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Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Not Just a Southern Thing

Here's a comment from Pete Wernick responding to my request for more information about the Greenwich Village bluegrass scene in the sixties. Pete, known at Dr. Banjo is a founding member of Hot Rize, and served as Chairman of the IBMA Board of Directors for fifteen years. His banjo, bluegrass, and band camps are well known. Check it all out here. It's such a rich evocation of the era, I include it in its entirety here:

"Pretty much anyone into bluegrass or string band music in New York City in the 60s would congregate Sundays in warm weather at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village from 2-6pm, the hard-won music-permitted time slot. Nearby were the Folklore Center, a store/hangout for musicians, and Gerde's Folk City presenting traveling bands like the Dillards, the Kentucky Colonels, and Red Allen and the Kentuckians. (Joe Isaacs met Lilly there -- her duo opened for his group -- and the rest is bluegrass history.)

 

The Greenbriar Boys were the first New Yorkers to emerge from that scene as a touring and recording bluegrass band with seminal early members John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, Eric Weissberg, and Bob Yellin. Thanks to being featured on Joan Baez's major hit 2nd album, they quickly became "national folk royalty" and elevated bluegrass within that world. In 1963 a thrown-together group called the Even Dozen Jug Band made a record for Elektra that debuted the talents of David Grisman, Maria Muldaur (then  D'Amato), John Sebastian, Joshua Rifkin, Stefan Grossman, and others who went on to illustrious careers in roots and rock music.

Among the other jammers at "the Square" most Sundays were Steve Arkin (banjo) and Gene Lowinger (fiddle), both later members of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. Jody Stecher was a leading light, already a virtuoso on mandolin and guitar as a teenager and singing a seemingly limitless repertoire of "deep bluegrass". Other bluegrassers in the area were Winnie Winston who consistently won banjo contests from the Philadelphia Folk Festival and Sunset Park to Union Grove NC, famous fiddler Tex Logan right across the river in New Jersey, Bob Applebaum, now a mandolin mainstay in Los Angeles, Steve Mandel (guitarist on the hit record of Dueling Banjo), bluegrass historian/radio host/musician Fred Bartenstein, folk maestro David Bromberg, John Cohen and Tom Paley of the New Lost City Ramblers, Marshall Brickman, and the irrepressible Roger Sprung, possibly the first Scruggs-style banjoist in the city (circa 1950) and STILL in his 80s a presence at yearly Washington Square reunions (this year's is already set for a late-September Sunday).

 

This is not a complete list of Washington Square notables, since people like Richie Havens, Bob Dylan, and traveling musicians like Jerry Garcia were known to show up at the Square.

For someone like me, a 17 year-old who'd never been in a bluegrass band, the Square in 1963 was a hotbed where I could watch experts close up and sometimes get to play with them. After a year of regular attendance, following one Sunday jam I was recruited into my first for-real bluegrass band -- Roger Siminoff was the departing banjo player, and I got the gig with New Jersey's Orange Mt. Boys, a crucial stage in my musical development.

Winnie Winston before his death in 2005 created a fascinating online memoir including great stories and photos of the old New York bluegrass/folk scene. The memoir is findable by googling Julian Winston (gets you here). For beaucoup history and photos: http://julianwinston.com/music/me_and_my_old_banjo2.php. Down that page near the 1985 picture, click on Tex Logan's amazing parties for some more interesting lore. I went to two of those, with a guest list including many of the above names, and I can say they were life-changing events."