 2nd in the Nationals (in Weiser, Idaho, right behind Dick Barrett). He was really good and played hard tunes.

There was Earl Collins from Oklahoma (a fine short bow old time fiddler that tapped his foot in double time) and the Durham brothers, “Brother Mel” ended up taking over when the older guys died. John The Canadian was a really good Canadian fiddler but he was homeless. His bow only had a few horse hairs in it and he had to borrow my fiddle to play on stage. Cliff and Maxine Taylor were a married couple that both fiddled, but they would take turns backing each other up on the guitar. Their body language was sooo funny! They dipped and bobbed at the exact same second, randomly. Bud Shields played American Indian tunes. Ed Reagan played lots of tunes. There was Tiny Moore and Bob Smith and Chuck Bealle. Chuck’s daughter married Bruce Johnson (a young fiddler) Bruce’s friend Jerry Higby played banjo. Stuart Duncan was a kid that visited with his dad. Tracy Schwarz (new Lost City Ramblers) followed Bob Rogers around with a tape recorder one day and called him “MR. Rogers”. Jodi Cifra was a gypsy that played bluegrass but would come and play a few tunes now and then. Tom Sauber played bluegrass and old timey. Later, Pete Peterson and Frank Lopez came.

Jake (?) banjo, unknown, unknown, "John the Canadian" - guitar, Gwen

Jake (?) banjo, unknown, unknown, “John the Canadian” – guitar, Gwen

Maxine and Cliff Taylor

Maxine and Cliff Taylor

Later, Ossie invited me to join another fiddle club (C.S.O.T.F.A. district 4) that was connected to the state club and Weiser, Idaho. They focused more on Texas contest style fiddling. I went to that club every month as well.

I asked the fiddlers why their own kids weren’t fiddling, and they said their kids wanted to play rock and roll. I couldn’t understand why they can’t do both. There were so many great fiddlers there but I can’t talk about all of them here. I just know it was a special time for fiddling in Southern California.

Later, Ossie and Roscoe talked me into going to fiddle clubs it was a different scene back then. Since there were no time limits or pre- registration and the men and women were separated back then (there were fewer lady fiddlers and no minorities back then. It was different in those fiddle contests.) Ossie would tell me to go at the last minute and she would tell me what to play at the last minute for every round. I got a bunch of trophies and that was a fun game on the side. One year I won the California State fiddle contest in the junior division. Laurie Lewis won in the ladies division. Mark O’Connor won in the Jr Jr division. Jana Jae won the men’s/over all grand champion division. (I think that was the end of the ladies division in California) She was so good Buck Owens married her and put her on Hee Haw. She moved to Oklahoma. I went to a hippie free school and they encouraged me to fiddle there. So I got to play a lot and got fluid at that time. Then high school was over and I moved to Aspen Colorado and worked as a maid in ski lodges in the daytime and joined a bluegrass band named “Cabin Fever” and played at night in the Apre ski hotels. It was a man Jim Furness and his wife and son and Jim and Lee Satterfield were brother and sister and Lee was only 16 but was also playing gigs with Jimmy Ibitson from the dirt band. Years later I saw a lot of these contest and gig people on tv. A lot of them became professionals.

Cabin Fever - Gwen on far laft.

Cabin Fever – Gwen on far laft.

When I was 19 Ossie and Roscoe told me to meet them and my parents in Weiser, Idaho and I was in the “ladies division” and made it to the finals. It was last minute sign ups and no time limits so Ossie told me what to play at the last minute. My fiddle broke in half (cheap fiddle I traded from Cliff Taylor) just before the final round. Under the bleachers in the dark a stranger (old man) offered to lend me his fiddle but I was scared of him because he was so friendly and I didn’t know him. He just said he heard about my situation. Later I found out it was Benny Thomason (grand fiddle champion at the time). But for the final round I just borrowed a fiddle from someone I knew ( a forest ranger out of Fresno named Bob Sadler). I ended up getting 4th place and I remember Paul Shelasky and Laurie Lewis were watching that night and said “not bad for a hippie”. At one point when I was 19, I ended up in Austin Texas for a short period of time and then back to Aspen and then to the Bay Area and ended up working in a hand made candle factory in the daytime and playing in a house band every night in a gay leather bar. At one point I decided I didn’t want to fiddle anymore. (Some bad personal experiences added up to the point I associated that with fiddling. I laid it down for almost 20 years.)

