Rambling In Redwood Canyon: The Routes of Bay Area Bluegrass
First of Four Parts
Part One Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
May 1991, Volume 25, Number 11
Once upon a time, in a land far from the birthplace of bluegrass music, lived a group of young college students who became the first bluegrass band in the San Francisco Bay area. It was the late ’50s. Mayne Smith, Neil Rosenberg, Scott Hambly and Pete Berg were the founding members. The first three made up the version of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers that gave Berkeley its first bluegrass concert, 31 years ago this year, on a late August evening. One of the band members has gone on to become a world authority on bluegrass music and the Bay Area has become a spawning ground for serious bluegrass musicians and acoustic musicians influenced by bluegrass.
Now, Mayne Smith designs computer manuals at a Fortune 500 company in Marin County and performs original music with Mitch Greenhill; Neil Rosenberg writes (including “Thirty Years Ago This Month” for this magazine), lectures, plays music and teaches folklore at St. John’s University in Newfoundland; Scott Hambly works as a medical editor at a military hospital in Oakland and Pete Berg plays salsa music and has a bamboo nursery on the big island of Hawaii.
What happened between then and now and how did they ever get started doing what they did?
It was mid-1960, a warm California evening, in a meeting hall near the U.C. Berkeley campus—a room full of folksong enthusiasts. I was the youngest in the crowd, about fourteen years old. Halfway through the night and the various singers and guitarists, one young man with a big Mastertone banjo was introduced. I don’t remember if he was accompanied or not, but he played “Flint Hill Special” using Scruggs pegs. Sudden consciousness of that sound is really all I can recover about that night, I don’t even remember getting there or getting home. In a small way I’m still there in that room, seeing that banjo tune played live for the first time. The memory has the character of a faint dream never quite forgotten.
Then about a month later, in August, posters started appearing around town advertising “a Folk Music Concert—the Bay area’s first and only genuine bluegrass band, the Redwood Canyon Ramblers,” to be held at the Washington Elementary School auditorium on August 27, 1960 (at “8:15 p.m.”). The poster art was avant-garde even by today’s standards, with a mustard yellow background, solid black lettering, torn paper designs and high-contrast photo showing the five-piece band. The guy with the banjo looked familiar. I had to go to that concert.
If seeing Neil pick the banjo at that folksong club was unforgettable, the Washington School concert was life-changing for me and probably some others. It was my first real bluegrass show and was simply the most exciting live music I had heard up to then. As it turned out, it was also one of the last public appearances of the original Ramblers.
Writing in the Oakland Tribune on the 29th, the Monday following the Saturday night concert in Berkeley, jazz columnist Russ Wilson had this to say: “The quintet’s performance was a joy and left its audience of some 200 country music devotees shouting their approbation . . . Besides providing a lot of fun, the concert also exposed a segment of vital music that is heard infrequently in this area. The fact is, however, that the Ramblers shortly will start rambling in different directions. Neil Rosenberg, who plays the five-string banjo and Frank Miller, the breakdown fiddler, will soon depart for Oberlin College in northern Ohio. Guitarist Mayne Smith and Scott Hambly, who performs on the mandolin, will resume their classes at U.C. And bassist Tom Glass, a graduate of the Cleveland, O., Art Conservatory, will blend fewer sounds and more colors.”
Knowing nothing of all this at the time, I went up to Neil after the show.
“I want to learn how to play the banjo like you do.”
“Well,” he said, “I don’t really give lessons, but our guitar player does. He plays the banjo too. Talk to the guitar player.”
Disappointed, I walked away, then back. I spoke to the guitar player and he gave me his phone number and address on a scrap of paper—Mayne Smith, corner of Parker and Benvenue near the Berkeley campus. I knew the area well; it was just a few blocks from what had been Barry Olivier’s folk shop, the Barrel and was now Campbell Coe’s guitar repair shop, Campus Music Shop. I went to Mayne’s house a couple of times and he showed me some basic two-finger picking. He showed me the ‘gallop’ lick on the banjo, backed me up on guitar and loaned me an old-time banjo record. I still really wanted to study Neil’s banjo playing up close.
