Neil Rosenberg 80 years young

Best known as the writer of the definitive book about the history of bluegrass music, Neil Rosenberg, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, has contributed to the genre in many ways, besides being an author and historian. 

Born in Seattle, Washington, when aged seven Rosenberg began taking classical violin lessons. However, about a couple of years later he switched to learning folk guitar and vocal training, in the forefront of the folk music boom of the early 1950s with budding folk music enthusiast, and fellow Garfield Junior High School (Berkeley, California) classmate, Mayne Smith.   

They started playing guitar together and singing the Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs that they learned at the time. Rosenberg’s interest was further fueled by the appearance in Berkeley of folk music leader Pete Seeger.  

After moving to Berkeley High School Rosenberg and Smith met Scott Hambly, and within a couple of years, they formed a part of a group of teenage folk music enthusiasts who participated in weekend musical parties at a cabin in Redwood Canyon. 

In 1956 Rosenberg and Smith were the first from this group to perform on The Midnight Special, a live radio program broadcast every Saturday night from the studios of KPFA-FM in Berkeley. 

Rosenberg first enjoyed the sounds of bluegrass music when he started at Oberlin College, in Ohio, in the fall of 1957. His choice was influenced by the attendance there of Mayne Smith, and Sing Out! magazine had reported that there was a healthy folk music scene there. During that first year at Oberlin, Rosenberg first heard the term “bluegrass” and he became aware of Mike Seeger’s anthology American Banjo Scruggs Style, his first bluegrass album release.

In the summer of the following year, Rosenberg (guitar), Smith (banjo) and Hambly (mandolin) made concert appearances in the Bay Area with a couple of bluegrass numbers included in their set lists. 

During the years 1958 and 1959 Rosenberg and Smith played bluegrass and old-time music at Oberlin with a group called the Lorain County String Band. This they did until they returned to Berkeley in June 1959, joined Hambly and another friend, Pete Berg, to form The Redwood Canyon Ramblers. Their first show was at The Peppermint Stick restaurant. 

Shortly afterwards Rosenberg switched to playing the banjo, and with a slightly changed line-up they performed weekly at the Northgate club until the end of the summer of 1959. 

The Redwood Canyon Ramblers was re-formed June 1960, when Rosenberg returned to Berkeley from Oberlin along with fiddler Franklin Miller, who had been with him in a new Oberlin band, the Plum Creek Boys. 

Also in 1960, Rosenberg encountered the professional bluegrass band, the Osborne Brothers, when the Plum Creek Boys opened for them at Antioch – the first ever college bluegrass concert. 

In an eventful year he was elected president of Oberlin’s Folk Song Club, with the club bringing the Country Gentlemen, for their first college concert, and the New Lost City Ramblers to Oberlin College. 

In 1961 Rosenberg received his Bachelor of Arts degree in history, at the culmination of his time at Oberlin College. 

Subsequently, he moved to Bloomington to attend Indiana University, where he continued his Folklore studies. 

During his time at Bloomington, Rosenberg began to frequent Bill Monroe’s Brown County Jamboree music park in nearby Bean Blossom, during which time he met and played banjo with Monroe, became a member of the house band, the Stoney Lonesome Boys. 

Also, he won banjo contests held there in 1962, 1963, and in 1964.

In the September of 1961 Rosenberg filled-in with the Blue Grass Boys, as he did again in October; and in 1963, 1965 and 1967. Learning Monroe’s material drove him to do some research on Monroe’s recordings. This led to him putting together a discography, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography (Country Music Foundation Press, 1974, now out of print). 

At the same time, he began tape recording shows by Monroe and others who appeared at the Jamboree, creating a large collection that is now kept in the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture. 

At the behest of Bill Monroe’s new manager, Ralph Rinzler, Rosenberg was recruited to manage the park during the 1963 jamboree season. 

He remained in Indiana until 1968, mixing academic work – earning Masters and Doctorate Degrees in Folklore – with further involvement in music – playing in the house band in 1965 – and assisting Monroe at his first Bean Blossom festivals (in 1967 and 1968).

After graduating at Indiana University, he spent two years teaching there, after which he took on a teaching role in the Department of Folkore at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. 