When I was 40 I dusted it off for a family reunion and looked up the old fiddle club. Most of the guys were dead by then or so old they couldn’t play like they used to. I helped a young girl at the fiddle club who was playing in a Gospel Bluegrass band. Ghost writing for an 8 year old….I was care taking my sick dad and working for Hughes full time and didn’t have time to play anyway, but after dad died I called that guy (Tim Bryant) who had the little girl fiddler I used to help because he told me to call him if I could fiddle again. I joined one of his local light duty bands. “Windy Ridge”. They all have jobs and are hobby players. Just enough playing to play some fiddle but still doing my full time job. While I was working at Hughes I finally got enough money to have lessons so I took lessons here and there to learn how to do vibrato, play in tune, shift higher positions, read better, etc. I took lessons from Megan Lynch (who was teaching the Clarridges) and Dick Barrett (from Texas but living in Montana), Richard Greene and Blaine Sprouse. Blaine met and played with Ossie before she died but Roscoe was already dead. Mel’s club is gone now. Ossie’s club is in its last year. I looked it up and found everyone playing the same song together in unison and Pete Peterson was the last fiddler from the old days but he got drowned out by the younger players and I couldn’t even hear him anymore. There was not enough individuality for me to stay interested but the organizers said they have no choice since there are not enough players to carry off the old way. So I have just been playing in the senior center and Me n Eds with Windy Ridge but then the lead singer banjo player (Claire Wagner) got cancer really bad so we are taking a break while she does her operations and chemo . I just jam with local whipper snappers. (Young enthusiastic Bluegrass guy’s) and look after mom. There is another local band that was looking for a fiddler but they travel and were doing a west coast tour and I don’t want to leave mom for long periods of time. Recently I sat in at a pirate festival in Long Beach and played horn pipes, reels, jigs, sea shanties for hours and that was like playing on the street. Way fun. I met them at the Calico ghost town gig and they got me to play with them at a reenactment camp (cowboy camp next to the civil war camp, Indian camp, mountain man camp) in Kern county with this guy from Bakersfield.  By the way, I ran into Bruce Johnson up north. I was playing twin fiddles with Blaine for the Keith Little band at the Strawberry festival in Grass Valley and there was this rehearsal and it ended up being a reunion for me and Bruce Johnson. What a happy surprise. Bruce said he ended up traveling all around the world with his fiddle. Haha.

Gwen Koyonagi today

Gwen Koyonagi today

Fiddle is better than a sail or paddle!


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Lou Curtiss, A San Diego Folk Hero

Lou Curtiss, and old friend in the music through six decades, passed away this week in San Diego. Our friend, WB Reid shared some reminiscences of his life which I’d like to publish here.

Louis F Curtiss has passed away at home at age 79.

In 1972, a few months after I arrived by thumb in San Diego from my native New England, I was on a city bus and saw a sign, “Hoot Night Tuesday” in a shop window. So I screwed up my courage and returned some Tuesday soon after, played a few songs, and was asked by the proprietor to come back and do a weekend concert and, later, play in the locals first night concert at the San Diego Folk Festival. That was Lou at his store, Folk Arts Rare Records. He and his wife, Virginia, his essential partner in all things, kind of adopted me, giving me the third chair in The Old Home Town Band like so many young players before and after me. They introduced me to Sweet’s Mill and encouraged my musical pursuits in countless ways.

Lou Curtiss, Virginia Curtiss, and WB Reid San Diego Folk Festival

Lou Curtiss, Virginia Curtiss, and WB Reid
San Diego Folk Festival

Lou ran quite a salon at Folk Arts, where “folkies” of all stripes would drop in and hang out throughout the day. During the winters, Sam Chatmon came out from Mississippi to stay with his daughter, and spent most of his weekdays in an overstuffed chair up front, socializing with all comers. Hoots one night, shape note singing led by Curt Bouterse another, concerts at the weekend where the best seats were cushions on the floor under the record bins.

Many times I would be hanging out at Folk Arts, and Lou would start out kind of low energy, but suddenly spark to life saying, “I’m gonna make you a tape.” He’d load a 60 minute cassette into the machine, get the first track going, and then graze over his vast collection of LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, festival recordings, radio transcriptions, and pick out the next tune for me, just for me, repeating until the tape was full. I have a half dozen of these I can still find, and each is an eclectic survey where I find the beginning seeds of nearly every branch of music I’ve pursued. Lou sold such tapes as a business, but if he thought you had something to offer, they were gifts; many of us received these.

