High Lonesome Below Sea Level – a review

High Lonesome Below Sea Level - Faces and Stories of Bluegrass MusicBluegrass music was introduced to the Netherlands by US military service men and American Forces Network Broadcasting Service. It is likely that it was the case for western Europe; it was certainly so for Britain.

Service men and European natives co-existed and so began a cultural exchange. At grass roots level it started in Holland in the late 1950s with a banjo-playing soldier who shared his talent with a Dutch guy, who later became a well-known performer and ‘pioneer’ in Holland.

High Lonesome Below Sea Level; Faces and Stories of Bluegrass Music in the Netherlands  is a 117-page series of portraits, matching photographs with text, in pairings that give an insight into the characters that populate the Dutch bluegrass music community.

The book began as an extension to Loes van Schaijk’s research for a Masters’ Thesis on bluegrass culture in Holland.

Just a year out of formal studies for music education and culture, van Schaijk engaged the assistance of photographer Marieke Odekerken and the two young ladies began a tour of Holland tracking its bluegrass musicians and other personalities who are otherwise involved in the bluegrass music business.

Opposite each black and white picture is a profile with plenty of quotes and some, sometimes abstract, comment.

The profiles are sorted in such a way that the pioneers – Cor and his brother Johan Slimmen, and Henk Thomassen (the three surviving members of Eindhoven’s Dutch Bluegrass Boys); Cornelis le Mair, who looks like the subject of a Frans Hals’ painting; Henk Abrahams and John van den Broek; and Jaap van Beusekom, among others – are placed at the beginning of the book providing a loose historical sequence.

Also featured are such well-known personalities as Rienk Janssen, Pieter Groenveld, Johannes Bodingius, Elly Beurskens, A.G. and Kate, the notorious Dennis Schut, the Blue Grass Boogiemen, Joost van Es and the late Theo Lissenberg.

Also featured are ex-pats Americans Shelly O’Day, Kevin Lynch and John Cline, and Englishman Arthur Deighton, one of the family that was prominent as a folk group in England in the late 1980s.

Among the young guns are Chris and his brother Ralph Schut, fidde player Karlijn Pippel, Daisy Chain (Karin Guldemond, Liesbeth Kemerling, Lonneke Knegtel and Niki Jansen) , Ricky Koole, Velvet Joe (Joris Scheepers) and the Bluegrass Diamonds (Miep Oude Aost, Florianne van  Hasselt and Neeltje van Diggele), Douwe Bob Posthuma, Christian Filius, Guido de Groot, and banjo player Wesley Fransen.

What is apparent is that some Dutch musicians (a) came to bluegrass from other styles of music, (b) found that the community couldn’t support an entirely pure form of the music so they played other types of music as their creative muse sustained them, and (c) younger musicians have pushed the bluegrass envelope for similar reasons. Collectively and separately they have trodden a very familiar path.

Despite those disparate paths, EWoB (the annual European World of Bluegrass festival at Voorthuizen, Gelderland, The Netherlands) seems to be a constant.

Despite an initial impression that High Lonesome Below Sea Level appears to be a luxury item, the book provides valuable insights into the nature of bluegrass musicians, and others, in the Netherlands over 60 years. Only a very small minority are fully professional and many play other styles of music also.

The authors have thoughtfully included a useful glossary, a map showing the country’s 12 provinces as well as an Index.

A book about music isn’t complete without the opportunity to listen to the musicians, is it? Well, thanks to the use of Layar technology, readers of High Lonesome Below Sea Level can scan each portrait in the book using the Layar app and a smartphone to be directed to a webpage/YouTube video with music by the portrayed artist.

High Lonesome Below Sea Level : Faces and Stories of Bluegrass Music in the Netherlands is an impressive cultural statement, worthy of wide attention.

Oh, and plaudits to the person who thought of the title.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.