On This Day #70: Remembering Jan Jerrold 

On this day … 

On August 18, 1993, American-born British bluegrass activist Jan Jerrold passed away, aged 52. His importance in the popularity of bluegrass music in the UK could scarcely be overstated.

Jan Jay Jerrold was born in Washington DC, on April 22, 1941, of French/Irish descent. He was the eldest of five children. He spent his first few years at 3510 Garfield Steet NW, not far from the Washington National Cathedral. 

His brother Alan remembers … 

“The family moved to Dublin in 1950 after my father’s death. We spent a while in France on the way. Jan moved to London after he got married in 1963.

Jan’s first interest in music was in the fifties with skiffle and Lonnie Donegan. He had a skiffle band which practiced in our garage. He then moved on to country music, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, etc., and later to bluegrass. Oddly, he moved to country and bluegrass while I moved to Woody Guthrie and folk.”

Sister Yvonne adds .. 

“He had started collecting records from when he was about 14 or 15.  I remember the very first record he bought was Harry Belafonte’s Island in the Sun on a 45rpm single. Later he discovered country western music and moved on to blue grass.”

If he wasn’t aware of country music while in America, Jerrold certainly became familiar with it while living in Dublin, as it was very popular in Ireland.  

To the best of her recollection, Jerrold’s widow Marie thinks … 

“…. there was a lot of folk/country music in Dublin in the early ’60s. We saw the group The Dubliners playing a few times, and Johnny Cash came to Dublin. Great concert.   

I’m pretty sure it was Paul O’Grady who introduced Jan to Hank Williams and Jim Reeves. At that time, before Paul got his own shop, he worked in a record shop down on the Quays and Jan spent a lot of time there. It … evolved into what Jan saw as the greatest sort of country music – bluegrass.”

It should be noted that O’Grady wasn’t the recently deceased English TV personality. As Marie emphasises, he “was just a bloke who was a country fan and ran a record shop. He introduced Jan to many new country artists and maybe bluegrass.”

Youngest sibling Suzanne said….. 

“My early memories are of Jan in charge of the music at ‘Hops’ in our house, playing Rock-Around-the-Clock and you [Yvonne] dancing with lovely full brightly coloured skirts which mother had made.”

For Tom Travis, Jerrold just seems to have been around since the late 1970s …. 

“Jan was the personification of the word, ‘Fanatic’ – although dogged by a genetic disease that had claimed his father and others before him, generated eruptive energy, which he applied to the furtherance of bluegrass music in Britain. I have memories of him arriving at my door with musicians for whom he had become a promoter and vehicle driver. Having driven for hundreds of miles, he stepped out of the car on my drive already talking, ten to the dozen, about everything bluegrass. He was truly irrepressible. 

I had the pleasure — along with other of his admirers and adherents – of singing at his funeral. We bade him farewell with, among other classic Stanley Brothers’ songs, Angel Band and The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn

It’s now 30 years on, and I still miss him.”

The Stanley Brothers – The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn .. 

In November 1993, Bill Clifton wrote this about a remarkable example of Jerrold’s intrepid nature ..

“I was completely taken aback when someone slipped up on our darkened front porch and knocked on our door shortly after midnight on a frosty March morning in 1979. Mendota is a tiny rural community in the Clinch Mountains of southwestern Virginia, and residents of this part of the country are wary of strangers at any time … but most especially so in the middle of the night.

Jan had been sent to Boston, Massachusetts, by the company for which he worked and decided to try to find me. I had only six months earlier returned from Britain to settle in Mendota. We used a post-office box as an address and we did not get a telephone for almost a year. Needless to say, Jan was undaunted by this lack of specific information.

He decided to rent a car and drive from Boston to Mendota (a journey of approximately the same magnitude as a trip from Land’s End to John o’ Goats). If he looked a bit disheveled, he was certainly no less bubbly and enthusiastic when I opened the door to him.

