BLUEGRASS GENERATION: A MEMOIR—BY NEIL V. ROSENBERG—Univ. of Illinois Press 9780252083396. Foreword by Gregory N. Reish, paperback, 304 pp., $21.95. (Univ. of Illinois Press, 11030 S. Langley Ave., Chicago, IL60628, press.uillinois.edu.)
It seems that each generation felt, in its time, that it was the first to bring bluegrass to a wider audience. Those who came to it after seeing the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?thought so. As did those who came to it after Deliverance. And those after Bonnie & Clydeor The Beverly Hillbillies. Yet, there is one generation present at a certain moment in the early 1960s that can legitimately lay claim to being the first to significantly expand the audience for bluegrass music. Neil Rosenberg (along with Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, and many others) was among that generation. He’s now written a memoir of that time—how he came to play and be involved in bluegrass music and, specifically, about two years from the summer of 1961 to the fall of 1963 in which he was audience to, a performer at, and for four months, manager of the Brown County Jamboree in Bean Blossom, Ind. For those of you already familiar with Neil and his work, that sentence should be enough for you to put down this review and head to your favorite book-buying site.
For those unfamiliar with Neil (perhaps those in the most recent generation to discover bluegrass), he is Professor Emeritus of Folklore at Memorial University Of Newfoundland and author of Bluegrass: A History(the essential history of bluegrass) and co-author of Bluegrass Odysseyand The Music Of Bill Monroe. Beyond that though, Neil Rosenberg is to bluegrass as Virgil is to ancient Rome. He’ll hate that hyperbole, but I’m sticking with it. I admire the man and his work that much, and I know many more who feel the same.
Neil describes his memoir humbly as a “grassroots music business history.” It’s that and much more. It’s a well-documented (from tapes, letters, records, and included photos) personal look into a moment in bluegrass music when it went from being a part of country music to a distinct genre with all the messiness and mythologizing that that implies. We’re lucky, then, that a folklorist was present. Neil had already been playing bluegrass banjo for a few years when, in 1961, he began a degree in Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University in Bloomington—twenty miles from Bean Blossom. He first attended The Jamboree as a paying customer, but soon found himself part of the house band with Shorty and Juanita Shehan and later as sometimes banjo player with Bill Monroe and, briefly, as manager of The Jamboree.
Neil writes: “Academic theories are, in essence, metaphors to help us understand lived reality.” What we have here is a telling of that lived reality. For readers solely interested in the stories and the people around Bean Blossom at that time, you’ll love this book. For those readers more interested in the theories that grew out of the experience, Neil has written an afterword that points the reader to further study, including Fred Bartenstein’s work on generations and Neil’s own work on the gentrification of bluegrass, first suggested by Mayne Smith.
As part of the Music In American Life Seriesby the University of Illinois Press, the production is of the highest quality, with notes, bibliography, general index, song index, and an especially good foreword by Gregory N. Reish, which places Neil in his unique relation to bluegrass as both participant and scholar. Also included is a chapter on the scope and history of the recordings that Neil made at Bean Blossom during 1961-’63 that are now at the Library Of Congress (and will, I hope, be available one day for online listening).
So, Neil was there and part of it. But this memoir is not a narrow, myopic look at the events of the time. He neither overstates nor understates what he saw and was part of. Neil took in the whole scene, but was clearly not so much interested in himself as he was in everything going on around him. As such, he’s the perfect guide—our Virgil—to a unique place and time in bluegrass music. This memoir is as essential reading as Bluegrass: A History.CVS