Lou ran some version of the San Diego Folk Festival every Spring from sometime in the 60s until well into this century. The festivals of the middle 70s were a peak, packed with the greats of the 20s and 30s who, recently retired from day jobs, found a new audience in the revival raging among college students and similarly aged slackers. I don’t want to list them all here…but it was everybody, and Lou made plenty of room in the schedule for all us upstarts who brought so much energy to the party. Performers were very lightly scheduled, resulting in opulent time for mixing between generations and cultures. Dewey Balfa jamming with Aly Bain; Lydia Mendoza playing with Kenny Hall.

Mark Savois, Dewey Balfa, Peter Feldmann, & Rodney Balfa. San Diego Folk Festiva;

Mark Savois, Dewey Balfa, Peter Feldmann, & Rodney Balfa. San Diego Folk Festiva;

I know many musicians whose life and music path was permanently altered due to Lou’s generosity, or to encounters at his wonderful events. There’s a great picture on his page of Lou with the young Tom Waits, who was among the recipients of Lou’s encouragement. I’m pretty sure Del Rey played at that same hoot night as me, and was also signed up for a concert and the festival. The first thing on her website bio is really a tribute to Lou, who told her to “quit wasting [her] time playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and listen to some Memphis Minnie.”

This man had an impact on the world, and particularly my own community, that’s truly beyond measure. I’m so thankful that about four years ago I managed to get down to the shop and visit Lou for a few hours, much of it Lou telling me about all the young local musicians he was excited about. Later we went out to dinner with him and Virginia; the fact that we went to Rudford’s will bring a smile to those that know. He gave me a disc that I cherish with four concerts I did when I was between 22 and 24. Walking from the store to the car was followed by three or four minutes of Lou getting his breath back; I suspected I might not see him again.

My condolences to all his friends new and old, and especially to Virginia and their son, Ben. My life would be so different if I hadn’t seen that sign in the window that day, and tears come as I write that. I’ll miss him, but I don’t think I can really mourn him; he lived a long and thoroughly useful life.

Thanks, Lou.

WB Reid

WB Reid can be reached via his website.

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The Sixties in Folk Music / 20. Tony Townsend Pt II.

Harvest Time

Tony Townsend

In the autumn of 1962, Lili Schuler in Santa Barbara asked me to play at the Rondo again. Business had gone downhill. Close to bankruptcy, Lili got the landlord to agree to weekend entertainment. This time I played in the art gallery corner room where the sounds were less likely to disturb the tenants upstairs.

Then, out of the blue, Lili offered the Rondo to Caroline and me. Nothing down, we would be buying the place on time. I didn’t really want to get tangled up in a business, but was just not making enough at music to support my family. I had to do something to bring in steady income, so accepted. Caroline was both enthused and frightened. She wanted someone to go in with us. We thought of Gary Sorenson, and he agreed. Before we could catch our breath, Gary organized a painting party and started redecorating. When he began painting the outside of the building, Lusink came down on us again. Somehow Caroline and Lili resolved that crisis.

The Rondo, 1962

The Rondo, 1962

Meanwhile, I was in Los Angeles recording The Townsend Boys album. My youngest brother Tom, on leave from the army, sang high harmony. My middle brother Tim sang low harmony. I sang lead and played guitar. Don Ralke’s band provided the instrumental backup. My brothers and I sang well and the musicians were great. The first single, “Coming Home,” was suddenly on the air in Santa Barbara and elsewhere around the country in January 1963, shortly after we took over the Rondo. You couldn’t have asked for better timing.

Carrillo Street, the principal access to Highway 101, was closed for reconstruction. Traffic was rerouted along Canon Perdido Street, right past the Rondo. So we put up a lighted sign at the corner advertising thirteen-cent beer during happy hour. Gary charged ahead and I tried to keep up. With no credit, we paid cash for everything. We built a stage in the former art gallery, moved in furniture from the back—and had a showroom. We were open from 4 p.m. till 2 a.m. nightly. And I did four or five sets a night. Plus everything else, it was exhausting but exciting. Soon the Rondo was busy again, not only from our hard work and fortuitous events, but unexpected free publicity.