A friend of mine, Butch Waller, decided to take some lessons from Scott, the mandolin player and eventually I got a chance to go to Neil’s house with Rick Shubb, who had somehow scored a banjo lesson with him more than a year later.
Most of us beginners—Rick and I, Butch and his friend Herb Pedersen and others—went everywhere the Ramblers played, wherever we were old enough to get in, until September when Neil left to go back to college at Oberlin.
To start closer to the beginning:
Berkeley is a progressive university town next to Oakland and just across the bay from San Francisco. Mayne and Neil had met in 1954 as students at north Berkeley’s Garfield Junior High School at a time when a rich musical diversity was settling in the community. There was a healthy folk scene already going in Berkeley then. Both played the guitar. Two years later at Berkeley High they met Scott Hambly, who played drums and was getting into flatpicking blues and country guitar. There were a bunch of other kids also interested in music.
“A kind of scene developed between me and Scott and his friend David Crane,” recalls Neil. “All of us took guitar and voice lessons from Laurie Campbell, a folksinger we heard on KPFA, the local FM radio station.” Part of the Pacifica network that includes WBAI-FM in New York City, KPFA radio was and is a distinctive social and cultural phenomenon—as Neil called it, the ne plus ultra of Berkeley media culture. The group widened to include Mayne Smith, David Jones, Rita Weill, Tam Gibbs and Larry Hanks, among others. “We started having parties at John ‘Skinny’ Thomas’s grandfather’s cabin out in Redwood Canyon.” In California there are many redwood canyons, but this rural location just east of Berkeley and the Bay Area, long an artists’ and writers’ colony, is actually a town called Canyon or Redwood Canyon on some maps. Around 1850 it was a logging community famous for a rough-and-tumble bunch of teamsters known as the “Redwood Boys” who were credited with four hangings and never brought to justice.
For a bunch of urban high school kids in the 1950s, hanging out in a place like Canyon was great for getting away from city tensions, but it was more than that. Scott Hambly: “For me it was a way to get in touch with country life and that fit with the musical direction we were taking—country blues and country music.” Later, when it came time to name the group that Neil and Scott formed with Mayne, it was only natural that Scott suggested the Redwood Canyon Ramblers. “Scott named the group,” said Neil. The ‘Ramblers’ part was a reflection of their awareness of another bunch of young citybilly musicians on the opposite coast, the New Lost City Ramblers. ‘Redwood Canyon Rambers’ sounded like California, yet it also sounded like bluegrass.
The name stuck and except for a period during 1960 when Miller and Glass joined on fiddle and bass respectively, the three founding members often performed as a trio. Back in those days in California, especially in the Bay Area, fiddlers were nonexistent or extremely rare and bluegrass bass players were unheard of; one was sometimes recruited from a jazz or country player, such as Tom Glass or Betty Aycrigg. Betty was an experienced country and folk performer and member of the Gateway Trio under the name Betty Mann, who played with the band on some of their earliest gigs.
At the time, these young pickers may not have been aware that they were beginning to import bluegrass to the area and create an audience for it.
In terms of a core group that has stayed in touch over the years and still plays together at holiday gatherings, Mayne, Neil and Scott are that group. But historically speaking, Pete Berg has to be seen as the fourth founding member of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers—especially since the popularity of bluegrass music increased greatly during his tenure in the band. When you say “Redwood Canyon Ramblers” to anyone who listened to bluegrass around Berkeley after the fall of 1960, the banjo player they’ll remember is Pete Berg. In fact, Pete played washtub bass and sometimes guitar in some of the earliest versions of the Ramblers, but until 1963 or ’64, when he all but stopped performing bluegrass, Pete took over the banjo position after Neil left the area. So although the classic band had Neil on banjo, Mayne on guitar and Scott on mandolin, I consider Pete Berg an original member even though in his own estimation he only “filled in for Neil” or was added after the group was already formed.
