“To my old brown earth and to my old blue sky, I’ll now give these last few molecules of ‘I’.” – Pete Seeger
When I arrived in New York City, I had the good fortune to play at the Greenwich Folk Festival in Greenwich Village, then considered to be the heart of the folk music scene. And one of the biggest hearts belonged to Pete Seeger. Backstage, he was always warm, welcoming, and nurturing — setting an example that I still try to follow today. As part of a roots music concert tour, we rode in the van together to the shows and I loved listening to him talk (not surprisingly, he was a great storyteller!).
We made our own stories, too. One time we were at this lodge in upper state NY for a convention of the People’s Music Network and it just so happened that Pete didn’t have an instrument with him. All the musicians were doing a round robin, picking for a bit and then sitting down to let the next musician play. When it came around to Pete, he stood up on his chair and told a little story about what he was going to do and then he started hamboning while the crowd roared it’s approval. He brought music with him wherever he went. I had such an admiration for him as a performer…even without an instrument he could mesmerize a room full of musicians.
I had been working on collecting interviews for the documentary “Making Music with the Pioneers of Bluegrass” when I got a call from the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY, asking if I would do an interview with Pete Seeger for their Oral History Project. Seems that back in the 70s, Pete had donated his banjo to support a fundraising effort for the folk music community. This was the banjo that he had played for more than 15 years at protest rallies in the 60s and it featured his slogan “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” on the head. The IBMM had just acquired this banjo from a private individual to display at the museum and they wanted folks to be able to connect with the instrument through a recorded interview with this living legend. Of course I jumped at the chance and headed off to Beacon, NY to meet with Pete, now 87 years old. Now, the Clearwater Meeting House where we held the interview had this wood-burning fireplace. When I arrived with the crew, we found Pete outside splitting logs for the fireplace so we could be warm during the meeting. That was classic Pete, always thinking of others first.
I remember when the interview was over he shook our hands, tossed his ax and the remaining firewood in the bed of his beat up old pickup truck and then proceeded to back right into the front of my van before taking off like a shot. The crew and I just looked at each other in shock and then busted out laughing. It was a fitting end to the whole meeting. I’m proud to say that I still have that dent in my front bumper — probably should get a “Pete Seeger was here” sign painted over it!
Pete is still a controversial figure in bluegrass music circles. Most bluegrassers contend that Pete was not a bluegrass musician. But take a look at what he has done for our genre. His book on 5-String Banjo Instruction was the one of the seminal books for beginning banjo pickers and acknowledges bluegrass along with other styles. He brought international attention to bluegrass music when he helped produce the “Folksong ‘59” show with Alan Lomax at Carnegie Hall which featured relatively unknown bluegrass musicians Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys (including my long time friend and fellow recording artist, Walter Hensley). His TV show “Rainbow Quest” ran on public television from 1965-66 and brought guests like The Stanley Brothers, Greenbriar Boys, Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, Cousin Emmy to the attention of the viewers all over the east coast (12 episodes of these rare performances are available on DVD now).
To paraphrase one of his famous quotes, “We’re all different, but we’re all singing together. It gives you hope.” When we start naming things, we put them in little boxes. I just don’t think music should be put in a box. Because he embraced American culture and the arts, Pete Seeger is bigger than any one musical genre. His influence is still being felt by generations of banjo pickers across the whole musical spectrum. Though he’s gone physically from this world, Pete will always live on…outside the box.
About James Reams:
James Reams has been the bandleader for James Reams & The Barnstormers for over 20 years. Nominated by IBMA in 2002 as Emerging Artist of the Year and Recording Event of the Year, this nationally-known band provides a contemporary take on traditional bluegrass; blending it with innovation and vitality to create their own branch on the “roots” tree. Coming from a family of traditional singers in southeastern Kentucky, James has played both old-time and bluegrass music since he was just a sprout. Known as an “Ambassador of Bluegrass” for his dedication to and deep involvement in the thriving bluegrass and Americana music community, James is involved in just about everything related to bluegrass. For the past 14 years, James has coordinated the Park Slope Bluegrass & Old Time Music Jamboree. And, in 2013, he released his second full-length DVD documentary, “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass” which he hosted and produced. More information is available on his website: www.jamesreams.com. For bookings: email@example.com or 718-374-1086.
It’s getting so that I can’t turn on the TV or the radio without hearing bluegrass music, or at least a banjo, within a few minutes! I’ve even seen traditional bluegrass music used for a political ad campaign, which probably had Bill Monroe turning over in his grave! To paraphrase a car insurance commercial, all this bluegrass popularity makes me happier than a bluegrass musician with a record deal!
And it’s not just the US that has been bitten by the bluegrass bug. I just saw an ad for a foreign film that’s taking the European film festivals by storm – and it’s about a bluegrass musician! Plus crossover bands like the UK’s mega-popular Mumford & Sons have helped sprinkle bluegrass seeds internationally.
That got me to thinking (a dangerous thing for most musicians), “Why this apparently sudden popularity for all things bluegrass?” And, “Is anybody else wondering the same thing?”