The DJs at Radio-KIST took a liking to us and played “Coming Home” and the flip-side, “Ocean Breezes,” as often as possible. Hal Bates plugged the Rondo and me, “the hometown boy,” in the morning. Ed Foley did the same at night. Both Hal and Ed came in after work and were staunch supporters.  Then Dick Johnston, owner of classical music station KRCW-FM, started a nightly live broadcast from the Rondo with me as the sole performer. From 11:30 p.m. to midnight I could sing and play whatever I pleased, and even advertise the Rondo. The first broadcast was on February 7, 1963. Dick introduced me from the studio and played our record, “Coming Home.” Live from the Rondo I did a set of eight songs, including a few plugs. Dick recorded the program. It came off well. He was pleased and so was I.

Clean-cut collegiate customers at the Rondo, 1962.

Clean-cut collegiate customers at the Rondo, 1962

Several KEYT Television appearances also took place. I was on Gene Forrsell’s show the day after my banjo was stolen. I performed, we talked, and my stolen banjo was discussed. Gene appealed to viewers who had any knowledge of this to call me. Soon a resident close to the Rondo called. She had found my banjo in her front yard. And it was returned—along with a lot of public interest in the Rondo and me.  KEYT-TV picked the Rondo for their special, “The 10 Top Night Spots in Santa Barbara.” I was interviewed at the Rondo about our business and my music, and may have done some songs. They also took shots of the place. After that, even more people came. Word was spreading far and wide.

Then a big problem occurred. Because the beer license could not be transferred to us unless we leased the premises, and the landlord would not lease to us, we were phantom owners. The Schulers were still responsible. Discrepancies were discovered in Gary’s monthly accounting that accompanied our payment to them. The Schulers wanted Gary out. The lot fell to me to tell him. It was not a happy occasion. He was hurt, but had brought it on himself. We paid him his share and more. And we remained friends.

My brother Tim came to help, replacing Gary behind the bar. Caroline did the bookkeeping and I did the entertaining. Actually, we did whatever was needed. And there was no rest for the weary, because the Rondo took off. According to Dominic Borgialli, the Budweiser-Busch salesman-driver, we were selling more beer than any place in town. At thirty-five cents a glass our price was high, but people didn’t mind. We sold snacks and sandwiches and had a jukebox, too, that included The Townsend Boys. Tim would play our records (three by summer’s end) and sing his part from behind the bar. People were impressed. On a good night we took in a hundred dollars or more.

Tim Townsend and Dee White behind the bar.

I was learning that you can have a business with lots of customers, sell lots of beer, have a record out, have a radio program, be on TV, be thought of as a success, and still not make any money. Caroline and I paid Tim and a waitress, bought supplies, paid the Schulers, the rent, the taxes, the regular expenses, the unexpected expenses, and had just enough left over for basic needs at home. We worked twelve or more hours every day but Tuesday, which I took off, and just barely got by. Plus, we had a kid. When I had time to think about it, I could better understand why the Noctambulist coffee house went under.

Folksingers and musicians descended upon the Rondo. So many played there, in fact, I can’t remember them all. At first we had hoots on Sunday afternoons in the showroom, charging fifty cents for spaghetti and garlic bread. I did several sets and introduced the performers. Soon the best of them began performing on regular nights.

*) The Channel Singers with John Thomas on guitar, Howard Pelky on five-string banjo, and Ernie Brooks on bass, did a wide range of folk standards. They put on enthusiastic, vibrant shows with lots of audience participation, and took a load of pressure off me.
*) Don Robertson’s silvery, agile voice often filled the Rondo showroom with dramatic songs. He helped in other ways as well, including bar tending when Tim was overwhelmed.
Peter Feldmann did authentic, old-time songs with banjo and guitar (later mandolin and fiddle) better than anyone around. He often assisted as MC of the Rondo hoots.
*) The Terrytown Trio consisted of Todd Grant on guitar, Phil Pritchard on bass, and Bud Boyd on guitar. Their vigorous sound featured tight harmonies and vocal solos by Todd and Bud on folk standards and humorous songs.
*)  The Juniper Hill Trio, soft and sweet singers of folk songs, was composed of Ray Finch on guitar, Susie Hardie as lead vocalist, and her husband George Hardie on banjo. With a bunch of kids, the Hardies couldn’t get away to perform much, but The Juniper Hill Trio left an impression, nevertheless.
Kajsa Ohman was nervous and bold at the same time. She was pretty and plain, sensual and austere, serious and facetious together. Her singing was both sensitive and harsh. Her songs were traditional and also strikingly original. Using her right index finger as a flat pick, Kajsa played a nylon-string guitar. She also played the autoharp, inspiring me to take it up. I thought she was terrific.
Campbell Nelson got out of the air force a dedicated flamenco guitarist. A thin, intense advocate of flamenco, he tended to teach during his performances. He played so well, even the bar crowd applauded his talent and skill.
The Headliners were Doug O’Brien on plectrum banjo, Al Brackett on steel-string guitar, Rod Hillman on classical guitar, and Mike Walsh as lead singer. Their shows combined Rod’s musicianship with the group’s up-tempo songs, ballads, and humorous patter.