And because the Ramblers—with either Neil or Pete as banjoist—were so often a trio without a bass player, they are, with Neil, comfortable even to this day as a trio. But they are a tight trio with tremendous power and synchrony, even after the intervening 31 years. They keep up their repertoire at reunion parties, picking sessions usually held at their parental homes in Berkeley during annual holidays or other special occasions when Neil might come to the West Coast from Newfoundland, a mere 5,000 miles away. There’s usually a bit of magic at these sessions. How can it be that three people separated for so long in time and space can still play together so precisely and harmoniously, with the high degree of attention and creative interaction that they have? It’s true that they were all born the same month, two in one year and one the next, but they all agree it’s probably because they learned music together and played together so intensely and with such concentration during their musically formative years, almost like three brothers.
* * *
In this grouping of principals it would be wrong to say that any one of them is more important or essential than any other. I don’t think you can replace any of them and still have the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, although Scott Hambly was willing to book a group under that name if it had at least two original members in it. But to me, within this equality, Mayne Smith is something like a musical center or nucleus around which the other members can form a whole; after all, this is not an uncommon attribute of a bluegrass singer and rhythm guitarist. With his dedication to the group ethic and to ultra-solid musical support on guitar also comes an inherent creativity within the bluegrass genre. Even though few of his original compositions have been performed by the Ramblers, songwriting turned out to be a natural for Mayne. If the band hadn’t split apart geographically and had continued on as a regular performing unit past 1964, I’m sure their repertoire would have included original songs by Mayne as well as instrumentals by Neil and Scott. At their continuing jam sessions and reunion parties, increasing now more than ever, originals are coming up for suggestion and experimental arrangement to complement their already unique musical vocabulary.
On the side of scholarship, it’s a notable fact that Mayne was the first person to publish serious studies of bluegrass music in scholarly journals. Neil Rosenberg is the first to point this out. But in his 1974 proposal for a planned special-market trade book to be titled Getting Into Bluegrass, Mayne writes autobiographically: “It was writing my own songs that drew me out of bluegrass and academe almost simultaneously in 1966. That got me involved in emotional and musical realities that suddenly made bluegrass and scholardom both feel too narrow for my needs. I haven’t gotten rich or famous since, but I’ve sure felt better.”
Loyd Mayne Smith—the Loyd was for his paternal uncle but never used—was born on March 15, 1939, in Boston, Massachusetts, just as his father, destined for eminence as an American literary historian, was finishing his doctoral studies at Harvard. The late Henry Nash Smith was a young star in a brand-new field called American Civilization, receiving the first Ph.D. granted in that program. The family immediately relocated to Henry’s home state of Texas for his job at the University of Texas in Austin and Mayne’s oldest sister Janet was born there two years later. This was followed by several other moves, to Cambridge, Pasadena, Minneapolis and Berkeley. “For some reason they just couldn’t hold still long enough for me to go to the same school for two consecutive years.” Mayne observes that this had a profound influence on his personality in a number of ways: “It sort of kept me as a loner and an outsider; I think I’ve always tended to kind of hover on the outskirts of whatever group I’ve been affiliated with since then. Another aspect of this maverick tendency was getting interested in something like bluegrass. By this time his father had published Virgin Land: The American West In Symbol And Myth, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1950), which won the Bancroft Prize in History. The book, based on his thesis, dealt with the relationship between realities in the American West and what people thought the West was. With Henry closely connected to studies of popular culture and folklore, especially of the West, it follows that there was plenty of music around home to influence Mayne and Janet (an accomplished folksinger, songwriter and guitarist in her own right). “My mother played the piano. My father didn’t play, but we had lots of records—Burl Ives, Leadbelly with the Golden Gate Quartet, Josh White, John Jacob Niles. My father knew John A. Lomax as part of the Texas intelligentsia; he was in between John’s age and that of his son, Alan Lomax. Alan came to the parties at my parents’ home. One time I remember Jimmie Driftwood and Pete Seeger were at the same party in my parents’ living room. That sort of made it good for Janet and me, to make connections and scope out what was happening in that whole scene.” Mayne remembers when he first got the idea to play the guitar himself, when he was about seven or eight: “It was when we were in Pasadena; my family was sharing a house with another literary scholar named Fred Bracher. He played guitar and sang cowboy songs. He was the first person I ever saw who played the guitar. I also remember an old man living near us who was an ex-cowboy—he built me a rocking horse. I was called ‘Tex’ in school because I had a Texas accent from when we lived in Austin.”
