Bluegrass In The City

Somewhere along the winding gravel road of Bob Dylan’s MusicCares Person Of The Year acceptance speech, he mentioned something that I think is profound.

The term “Hillbilly Music” was coined by Al Hopkins in the 1920’s and continued in use until the late 1950’s.  Dylan credits the Delmore Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, Roscoe Holcomb, and the Skilletlickers in his speech as examples but they aren’t the only ones.  The music itself, grown in the hills of Appalachia is a melting pot of music bringing together the music from everyone who settled America.  Although originally spanning gospel to Celtic and everything in between, the music became more synonymous with old time and bluegrass musics.  Films like “O Brother” have brought attention back to the music.

Grown in the hills and country, the music came to the city where it attracted new attention and sophistication.  Bands like the Country Gentlemen from Northern Virginia, The New Lost City Ramblers in New York City played traditional American music to a whole new audience.

Here is a cut from another New York City group, the Greenbriar Boys.  John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, and Bob Yellin started playing in the Greenwich Village area.  They opened for and provided backup for Joan Baez.  Given the folk circuit of the day, they certainly played along side Bob Dylan as he first showed up in New York.  This cut, “Russian Around” is one of my favorites.  A simple instrumental featuring banjo and guitar, I think it’s significant because it has one of the earliest guitar breaks I can think of that effortlessly mixes cross picking and single string styles.  Although you hear similar breaks today, this is really a ground breaking instrumental.



Over John Hartford’s career he was a singer, songwriter, TV personality, and river boat captain.  From the “Smothers Brothers” to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”, John had a unique and laconic stage presence.

His love for traditional Appalachian music was evident in the last stages of his life.  He toured with the Down From the Mountain ensemble until non-Hodgkins Lymphoma robbed him of the ability to perform.

His album “Aero-Plain” is credited by many as being the inspiration for Newgrass music and is one of the early super groups in bluegrass with Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, and Vassar Clements providing the supporting cast.

Posthumous recipient of the Presidents Award by the Americana Music Society, John wrote hundreds of songs and recorded more than 30 albums crossing multiple genres.  Hartford is probably best known for writing “Gentle On My Mind”, the song that essentially launched Glen Campbell’s career. In addition to the Glen Campbell hit, “Gentle On My Mind” has been recorded by Dean Martin, Aretha Franklin, Patti Page, The Band, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Benny Hill, Johnny Cash, and even Leonard Nimoy.  (Yep, that’s right.  You know you have it made when Spock croaks out your song.  I guess Shatner didn’t quite have the range.  But I digress.)

In any event, here is one of my favorite versions of this song featuring some of the greatest bluegrass musicians touring today.  Tim O’Brien has an effortless manner to his playing that always reminds me of John Hartford.  Here is to an originator of bluegrass music and one of his best known compositions.

Lions, Weavers, and Paul Simon?

In 1939, Solomon Linda and The Evening Birds recorded the song “Mbube” for Gallo Records in Johannesburg.  Simple 4 part a cappella harmony and an improvised introduction, created one of the most influential and famous African songs.  Ultimately Mbube became the name of the entire genre of music.  In the 1980’s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo received international acclaim for their singing in the traditional Mbube style.  Eventually collaborating with Paul Simon on Graceland.  It’s hard to remember but that album had far reaching political consequences by breaking the cultural boycott between South Africa and the rest of the world.

But the influence of Mbube doesn’t stop there.  In the mid 1940’s, Ralph Peer played a copy of the original Evening Birds recording for Pete Seeger who took it to his band, the Weavers.  In 1948, the Weavers recording of “Wimoweh” and the later reworked cover by the Platters in 1961 took the song to international fame.   Miriam Makeba recorded “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, also in the 1960’s.  Disney turned it into an ear worm in 1994 and “The Lion King”.   I present the buster of all Lion King ear worms and, in it’s own way, one of the most influential pieces of music ever recorded.