Rosenberg’s years in Indiana are recorded in the recently published Bluegrass Generation: A Memoir (University of Illinois Press, 2018). It earned him the IBMA’s Print/Media Person of the Year accolade for 2018. 

Also during the 1960s, he began writing about bluegrass; his first paper, From Sound to Style, the Emergence of Bluegrass Music, traced the evolution of bluegrass music as it changed from Bill Monroe’s music to a distinctive musical genre with many bands playing in the same or a very similar manner. Rosenberg compiled another discography, that of session recordings by the Osborne Brothers; this was published in the bible of bluegrass music at the time, the Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. 

Not long after his move to the most easterly province of Canada he helped to organize and run the Nova Scotia Bluegrass and Oldtime Music Festival, (from 1972 to 1979).  In 1973 he helped the formation of Crooked Stovepipe, the Newfoundland-based bluegrass band.

From 1984 to 1991 Rosenberg hosted a weekly bluegrass show on St. John’s commercial country music radio station, CKIX-FM. He was a founding member of the Bluegrass and Oldtime Country Music Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, formed in 2003.

In addition to his Bluegrass: A History (1985), which was reprinted with a new preface for its 20th Anniversary Edition in 2005; and Bluegrass Generation: A Memoir – Rosenberg wrote Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined (1993), a collection of studies on folk music revivals; Bluegrass Odyssey: A Documentary in Pictures and Words, 1966-86 (2001) co-authored with Library of Congress photographer Carl Fleischhauer; The Music of Bill Monroe (2007), co-authored with Charles K. Wolfe. This last book was a considerable revision and expansion of Rosenberg’s 1974 Bill Monroe discography.

A revised and up-dated edition of Bluegrass: A History was published in 2010. 

In 1981 he originated the column Thirty Years Ago This Month which Rosenberg wrote for 13 years in Bluegrass Unlimited, a feature that each month informed readers of bluegrass activities, including personal appearance dates, recording sessions and record releases, from 30 years earlier. 

Rosenberg has prepared notes and discographies for boxed-set compilations of vintage bluegrass on the German Bear Family label, including collections by Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers, and Carl Story. 

Also, he has written liner notes for a variety of album releases – approximately 50 LPs and CDs – beginning with his 1969 compilation for RCA’s Vintage Series, Early Blue Grass; the genre’s first historical re-issue anthology, also including the Grammy-winning reissue of compiler Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which won a 1997 Grammy Award for the Best Album Notes.

His other works include some 60 published articles and review essays. 

In 1986 he was presented with the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Distinguished Achievement Award. 

From 2006-2012 Rosenberg was the at-large member of IBMA’s board of directors.

Then, in 2014 he became the first international inductee to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. 

That same year the Memorial University Libraries created the Neil V. Rosenberg Collection, consisting of periodicals and other materials from his private research library. 

Dr. Rosenberg is a Fellow of the American Folklore Society and the recipient of the Marius Barbeau Medal for lifetime achievement from the Folklore Studies Association of Canada.

He retired from his position at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in September 2004.

For Rosenberg, playing his banjo remains a joy. He told Banjo NewsLetter magazine in an interview with Bob Carlin (2012) …..  

“I never stopped performing, despite the demands on my time and energy that creates. For me, making music is essential exercise for the inner self.”

In this video, Crooked Stovepipe share their version of the Glen Neaves’ classic Old Swinging Bridge. Kick it off Neil ……

With apologies to all concerned – I simply misread ‘Mar’ as May; he was born on March 21, 1939 – we offer belated birthday greetings. Happy Birthday!

Four fellow authors share their thoughts about how Rosenberg has influenced each of them…..

Gary B Reid learned much from Rosenberg’s works …. 

“I first became aware of Neil Rosenberg’s work in 1974 with his book Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys – An Illustrated Discography. His research and the manner in which he organized his findings set the tone for my own discographic work. The Monroe book was the model I used for a pamphlet I issued in 1984 called The Stanley Brothers – a Preliminary Discography. Later, Neil collaborated with Charles Wolfe for their book The Music of Bill Monroe and once again his work was a template for my comprehensive The Music of the Stanley Brothers. Above and beyond all of that, Neil has been very gracious over the years in answering various research questions that I had. I’ve always looked to him as the dean of the bluegrass scholars.”

Tim Stafford, the co-writer, with Caroline Wright, of Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story, agrees with Reid …….