When the family was living in Minneapolis they had a housecleaning lady, a devout Episcopalian, who got Mayne singing in the boys’ choir when he was around ten or eleven. “It was my first paid gig. I had vocal training and some in compostion and I really learned a love of singing. My parents had me singing songs for guests at cocktail parties and stuff. In the seventh grade I played guitar and sang between acts of Huckleberry Finn; that was my first gig as a folksinger. Gene Bluestein, a graduate student of my father’s, also taught me some folk guitar and got me into an Almanac Singers-type group at a community center. We did the People’s Songbook repertoire. He and Pete Seeger were the first people I saw play the five-string banjo.” By the time Mayne was twelve he realized he was a natural at harmony singing.
The Smith family’s last move was to Berkeley, in 1953, when Henry Nash Smith became professor of English and administrator of the Mark Twain papers at U.C. Berkeley. He is perhaps best known for his work with Twain’s writings and now Mayne’s youngest sister Harriet has become editor of Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. II: 1867-1868 (eds. Harriet Elinor Smith, Richard Bucci; U.C. Press, Berkeley, 1990).
“In Berkeley, I met Neil Rosenberg at Garfield Junior High. Our families were friendly; his parents, Jess and Mitzi, always liked to sing Christmas carols at our house. Neil and I started to play guitars and sing together. We followed Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry and Leadbelly. We were both fourteen years old.” The two ended up spending a lot of time together even as roommates in college and for a long time they pursued similar goals in scholarship as well as music. Neil says that they must have seemed so alike to people that he was sometimes asked, “Hi, Mayne, how’s Neil?”
Mayne: “As we began to get driving licenses and cars, there began the first parties in Redwood Canyon at the Thomas cabin. Neil played guitar, I mostly flatpicked the banjo, Scott became a hot flatpicking guitarist and David Jones played piano and clarinet. David was a powerful and talented musician who really legitimized our music; now he’s a known player in the flamenco guitar world, under a different name.” So although Mayne is best remembered by Redwood Canyon Ramblers’ fans as the singer and guitarist, he actually was a banjo picker before Neil was. “I was listening to Obray Ramsay, Aunt Samantha Bumgarner and Harry and Jeanie West. I began to find some stuff that completely put Pete Seeger in the shade as far as I was concerned, as far as banjo playing was concerned.”
Mayne is also emphatic about the influence of blues on his music: “I have a pretty clear memory of the first time I took an E Chord on the guitar and put a finger behind it to make a barre and moved it up to play it as an A chord and then a B chord—to play a blues progression that way. The blues is like a solvent. It’s like a musical solvent that’s behind and part of everything I’ve ever done musically … a common base that everyone can understand. The home groove for jamming is the blues; it’s common to jazz, pop and Euro-and Afro-American folk styles. You can move from New Orleans through Memphis to Detriot and New York and Nashville, anywhere, using the blues to play together. When we started playing together it was something you could all jam on—everybody knew what the next chord was going to be; you didn’t have to worry about that. So that was the core of what we were trying to do, before we thought in terms of country music. ‘Mama Don’t Allow’ was an early standard and Leadbelly’s ‘Titanic’ and ‘Cotton Fields Back Home.’ Neil and I were going in the folksong direction, but the blues was the vehicle that gave us all something to play together. I think it was directly parallel to the skiffle movement in the British Isles, which we weren’t aware of. The founders of English rock and roll were going through what we were going through up there in Canyon.”