Agents from L.A. tried to get bookings for their clients at the Rondo. But we couldn’t sell enough beer in the small showroom to pay what they asked. We considered charging admission, but were dubious. Tim and I sat in the bar till dawn and decided in a non-rational manner to experiment with The Wayfarers, a nationally known group with several albums and a new single out. We called our brother Tom in the army, who loaned us the money to pay their up-front fee. We advertised widely. The posters were designed by our artist-waitress, Barbro Carlsen. Admission was about $2.00.

I first heard The Wayfarers at the Ice House in Pasadena, when Mason Williams was in the group, and thought they were one of the best folk groups I’d heard. Then they disbanded. Re-formed in 1963 with the original bass and banjo players, plus two new guitar players, their music filled the Rondo during Easter week. They were great and everyone had a good time. Listening to them inspired me to take up the twelve-string guitar. Admission charges did not cover expenses, however, so we went on as usual, eventually repaying our brother Tom.

We were lucky not to start formal entertainment, because Lusink was gunning for us. One busy night, at closing time people didn’t leave, continuing the party. Fortunately, we had collected all the glasses, pitchers, and bottles and were cleaning up when a pounding shook the locked door and imperious voices demanded entrance. Lusink and the cops charged in. Checking the now-quiet crowd, the barroom, the showroom, the back room, and the bathrooms, they found no one with alcohol and were obliged to leave empty-handed. Lusink looked angry. We advised everyone to evacuate. To be on the safe side, thereafter we closed at 1:30 a.m.

So many people came to the Rondo, and I was so busy, I can’t remember but a few. Mostly faces remain; only a few names. They were: Pancho the tree man who drank all night and worked all day; Charlie who was so obstinate it took three of us to throw him out; tall, grey-haired Slim who drank, smoked and coughed; Dan the promoter; Bob who didn’t pay his tab; Bob the dreamer; Bob the conga drummer; Steve who stared at his dwindling glass; Jerry the business guy who came across the street; Hal and Ed the DJs who were promoter friends extraordinaire; Bill the DJ who brought his tape deck; and Steve the college student who also brought his tape deck.

They were: Brad the exuberant crusader for justice; the short guy who eighty-sixed himself when the waitress wouldn’t accept a tab; Tom the generous actor; Gloria the Vermeer beauty; Rod the guitarist who requested “Rugged Reuben Rondo”; Dennis who didn’t need to request Tom Lehrer; Frank the businessman; the Swede who sat in the corner; Ed the smoking photographer; the tall, elegant couple from over the hill; the guy who chewed glass; Cathy and Sherri the two sisters who gave me a new banjo case for my twenty-ninth birthday; the short, dark-haired gal with glasses; Edmund who got married and liked “La Malaguena”; Joe the pleasant Latino on his way up; the mariachi Myers brothers; Ray the crazy, sticky, problem drunk; and Bobby the kid of Manson fame.

They were: Ed who played trombone and dogged his wandering wife; Dick and his wispy wife and a car full of kids outside; Hervie who dreamed of flying; his friend who ran the gas station; Chris the driven, pretty girl and her string of pretty girlfriends; Sunny the aggressive gal and a little crazy; the guy with pale blue eyes and twirling mustache who took up with Kajsa; Jan the pretty, dark-haired fan who took up with Campbell; exotic-looking Karin who became Oscar’s second wife, and her friend from Germany; Rick the adaptable bass player who sang great harmony on ”The Bells of Rhymney,” and Michigan wife Cheryl; Dave the harmony singer who passed the stage of sitting in with me; Randy the Minstrel who stayed for all my sets and saw “a new side of Tony Townsend.”