“Neil Rosenberg is the Dean of Bluegrass studies, and rightfully so. His body of work is second to none. He’s a great, thorough, careful writer and researcher, and it’s doubtful his record in bluegrass scholarship will ever be equalled. But he’s also a warm, wonderful guy as well, always willing to help students. He has never turned down an opportunity to speak to my students about his passion.  

Happy 80th Neil, and I hope you are around dispensing wisdom for a long time to come.”

Tom Adler owes much to Rosenberg’s guidance ….

“I have known Neil Rosenberg and considered him a friend and mentor for over 50 of his 80 years. I was introduced to Neil in the fall of 1968, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. Neil was then nearing the end of his graduate work at Indiana University’s world-renowned Folklore Institute. My mentor at Illinois was the folklorist Archie Green, and with his encouragement I attended my first annual meeting of the American Folklore Society in Bloomington, Indiana. It was an inspiring weekend among the great folklorists of that era, and I listened to many of the formal academic paper sessions, and even took part in the informal evening music-making with such bluegrass stalwarts as Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler. 

After Archie introduced us, I sat with Neil and his graduate school colleagues at the American Folklore Society’s annual Saturday evening banquet, and listened admiringly as they spoke of their varied studies and interests. On Sunday, when the American Folklore Society Annual Meeting program was coming to an end, Neil informed me and several others that Bill Monroe owned a small rural country music park at Bean Blossom, only twenty miles from Bloomington, and that there would be a good show there that evening, featuring Monroe with the Blue Grass Boys and also Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Since I had already been eagerly consuming Monroe and Stanley Brothers’ recordings ever since my childhood in Chicago, I jumped at the chance. Neil introduced me to the Brown County Jamboree that weekend and offered both his own friendly guidance and his knowledgeable overview of the Jamboree. The experience stuck with me and changed the course of my own academic life. Eventually I, too, matriculated at the Folklore Institute, earned my own doctorate there, spent many happy days and nights at Bean Blossom, and ended up writing a history of the Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass festivals (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2011).   

Through it all, Neil has remained, for me, as both an exemplary model of academic excellence and also a warm, gracious, and unfailingly helpful friend. I treasure that friendship more than I can say and send him my heartfelt congratulations and all best wishes on this milestone birthday!”

Murphy Hicks Henry acknowledges how accessible Rosenberg’s works are …. 

“When I undertook my own self-imposed task of writing Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass, one of the hardest things I had to do was to stop trying to be another Neil Rosenberg. I had devoured his Bluegrass: A History when it came out in 1985, reading it cover to cover in less than a week. His vast knowledge of bluegrass and the way he artfully wove all the pieces together into something engrossing and readable was inspiring, but also daunting. 

When I was finally able to adjust my sights to simply writing the best book I could, I turned often to “BAH” (as Neil calls it), looking for information. My tattered and torn copy of his Bill Monroe discography (1974) also saw heavy use, especially when it came to identifying the songs Bessie Lee Mauldin had played bass on so I could listen to each one. Priceless knowledge.

Even as I write this, in 2019, I have, once more, cracked open Bluegrass: A History along with a selection of Neil’s Thirty Years Ago columns in Bluegrass Unlimited and his liner notes to the Time-Life Flatt and Scruggs collection, to search for some tid-bits of information that are necessary to my current project.

It is fair to say that my own work would have been pert near impossible without the foundation that Neil laid. And all of it eminently readable. Did I already say that? 

Thanks, Neil, for the knowledge you imparted and the inspiration to go and do likewise. In my own way, of course! Many happy returns!”

A Selective Discography 

Crooked Stovepipe – 

  • Newfoundland Bluegrass (Third Wave TWP-103-2, 1994). 
  • Pickin’ on The Rock (Third Wave TWPCD 104. 1997). 
  • Just in Case (Crooked Productions CS 8845, July 2005), named East Coast Music Awards Bluegrass Recording of the Year, 2006.
  • Live ‘n’ Pickin’ (2013)

Colleen Power with Crooked Stovepipe –

  • For Little Ones (Baygirl Music 0270222, September 2010)

Three instrumentals – Queenstown, Penniless (but not Baroque) and Farewell Cindy – written by Rosenberg are included in Crooked Stovepipe’s repertoire. 

Share this:

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.