By 1956, Mayne was making frequent appearances on a live radio program on KPFA called the Midnight Special, both with and without Neil. The program was created in May of that year by Barry Olivier, local folksong enthusiast and founder of the Berkeley Folk Festivals and brought together countless performers weekly during its 11:00 to past-midnight time slot. Among them were all of the eventual Ramblers and some young bluegrass pickers following in their footsteps, most of the Canyon cast of characters, plus a folk roster too long to mention properly: Rolf Cahn, Mike Wernham, Dave Fredrickson, Miriam Stafford, Ken Spiker, Sandy Paton, Billy Faier, Merritt Herring, Toni Brown, Dave Ricker, Jesse Fuller, Janet Smith. Singers or groups would perform one after another and people were invited to come by the studio as a live audience. You never knew who you’d hear on the show. Players from all over the Bay Area—even Jerry Garcia in Palo Alto—would tune in the show or come by to play. It was a great melting pot of music, kind of like a big folk party being broadcast from Berkeley. The show was later taken over by Gert Chiarito. Always looking for new ways to present folksong sessions and ‘hoots,’ Olivier began hosting shows at a north campus restaurant called Cooper’s Northgate and Mayne recalls performing there the summer after high school graduation (1957) as “a Pete Seeger clone, mostly.”
But in the fall, Mayne and Neil left Berkeley for Oberlin College and immediately became immersed in the very active folk scene there. “A neighbor in my dormitory had a Roy Acuff record and I learned ‘Precious Jewel,’ almost for a joke. But then I gradually got offended at people for laughing at it.” He heard the new Folkways album release of the time, “American Banjo—Scruggs Style,” (FA 2314, 1956), and he heard Flatt and Scruggs records for the first time. “When Neil and I first went back to Oberlin together, I guess I thought of myself as being like Pete Seeger in front of an audience—playing the banjo, for the most part and singing songs that everybody could join in on. Being successful meant getting people to sing along, sort of being the catalyst for a creative, participatory musical experience. But eventually I began to discontinue the songleading bit. I just began to have a false feeling about it.” On a visit to Antioch College in Yellow Springs he was exposed to some “hard bluegrass” through Jeremy Foster and Alice Gerrard. “We were scoring Stanley Brothers as hard as we could. There was a ‘soul’ present there. There was a power and a lonesomeness and an authenticity in the sound of the Stanley Brothers and there was plenty of blues tonality there. And I soaked up a lot about harmony singing from them. However, I don’t think we were expressing that very fully in our own music at the time.
“A pivotal experience in my bluegrass development was hearing Bill Monroe’s “I Saw The Light” album (Decca DL 8769, 1958) with Edd Mayfield playing guitar. I didn’t know he was playing with a thumbpick, but I knew I liked what I heard and the guitar is very well recorded on there. I haven’t listened to that album for years and years but I can hear it in my mind very easily. I know a lot of the songs and I know where all the guitar licks are.” For someone who hasn’t concentrated strictly on bluegrass music since the heydey of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers to have such a clear memory of that sound thirty years later, those early impressions must have been strong indeed.
Mayne and Neil spent their 1958 summer vacation back in Berkeley and what Mayne calls “the first incarnation of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers” began to perform around town, although he’s not sure they were using the name quite yet. “We were actually more like folkies trying to play a little bluegrass,” he explains. At this point Mayne was still the banjo player. Neil played guitar and by this time Scott had gotten into playing the mandolin.
Back at Oberlin in the fall, both Neil and Mayne were members of the Lorain County String Band, a forerunner of the Plum Creek Boys. (See BU, December, 1986) But when Mayne returned to Berkeley for the 1959 summer break, he decided not to return to Oberlin. In the fall he enrolled at U.C.’s English literature department. So the summer of ’59 saw “the second incarnation of the Ramblers, the serious one.” The reason it was serious was because they—especially Neil—had been hearing professional bands back east, often on WWVA, WCKY (Wayne Raney) and WSM radio shows and they were charged up about the sound and the performance style of those entertainers. At the Washington School concert the following year, not only did these college kids wear hats, white shirts and string ties, but they also had stage routines incorporating their bass player as a comedian in the traditional bluegrass manner of the ’40s and ’50s. And they balanced their playlist, which drew from bluegrass and country recording artists as well as their own extensive knowledge of folksong and ballad sources, with novelty songs and ditties.