How in the world had he found us, I wondered aloud, thinking one would never dare to stop one’s car at any stranger’s house along the lonely stretch of country road he had just travelled. ‘Oh, it was no problem,’ he replied. ‘I noticed a light at a house about 10 miles back, so I stopped and asked them where you lived.’

I am sure that his naivety never allowed him to consider the prevalence of firearms in mountain homes. This naivety and innocence was, indeed, a great part of Jan’s charm. It endeared him to a lot of good folks in both Britain and America. These qualities enable him to ‘have a go’ at things which many of us would write off as being impractical or impossible. He demonstrated this quality over and over by tackling the organization of bluegrass evenings at the Half Moon in Putney [among other locations].”

British multi-instrumentalist Rick Townend remembers an amusing event involving Jerrold that took place in March 1987 …

“On the tour with Bill Clifton, Red Rector and Art Stamper, we stayed one night at Jan’s Woking house, and Art, who was a hairdresser, gave Jan a haircut, joking that he’d made him look like Pete Kuykendall!”

Bill Clifton, Red Rector and Art Stamper – Won’t It Be Wonderful There?  

Musician and writer Joe Ross visited Britain in the summer of 1990 …. 

“Every community of enthusiasts, including bluegrassers, seems to have its ‘Movers and Shakers,’ folks who truly make a difference. More than just fans, they’re energetic, influential, important, powerful, affable, personable, and connected.

Jan Jerrold was a promoter who got involved with bluegrass by somewhat by accident. When John Hopkins organized a tour for Bob Paisley in 1981, Jan drove the bus. Jan once told me, ‘I also tagged along on a couple of tours including Joe Val’s first in 1982. When John Hopkins quit doing tours, I got into it by finding some dates for Whetstone Run.’ Jan was also quite involved with the London Bluegrass Club and its growth.”

Whetstone Run – If Teardrops Were Pennies 

Ross continues …. 

“Jan realized the financial risks of his bluegrass endeavors, but those didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm. Another ‘labour of love’ was Jan’s involvement (with Phill Morley) as co-editor of the British Bluegrass News. It was a fine quarterly publication that first appeared in the 1970s as The British Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Journal, in the decades were before e-mail, internet, texting, and tweeting.

We were well past the use of carrier pigeons, but bluegrassers depended on old-fashioned snail-mail, phone calls, and publications like BBN to communicate, network, and stay informed. Phill Morley planted the seed for the newsletter at the 1976 Cambridge Folk Festival, and then launched it in May 1977 with a feature about the Edale Picking Sessions. In February 1979 it became a small magazine. Jan Jerrold came in with Morley in January 1982, and they decided to shorten its name to British Bluegrass News. Despite its ups and downs over the years, they always made sure the magazine was out on time. 

Hal Spence, guitarist and tenor singer with the Sawtooth Mountain Boys, recently told me, ‘Oh yes, we stayed with Jan twice! He had a huge, giant record collection, and I think he could tell you who played and sang what on any record you pulled out at random. Yet he didn’t play or sing! He edited their bluegrass newsletter. He was a computer programmer and would start work at 1:00 in the morning sometimes.'”

Another of the Sawtooth Mountain Boys, Steve Waller commented after one show that Jerrold was so excited that he was jumping up and down in his seat and looked, “as happy as a ‘possum with a mouthful of bees.'”

Sawtooth Mountain Boys – Just Like Every Hurtin’ Song 

As Jerrold’s involvement with British Bluegrass News increased there was more live bluegrass in central London – it was no coincidence. He booked artists such as High County, the Good Ol’ Persons, and Bob Paisley & the Southern Grass, and advertised these as a ‘Big Bluegrass Night.’

Good Ol’ Persons – My My My 

There had been a London Bluegrass Club in the 1970s, but it sometimes experienced periods of inactivity. In November 1986 he revived the Club with the opening night at The Half Moon, featuring English bands the Down County Boys and the Bluegrass Ramblers.  