They were: Gordon the stand-up poet disguised as an engineer; Winnie the teacher who tended bar in the beginning; Theo who relished my mocking the old-time religion; Bill the jazz guitarist extraordinaire who died too young; Stan the smoldering volcano of creativity; Mel the lonely fraternity brother and another, Tim who brought his wife; Monty with wounded carpenter hands who trained them to play guitar; Bud the ardent artist lost in a day job; alcoholic Johnny who came lately to my mother-in-law; Elmer the long-lost father of Jamie; Blue Onion Bud who replaced him; Judy and Jim the Brooks photographers; Paula who I scared without intent; the summer Christmas tree couple who introduced me to Leadbelly; Ann and Ed the siblings with perfect bodies; Bill the TV journalist; Bill the fraternity brother and TV writer; Howard who made me a redwood guitar; my relatives; my friends; the formal few; the rag-tag bunch; and God knows all the rest who came to see, to hear, to drink, to socialize and sing, who found in our place a meeting spot, a sanctuary of sorts, a second home, and even a hideout.

I must say, after a life of shyness and anonymity, it was a lot of fun to be a “celebrity” for a while. For the first time I actually enjoyed talking with all kinds of people, and discovered that most of them were basically nice. I had a marvelous time.

Then came the release of The Townsend Boys’ second single, “Hangin’ On,” during the promotion of which I found out that I was expected to commit a crime—and refused. It was a dark day, an experience that revealed in a threatening, personal way the basic corruption of the music industry. Deeply disturbed and disillusioned, I wanted no part of it. That event and that decision sealed my fate, for I never approached the music business again with the same zest.  But there was one more half-hearted try with the third single, “Passing Through.” I took a week off and went up and down California promoting it, at my own expense. And the expense was high because the trip was plagued by car troubles and staying extra nights. In spite of the interviews and hitting all the stations, I was “only passing through this land of sorrow,” as the song said. The best part of the trip was a Mideastern band and belly dancer in San Francisco who inspired me to arrange “Hava Nagila” on the mandolin.

Back in Santa Barbara, Tim had closed the Rondo early. It was Fiesta time and the crowds were crazy. They’d had a fight, somebody had broken a window, all kinds of problems, and it wasn’t worth staying open. It was OK by me; I was exhausted.

Caroline Denny, later to become Caroline Townsend.

Caroline Denny, later to become Caroline Townsend.

Even before Fiesta arrived that August, we were often overwhelmed by the crowds and had to hire more help. Barbro Carlsen could charm the male barroom into submission with her very presence; but too soon, she left. Caroline could escort them out by the scruff of the neck and the seat of the pants, but she couldn’t be there much. We hired Carola, who sweet-talked and cajoled the customers to keep them in line. We also hired Bill Thomas to tend bar. Bill was an off-season lumberjack who looked like a miniature Paul Bunyan. Not very tall, but broad-shouldered and muscular, Bill could literally throw people out the door. Tim was happy to have his support and Bill was happy to have the job. Then we hired Dee White, who could tend bar and wait tables. Trim and tough, but good-hearted, Dee was a fortunate find.

All of us were working that Sunday afternoon when the hoot turned into “the black hole of Calcutta.” Our plan to limit the number of people in the showroom failed dismally; people just pushed their way in. We had to open up the corner door to the street for air, and they came in that way, too. The noise, the smoke, the heat, the smell, were intense. You couldn’t hear what anyone said. You could hardly hear the music. Guys took off their shirts and the girls didn’t mind. People sat and lay back on the floor. Pitchers spilled; glasses broke. We couldn’t even get to the customers to serve them or clean up. But they were having a jolly good time anyway, laughing, drinking, smoking, making out. And through it all the musicians played their music on the stage in whatever space they could find, because the stage was lined with people and drinks. I got to the stage from the back room and shouted some idealistic plea. But no one paid attention. Peter Feldmann tried to calm the crowd too. John Thomas and The Channel Singers diverted them by playing music in the back room. We may have locked the front door. But nothing worked. We were overrun and out of control. I didn’t understand what was going on or why. How we got through that day without a tragedy or the police descending upon us, I’ll never know. And we didn’t even take in that much money! It was one of those times that strengthened my growing decision to get out of the bar business.