Bluegrass has been enjoying increased interest by the general public pretty much since the epic “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack took home three Grammys and went octo-platinum. What was it about that album, and bluegrass music in particular, that struck listeners, causing them to shell out their hard-earned cash and, for some, to pick up an instrument and start playing bluegrass?
So, to take a cue from a popular late night talk show host, here’s my stab at the top 10 reasons (in no particular order) why bluegrass has taken off in popularity. I’m anxious to hear what you have to say as well, so email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and give me your 2¢ worth.
It’s real. Bluegrass is not your fast food music; it’s got that “baked from scratch” authenticity. No fancy reverb action, no remixing, no eardrum blasting, mind numbing licks or lyrics…it’s comfort food for the soul. In an age when most of us have traded in our dining room tables for desks (or worse yet, car seats), bluegrass music sort of tantalizes us and draws us in for a hearty “sit down” meal with family and friends.
It’s lasting. Chasing 75 years and still going strong, bluegrass has sunk its’ roots deep in Americana soil and it’s not going anywhere. With its’ solid foundation of traditional tunes, the sky’s no longer limited to just “blue” either. Innovative bands have used bluegrass basics to open up whole new markets.
It’s in our blood. Now that it’s trendy to do ancestry searches, many Americans are discovering that bluegrass music runs in their veins. It takes them back to dogtrot cabins and memories of grandpap and friends picking on the front porch. Hey, nostalgia sells!
It’s inexpensive. You don’t have to have a wad of dough to buy an instrument. Heck, the first banjo was just a gourd, a stick and some string. Many an underprivileged youngster got their introduction to music by playing a washtub bass or a “canjo,” that can be made for less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
It’s the work ethic. Bluegrass songs relate the struggles of making a living. Coal miners, farmers, and truck drivers are just some of the “common folk” in our music. By association, bluegrass is seen as music for the working class, those unafraid of getting their hands dirty and putting in a hard day’s work. That’s the work ethic that made America — we’re proud of it, and rightly so.
It’s the banjo. Long associated with Americana, folk, and roots music, the banjo is now twanging it up in just about every musical genre: jazz, hardcore punk, classical, rock & roll, contemporary Christian, post-bop (or blu-bop), fusion, experimental new age, gospel, and, of course, country. Some critics hail the recent innovations in amplifying the banjo as the reason for its’ surge in popularity. Whatever the reason, the banjo is no longer taking a backseat to the electric guitar that ousted it from popular music back in the 1930s.
It’s the Internet. What bluegrass pioneer would have believed that by 2013 80% of the households in America would have at least one gizmo that connects to the Internet? Okay, well their first comment would probably have been “What’s the Internet?,” but you get my point. And that leads into my next three reasons, which wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet.
It’s YouTube. Used to be that music teachers were as hard to find as a four-leaf clover in the desert, especially for bluegrass instruments like the banjo, mandolin and dobro. But now, thanks to the popularity of YouTube, students of these instruments can learn to play in their own homes, on their own time schedules, and at their own pace. And that’s music to a future musician’s ears!
It’s social media. Everyone is so connected these days. Email, e-zines, Facebook, online groups, Twitter, etc. have made it possible to get the word out to all parts of the world about bluegrass music in general, news items, festivals, concerts, and more. Nowadays, even grandpaps and grandmas that live over the river and through the woods have emails addresses and Facebook pages — if they don’t then they have grandkids that bring their iPads, laptops, iPhones, and glitzy gizmo-Googling gadgets galore when they visit! (Did you get my 5G reference? It was a struggle.)
It’s online sales. Wow! I can’t think of anything that has made it easier for a musician to get their music into the hands of listeners across the world than the advent of online sales. And now, with the option to download individual songs/tunes as well as purchase the entire album, there are even more opportunities for bluegrass to be heard any time and anywhere.
So, tell me, am I just more sensitive to bluegrass’ presence in the media because I’m a musician? Or have any of you noticed that it seems to be everywhere you turn lately? How do you feel about bluegrass going mainstream?
About the author:
James Reams has been the bandleader for James Reams & The Barnstormers for over 20 years. Nominated by IBMA in 2002 as Emerging Artist of the Year and Recording Event of the Year, this nationally-known band provides a contemporary take on traditional bluegrass; blending it with innovation and vitality to create their own branch on the “roots” tree. Coming from a family of traditional singers in southeastern Kentucky, James has played both old-time and bluegrass music since he was just a sprout. Known as an “Ambassador of Bluegrass” for his dedication to and deep involvement in the thriving bluegrass and Americana music community, James is involved in just about everything related to bluegrass. For the past 14 years, James has coordinated the Park Slope Bluegrass & Old Time Music Jamboree. And, in 2013, he released his second full-length DVD documentary, “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass” which he hosted and produced. When he relocated to Arizona in 2011, he fell in love with the state as well as the people and is excited about serving the bluegrass community in Arizona and continuing to make bluegrass music.
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