As The Bluegrass Blog rolls into Bluegrass Today, I thought I’d take us back to the beginning of the online bluegrass community.
Let us recall a simpler time, a time when bluegrass social media meant the letters section of Bluegrass Unlimited, when a land-line was called a phone, and phones were so rare they were kept in sacred shrines called “phone booths.” Let us return to the distant, fog-bound heath of the past—20 years ago.
In September 1991, Frank Godbey, who many of you know as the retiring bluegrasser and newly retired University of Kentucky computer programmer/analyst, had the audacity, vision, and free time to place a regular-sized piece of paper next to the registration desk at the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Owensboro.
And on the pedestal these words appeared: “Anybody interested in discussing bluegrass music by email, please write your name and address here.”
Thus, revolutions are made.
At the time (a time when anybody could get a job in computing), I was a programmer at Cornell University and had come down to Owensboro for my first IBMA. I don’t know how many people in attendance back then had email addresses, but mine was one of six names that ended up on that piece of paper. The Owensboro Six were Art Menius, David Dees, Rich Baker, Ed Cirimele, me, and Frank.
After returning to Lexington, Frank emailed us and for a few weeks we held an informal correspondence—Frank having to forward messages. Soon finding this unwieldy, he walked over to the mainframe area at UK and talked with Bob Corvo, the person responsible for maintaining the listserv software. Bob and the university agreed to host a listserv on bluegrass music, which Frank called bgrass-L.
On November 22, 1991, at 1:49 pm, Frank sent out the first message, which began with the momentous words, “Well, let’s try this out and see if it works.”
We were soon joined by Jim Muller, Steve Goldfield, Doc Hamilton, Ilana Reisner, Archie Warnock, Jonathan Willard, and others. It was slow going, though. On December 3, Frank sent out a message that ended with, “C’mon folks. There are 15 subscribers as of today; surely someone has something to say.”
So, we began introducing ourselves and soon there was a lively discussion about Doyle Lawson’s band (right after IIIrd Tyme Out had formed), the Lynn Morris Band, Larry Sparks, and how technology could help promote bluegrass.
Frank was the most knowledgeable and experienced among us. If you don’t know Frank Godbey, he’s one of the more gracious and self-effacing of carbon-based life forms. Here’s how he introduced himself in an early posting. I quote the full post because it gives such a good flavor of the time:
Date: Mon, 25 Nov 91 11:22:49 EST
From: Frank Godbey <UKA016@UKCC.uky.edu>
My “day job” since the late 60s has been in what used to be calleddata processing. Now who knows what it is– technology moves fasterthan Ronnie McCoury’s fingers. Anyhow, I do it at the Universityof Kentucky– mainframe stuff, IDMS data base, old-fashioned batch,etc. I’ve been a country music fan since the 50s (a mere child, I then 🙂 )and began noticing that some of it was different toward the latter partof that decade– used to see Flatt & Scruggs on TV when visitingrelatives back home in Kentucky (we lived in Ohio at the time). Got a guitar in ’59 after playing a gig (chord pounding piano)with my cousin’s rock-a-billy band. Started banjo a little bitlater (aside to David Dees– I was visiting relatives in Aberdeen MSand saw a band on TV with a banjo player in a funny hat. Who was that,do you suppose?) I consider myself a banjo player, although mostof my performance credits are on the mandolin. Haven’t been in aregular band for 3 or 4 years now, but from early to late 80s played alot around KY, getting as far as Indiana, Ohio, West Va. & Georgiafor festival appearances. We called ourselves The Next of Kin, butnever did record as a band. I played mandolin on the first 4King-Bluegrass LPs by the Boys from IN (1974-77 when Noah Craseand Paul Mullins made them a punchin’ good bluegrass band).Also on 1/2 of a Charlie Moore album. And played banjo on one cutof Larry Rice’s first solo album. Used to play bass in bars inColumbus, OH, with John Hickman, et al in the mid 60s. What a timethat was! Right now I’m woefully out of practice…grrr 🙁 Moved to Macon GA in 68, not much bluegrass there then. Back toKentucky (Lexington) in 72. I began reviewing records for BU thatyear and still do some of that, but not as much as in the past. My IBMA affiliation is in the print media and education category. This is probably more than anybody wants to know about me, but whatthe heck– I own this list!
Frank Godbey INTERNET: UKA016@UKCC.UKY.EDU
Reading through those early posts is a little like looking at pictures of your younger self. On December 4, 1991, I posted, “One of the interesting things that Apple has just gotten out in Beta is QuickTime, which allows easy control of short movies played on the screen. Imagine clicking a button that says ‘Foggy Mountain Boys, 1955’ and seeing a short clip complete with sound!”
Yes, it was that long ago. And that recent.
By November 1992, the list had grown to over 200 members, and by late 1993 there were nearly 500. The peak, in terms of subscribers, came about 2003 or 2004 when there were over 2,100 members of bgrass-L. Today, the number holds steady at around 800, but in terms of passion, the list is as vibrant as it was in those early days, perhaps even more so.
Like any list, it’s seen its share of petty squabbles, misunderstandings, and flame wars. But through it all, Frank has moderated discussion with a light hand and has encouraged civility by example.
Through bgrass-L, I got to know Frank and many others whom I now consider lifelong friends. I wrote the song 20 Naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac after a challenge was posted on bgrass-L. And while I don’t check in nearly as much as I used to, I’m still a subscriber and always enjoy it when someone new comes on board with a posting such as, “I’m new to bluegrass and this seems like a good place to find out who this guy Larry Sparks is.”
Bluegrass likes to portray itself as the poor country cousin to just about everything, but the truth is that it has always been on or ahead of the curve of technology advances. We have an intelligent, creative community that has answered need with innovation, going back to the early days of radio.
Bluegrass Today now embraces the full spectrum of social media in order to give us the kind of online experience we want, but in another 20 years we’ll probably look back and smile at how naïve we were in 2011.
So, congratulations to Bluegrass Today on stepping up, but it is also fitting and proper that we establish the history of the online bluegrass community as starting with bgrass-L and Frank Godbey.
From all of us: Thank you, Frank.
Postnote: Frank’s wife, Marty Godbey, who passed away last December, had completed writing a book titled Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe, published by the University of Illinois Press on September 1, 2011. Essential Reading.