Once in awhile, as on the night when Tim and I gambled on the Wayfarers, we were the ones who overindulged. On one such night, Tim and I were both way over. When the radio program finally came on, it sounded something like this: Following a stately classical selection, the announcer Jim’s mellifluous voice intoned a dignified introduction: “With studios in the world- famous El Paseo, this is KRCW-FM, Santa Barbara’s home for fine classical music. (Pause.) And now we take you live and direct to the Rondo and music by Mr. Tony Townsend.” Suddenly erupted a din and my hollering: “Hello out there in radio land. How the hell are you?” Off into a raucous rendition of “To M’ Ri-de-o” and God knows what else went Tim and I like a couple of alley cats, wobbling around, knocking into things, and laughing out of context. At the end of the program, Jim’s dignified voice came back on: “That concludes the broadcast day for KRCW-FM, Santa Barbara’s home for fine music. (Pause) KRCW-FM is owned and operated by Richard Johnston under license from the Federal Communications Commission…,” etc, etc. Dick Johnston, good soul that he was, smiled but said not to let it happen again.

Naïve? I’m afraid so. Take Steve Smith. On the radio one night in the middle of a song, I became aware of people looking at something. Shuffling along doubled over, clutching his midsection and groaning like he would vomit or collapse right there—on the air—in front of the stage, was Steve Smith. But he kept on going and I kept on singing—somehow. After the program they told me that Steve had refused help and gone home. We got through the night and were starting to close when Steve returned, pale but recovered.

Steve Smith was a silent bar person. Night after night he looked at his glass and rarely spoke. Tonight he wanted to talk. We sat down. He told a disturbing story. He had problems before he started coming to the Rondo, he said, but they were nothing compared to the problems he had now. He had gotten hooked on drugs right here at the Rondo. We didn’t know it, but we owned the biggest drug den in town. The Swede, a blond guy with a jaunty cap who sat in a dark corner with friends, got him hooked—for free—then made him pay heavily. “You don’t know what’s going on,” said Steve, “right under your nose!”

We consulted an attorney and were advised that, unless we caught someone in the act and could prove it in court, there was nothing we could do—without asking for trouble. I was very discouraged. We just let it go. Steve stayed away. And so did the Swede. We kept our eyes open. Then Steve came back again, resumed sitting quietly by himself at the bar or coming into the showroom when there was music.

I finished my last set and went to wash glasses. I heard a crash from the showroom and saw Steve Smith come out and leave. Carolyn went to clean up. Suddenly, she returned looking ill and said, “Tony, call an ambulance quick!”

I used to sing a song called “Blood on the Saddle” that ended with the phrase—which I exaggerated for effect—“and a grrr…eeaat…biig…pudd…ddlle of bll… llood on the ground.” Precipitated on our showroom floor was that “great big puddle of blood” with some fellow in the middle of it. He looked dead. The ambulance and the police arrived within minutes. The corner door to the street was opened for the gurney. Ambulance lights flashed eerily on the ghastly scene of blood, body, broken glass, tipped tables, and chairs askew. The fellow was taken to the hospital. The police interviewed everyone. No one knew what had happened. No one saw anybody jam a glass in his face, around an eye. We cleaned up the spilled violence. We all thought Steve Smith was the culprit. We saw him in the showroom and we saw him leave in a hurry. No one told the police. I thought we should, but no one did. Steve was a regular; no one recognized the other guy. No one knew why.

That was it! I’d had enough! No more Rondo for me! We may have closed for a day, but we couldn’t just walk away. We owed the Schulers. We owed others. So, I went back and we kept on. I followed the news. The fellow recovered, did not lose his eye, but did lose his lawsuit against Steve Smith. A few employees and customers were called to testify, but no one saw it happen and nothing could be proved. Drugs were said to be involved. Steve Smith was a free man.

Hootenany Flyer

Hootenany Flyer

Life at the Rondo turned more pleasant—until another night after the music was done. Two fellows entered and went directly into the showroom. I waited, then followed. One was standing on the stage looking at the KRCW microphone and the other was looking at one of Joan Priolo’s paintings on the wall. “How’re you doing?” I said. “No more music tonight.” “OK.” Colorless, self-enclosed, poker-faced guys, they wandered around. I returned to the bar, expecting them to leave. Some time passed and I went to check. They brushed by me and left. Then I discovered what they had done: destroyed Joan’s painting by cutting it into pieces and stashing them on a shelf in the men’s room; destroyed Dick’s microphone by unscrewing the front piece, pulling the insides out, and depositing them on the floor. I was just numb. None of us knew them. None of us could understand why. It was just a random, brazen, ugly, evil act. We paid Joan Priolo for her painting. Caroline salvaged the largest piece to decorate our wall at home. We paid Dick Johnston for his microphone, or at least made the offer, and he brought in another to replace it. We carried on. We took pains to make sure there were no unattended customers in the showroom.