In some ways their approach resembled and was influenced by the New Lost City Ramblers, a trio of their peers on the East Coast who were performing old-time string band music at about the same time during the folk revival. But not in every way.
“While the New Lost City Ramblers seemed to avoid a sense of ‘show’ we were not afraid of being commercial,” observes Mayne. “We wanted to be authentic. They were deliberately regressive and we were not, although we did prefer ’40s-style Stetsons to cowboy hats. By this time Bill Monroe and the other acts had changed to cowboy hats, so we were imitating the bluegrass look of the recent past. We didn’t want to have the western image, yet we wanted to be honest, with a sense of the present day. Both bands were, in effect, paying homage to the performers they were emulating. The New Lost City Ramblers did in fact have an element of ‘show,’ although it was based on old-time acts rather than bluegrass.” (Neil still has his ’40s-style Stetson, but adds that he got a western hat in Wyoming on the way to Berkeley with Frank Miller in June of 1960: “I wanted nothing more than to look like Walter Hensley did backstage at Carnegie Hall the year before” [see John Cohen’s photo after pg. 202, Bluegrass: A History, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1985].)
Playing bluegrass in Berkeley at that time wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. For one thing, the folksong atmosphere created largely by the work of Barry Olivier, with its emphasis on quiet ballads, understated delivery and solo or duet singers, wasn’t entirely compatible with the powerful bluegrass sound even in trio form. And, too, this was the West Coast. Most people had never heard this kind of music before. Bluegrass came to the area through the folk music revival, not a country music context; the audiences were folk audiences. Mayne: “I remember fantasizing that someday the word ‘bluegrass’ would become common knowlege. It was awkward—it was hard to figure out how to describe what it was we were doing. It did have a cultural status, people were applying a label to it, but we had to educate people about the music in order to get them to come and see us.”
There were a few people around the area who the Ramblers didn’t have to educate, however. One was Arkansas native Roosevelt Watson, a devoted bluegrass listener who had about every bluegrass record ever made. He’d also seen Bill Monroe with Jimmy Martin in the ’50s, even leaving work whenever he could to drive to a personal appearance advertised on the radio. Roosevelt came to play a big role in encouraging people in their pursuit of the true music, especially Scott Hambly. Another was Campbell Coe, phenomenal guitarist, record collector, instrument repairman and salt-of-the- earth raconteur whose legendary status in the Bay Area once inspired an anonymously-produced Day-Glo bumper sticker reading, “Campbell Coe Is A Myth.” Fifteen or twenty years the senior of the Ramblers members, Campbell did his fair share of educating people about bluegrass and country music. In his best AM-radio baritone he delivered an excellent synopsis of bluegrass in his introduction to the Washington School concert. But for the most part, the Ramblers were playing bluegrass in a vacuum. Few national acts were coming out West, although in the winter of ’59 Monroe played at the Dream Bowl, a country dance hall just north of Berkeley on the Napa-Vallejo Highway and Mayne Smith was in the audience. It was his first live bluegrass by anyone other than his college and folk-revival peers. Campbell, who was tapped into the local country music scene, liked to encourage the city pickers to see shows at places like the Dream Bowl, often taking them there himself and of course Roosevelt Watson was a step ahead of everyone: he knew exactly what it meant to be playing music on the road, far from home and he and his wife arranged for Bill Monroe to come to their house to rest and eat. Roosevelt still has photos of Bill, Bessie, Bobby Hicks, Jack Cooke and Robert Lee Pennington sitting around their house.
What Mayne calls “the big summer of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers”—1960—was a big time indeed for them and for music in the Bay Area. It included the influential August concert at Washington School and numerous other shows, club dates, private parties and radio broadcasts, marking their most active season.