The Echo Mountain Band, Fingers & Co., The WFTW Bluegrass Jamboree, and Scotland’s Runaway Sting Band were a few of the other British bands to be booked for the monthly concerts. American trio Bill Clifton, Red Rector, and Art Stamper, and bands such as The Sawtooth Mountain Boys, Jim Eanes (supported by English stalwarts Pete Stanley and Brian Golbey), Rose Maddox, The Johnson Mountain Boys, and Pete Rowan and the Red Hot Pickers were other very welcome guests at the London Bluegrass Club.

Townend adds … 

“Jan’s London Bluegrass Club operated at the Half Moon, Putney, for perhaps a year, then the Weavers Arms, Newington Green, and finally at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, where he put on most of the visiting US bands and musicians.”

In March 1987 Maddox played an ad-hoc bluegrass show at the Half Moon that was arranged by Jerrold. 

After suffering a near-fatal heart attack, Maddox returned to the UK in 1990. Townend, who played banjo in the back-up band in another gig that Jerrold organised, shares this behind-the-scenes memory of the occasion …. 

“One memory… is that we had a half-hour rehearsal for a two-hour show: fortunately Jan had provided us all with cassette copies of a lot of Rose’s material, and it was ok even when, after the first two songs, she started taking requests! In the rehearsal she’d shown us her hand signals for chord changes, and she conducted us though the entire evening, with such success that Jan reported that he’d heard one audience member (noted for his disparaging views of UK musicians) saying, ‘of course only the Americans can play like this …'”

Rose Maddox – My Rose Of Old Kentucky 

Mal Salisbury (with Pete Wraith) started the Ironbridge Bluegrass & Roots Music Festival in 1988 …

“I’d say that Jan played an integral role in the development of the Ironbridge festival. His knowledge and advice was second to none. He always had time for me, especially when bringing bands over from the States and Europe. Jan was a great human being and will always be in my thoughts.”

Jerrold didn’t restrict himself to promoting bluegrass music, organizing a lengthy Louisiana Cajun/county music tour featuring D.L. Menard (guitar), Eddie LeJeune (accordion), and Ken Smith (fiddle); and the Whitstein Brothers.    

The Whitstein Brothers – Nobody’s Darling But Mine 

Seemingly having an inexhaustible supply of energy, in November 1991 he established Jan Jerrold’s Bluegrass Record Service with a detailed 29-page catalog of his stock. As well as mail-order sales, Jerrold took CDs to various shows that he promoted.  

He was very keen that the IBMA acknowledge and justify the ‘I’ in its name, and in 1989 he attended the WoB Convention in Owensboro, Kentucky, to learn more about the organization and make himself known to other members. Thus, when the International Bluegrass Music Association was ready, he was ideally suited to be a part of the production team for the CD IBMA Presents Long Journey Home: A Collection Of Bluegrass From Around The World (released in 1992). 

Czech-born bluegrass activist and another co-producer of this CD, Irena Přibylová, recalls ….   

IBMA Presents Long Journey Home, A Collection Of Bluegrass From Around The World“Jan was responsible for the selection of British groups on the IBMA International CD – Fingers and Co., The Bluegrass Ramblers, Echo Mountain Band, The Thrifts, and the Tom Travis Band. In the choice he cooperated with Ken Irvin. The British representation is quite wide on the CD! Thanks to Jan.”

Bluegrass Ramblers – Forgive And Forget 

Echo Mountain Band – Prodigal Father

On November 3, 1990, Jerrold became a co-founder of the British Bluegrass Music Association (BBMA) and the organization’s first secretary.  British Bluegrass News, which he continued to edit, became its quarterly magazine. 

Experienced fiddler / multi-instrumentalist Jack Leiderman reminisces … 

“I was fortunate enough to meet and spend some time with Jan Jerrold back in the 1980s, when he was organizing tours in the UK for American bands. I came over several times with High Country (and later with Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass). Jan was a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm, as tour organizer, driver, and host.