But it didn’t matter. The Schulers’ lease expired at the end of August. Mert Lusink—reneging on his promise—refused to renew it. He refused to lease the place to us. We looked frantically for a suitable location. Some of our customers looked, too. Several spots might have worked, but nothing had the good feel of the Rondo or the right location.

Suddenly, it was over! We had to vacate the premises by Labor Day. We rented a garage, and friends and customers helped us move. We had a lot of friends, a lot of goodwill toward us. There was much dismay over the closing of the Rondo. It was a happy gathering place for so many people. We kept on looking, but it was like the Indians’ ghost dance at the end of the trail. It was over. Caroline was full of regret. I was miserable but deeply relieved; I just didn’t have the stomach to continue.

We had a few days off. Then Dick Johnston continued my broadcast from the studio. I started performing, as did Don Robertson, at Gatsby’s, a Roaring Twenties restaurant on East Cota owned by former New York lawyer Tom Sammon. Dick moved the live radio show to Gatsby’s. Then came an additional gig with Denis Hazelwood at Chico’s, a Mexican restaurant in Santa Maria. In a short and final burst of popularity, hootenannies were exploding all over and I was often hired as MC or performer. A Rondo reunion took place in Goleta at the Nexus, the new hub of folk music in the Santa Barbara area, with John Thomas and The Channel Singers, Don Robertson, Todd Grant and Phil Pritchard of The Terrytown Trio, Hal Bates, Caroline and I, and others I can’t recall.

Cracks had opened in society’s walls and a new light was shining in. A new urgency, a militancy had come into folk music. Performers divided along lines of entertainment versus message, commercialism versus reality. Pete Seeger was performing his social commentary. Bob Dylan was storming onto the scene with biting songs about injustice and wrong living. Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary were singing of freedom and justice. My music was taking a new direction as well. With a Martin D-28 from Bonnie Langley to add to my array of instruments, I was learning new techniques and songs. Playing three guitars, banjo, mandolin, autoharp, and harmonicas, I was embarking on a new phase of my career.  One cold autumn day, I bought a Lightning Hopkins record at the Bonnie Langley Music Company. The clerk said Bonnie was next door at Johnnie’s bar. I was sorry to have missed her, because I liked talking with Bonnie, that gruff woman with the puffy red face and tight curly hair with a bald spot showing through, who sold instruments, gave lessons, and had a marching band and a propensity for drink. I was starting to leave when Bonnie Langley came in the front door like a stranger in her own store. “Some son-of-a-bitch just shot the President!” she said.

The short, nationwide flowering of folk music approximated JFK’s term in office. To my mind, the music and the man represented the best of America: our inclusiveness, generosity, and idealism. The feeling of that time was one of freshness, of innocence. JFK inspired many people. Democracy became real—to be lived. Life was to enjoy. The degradation of fellow human beings was inimical to life. People talked, acted, and sang about it. Folk music was the natural music. It was simple and innocent. It was free. It was democratic. It was traditional and it was new. Anyone could do it. You could see the performers, good, bad and indifferent, transformed by the music. But the innocence died that day with JFK. The music went on, but the simple innocence vanished in the crush of a commercial world, a military world that tumbled on, twisting and turning, crashing and burning, too cruel and hard to withstand.

A few short years it lasted, that time when folk music enthralled the land. In spite of the struggles, those years were the best of my life.

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The Sixties in Folk Music / 19. Russ Johnson

The Big Debut. . .

Russ Johnson

In the summer of ’62, Peter Feldmann was performing at Mephisto’s, which was a restaurant in the basement of the building that had previously housed the YMCA. The owner, Dave Bernheimer, wanted it to be an upscale eatery, which couldn’t have been easy given the location.

Peter asked me to fill in for him one Friday night, and because I had zero experience performing, I tried to turn him down. Peter persisted, and I gave in.

My other friend, Bill Thrasher, conspired with the owner to provide some publicity for my debut. Bill was a great guitar player with a talent for drawing. He concocted an ad for me and, unbeknownst to me, had it printed in the News-Press.

That evening when I got home from work, Bill’s wife Maggie asked me if I had seen the newspaper. I looked and was shocked. Bill had drawn a cartoon of me singing and playing the guitar and, though mortifying, it was so funny I could only laugh.

At least the customers couldn’t say they weren’t warned. Since no one asked me back, that was my one and only performance in a very short career as a folk singer.

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