I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky #242

From October 1, 2010 through to the end of September 2011, we will, each day, celebrate the life of Bill Monroe by sharing information about him and those people who are associated with his life and music career. This information will include births and deaths; recording sessions; single, LP and CD release dates; and other interesting tidbits. Richard F. Thompson is responsible for the research and compilation of this information. We invite readers to share any tidbits, photos or memories you would like us to include.

On this Memorial Day, let’s take a look at the second part of Juli Thanki’s Bill Monroe article in Pop Matters. We posted about Part 1 on May 20.

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

During the height of his career, Bill Monroe fielded a baseball team that would organize pickup games in each town in order to drum up publicity for that evening’s concert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full article online.

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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.