What I remember most was Jan’s sheer enjoyment of the music.  Our band would be onstage during a show, and I’d look over and there was Jan grinning from ear to ear, looking like a kid in a candy store. I’ve never met anyone who genuinely enjoyed bluegrass music as much as Jan Jerrold.”

Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass – Prison Walls of Love

Jerrold collected bluegrass and county music recordings for most of his adult life, and at the time of his untimely passing, he had about 1,500 LPs, 400 CDs, and about 750 tapes and cassettes. His collection was donated to the British Library National Sound Archive

Dudley Connell remembers an unusual culinary preference …. 

“Jan Jerrold was one of the most enthusiastic bluegrass music fans that I have ever met. The Johnson Mountain Boys toured England in 1987, a tour that Jan had arranged for us. We were out for a little over the week, and piled all our instruments and sound equipment in Jan’s van. It was a wonderful experience during which we all became close friends. 

Several years later, Jan decided he wanted to come to the International Bluegrass Music Association convention and trade show, which at the time was hosted in Owensboro, Kentucky. I invited him to stay with us at our home in Maryland for a couple of days, before heading south to the convention.

And before I go any further, I should explain that I love to cook. While planning for Jan’s visit, I had started gathering ideas for our dinners. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. I did prepare the meals for me and my family, but all Jan wanted to eat was boiled hot dogs… boiled hot dogs, morning, noon, and night. He would boil him up a pack in the morning, and eat them with us, and when he’d run through the package, I would go buy him more.

He was such a character, but I’ve never met a nicer gentleman with a kind and gentle soul than Jan Jerrold. As the old saying goes, they broke the mold with Jan Jerrold and the world is a better place for him.”

Jerrold had a sweet tooth also, taking six spoonfuls of sugar in his tea. 

Johnson Mountain Boys – Memories That We Shared 

Ken Irwin, one of the founders of Rounder Records, is another who still mourns Jerrold’s passing …  

“Jan Jerrold was a force of nature. Although I could tell that he was a serious music fan from our long-distance communication leading up to my first trip to England with the Johnson Mountain Boys, I was not prepared for the person who met us at the airport. Jan’s enthusiasm, passion, and energy were off the scale. I don’t think I had ever encountered anyone like him..

Throughout our stay, which included small clubs and the wonderful Edale festival, Jan’s infectious laugh and smile made our trip enjoyable, with the possible exception of the times when he was driving and turning around to talk to us. We all made it through and loved our trip.

While Jan is certainly best remembered as bluegrass promoter, and for his work with the British Bluegrass News, Jan enjoyed other roots music. The second time I came to England was with the Cajun Trio, D.L. Menard, Kenny Smith, and Eddie Le Jeune and The Whitstein Brothers.  Once again, Jan showed his warmth, enthusiasm, and talent as a promoter, road manager, and guide. 

When I heard of his illness, I somehow felt that he would beat it, that nothing could conquer his love of life, music, and friends.

I feel fortunate to have been able to spend some time with Jan and to be able to share some of that passion, energy, and friendship.  I still think of him frequently and am happy that others do also and that many will learn about Jan and his impact on the music and musicians he loved.”

Jan had an immense, idiosyncratic love of bluegrass music and his enthusiasm was infectious. 

I still fondly remember – and miss – our late night (too late for me really!) phone conversations about all things bluegrass. He was very encouraging and even asked me to accompany him on the road occasionally, as he took touring bands around the country.

Townend makes a point worth mentioning …. 

“For all his loquaciousness, Jan didn’t talk a lot about himself.”

At Jerrold’s funeral, Salisbury reminded us that Jan’s favorite song was ‘one that Del McCoury sang, Don’t Stop The Music…”

Shortly after Jerrold passed away the BBMA established its premier award in his name, presented to the person who has made the most significant recent contribution to the Bluegrass music scene in the UK. 

R.I.P. Jan Jerrold

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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.