Around Berkeley, where the only folk guitar shop had been Barry Olivier’s convivial little place, the Barrel and the only instrument repairman was Campbell Coe (operating from his apartment near the campus until he opened Campus Music in the former Barrel storefront), a new guitar shop was opened by Jon and Deirdre Lundberg on April 15, 1960. The Lundbergs, expert in old-time music and the instruments to go with it, arrived in Berkeley from Omaha one day and drove straight to the Barrel. The Oliviers took them home for dinner and Barry found them their shop on Dwight Way, which recently closed its doors on November 30, 1990. Lundberg’s Fretted Instruments, so named because they carried no fiddles, soon became the happening spot for folk individuals to congregate, find old instruments and generally drive the proprietors crazy with the inevitable cacophony of guitar and banjo licks. Like Campbell Coe, who worked with the Lundbergs for a time, Jon had an incredible amount of detailed information about vintage instruments, Martin and Gibson specifically, educating countless beginners with his expertise and selling or trading instruments to many players. Mayne Smith had never played a Dobro before, but in later years he became proficient on it as well as pedal steel guitar: “Jon Lundberg had a Dobro he wanted to sell; he probably realized he might develop a market for such things if he got one into the hands of a working musician. Neil had crowded me out of the banjo slot and while I like flatpicking rhythm guitar and singing lead, I also liked to back people up. I like to be a sideman and the Dobro looked like a way for me to do that. I liked the early Acuff sound and I really liked what Buck Graves was doing with Flatt and Scruggs, so it didn’t take a whole lot of coaxing to get me into playing the Dobro. Jon figured out a way to make it economically feasible for me to own his Dobro and I never looked back.” But in the fall, with his stormy first marriage to Audrey Biscay (older sister of Neil’s Berkeley High girlfriend and part of the Redwood Canyon crowd) on the rocks, Mayne took off with $50 in his pocket to hitchhike east and reassess the relationship and his Dobro and suitcase were stolen on the road. “I realized I was in the midst of my rite of passage into adulthood. I hitchhiked from Fort Smith to Tulsa to Oklahoma City, saved up some cash washing dishes in a diner, visited family members in Dallas, then hitched back home in time for Christmas.” So when Mayne sings his riveting version of Harlan Howard’s “Busted,” made famous by Ray Charles, you get the idea he knows what the man was talking about. These stories also suit my impressions of Mayne at the time. He was long and lanky, like Hank Williams and his wife’s name was Audrey. Mayne and Audrey even sang country duets together, like Hank and Audrey Williams did. It was always tempting to look for country music models in our own community of musical denizens and sometimes easy: I always thought Campbell Coe looked like a young Jimmie Skinner and he could play like Chet Atkins. Toni Brown sounded like Kitty Wells but didn’t look like her. Vern Williams looked like a lot of rugged mountain men and his singing was an Ozark version of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley at the same time.
Mayne was out of school during 1961, he and Pete Berg were playing a fair amount of music together and the two of them roomed together in a place on north Shattuck Avenue. “I was playing small gigs and teaching music for bread. At the Blind Lemon bar down on San Pablo Avenue I’d make $10 and all the beer I could drink, one night a week. Somewhere in there we had a Redwood Canyon Ramblers trio, with me, Pete and Scott. We played on the Berkeley campus and at San Jose State.” A number of folk musicians were coming to town from the East Coast at this time—Jim Kweskin, Marc Silber, Perry Lederman, Pete Stampfel, Toni Brown, Buzzy Marten, Bobby Neuwirth—and a very active music party scene was going on in Berkeley with people such as Miriam Stafford, Pete Berg, Carl Dukatz (who was doing guitar repair with Lundberg) and country blues stylist T.A. (Steve) Talbot. It was said that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee came around to some of the parties. But bluegrass didn’t go over that well in the party scene and Neil, who had graduated from Oberlin and started in the folklore program at Indiana University in Bloomington, was writing letters to Mayne about seeing Bill Monroe and other bands at Monroe’s Brown County Jamboree barn in Bean Blossom. Mayne really wanted to play music for a living, but that seemed impossible in Berkeley then. He’d graduated from U.C. and I.U. looked like a way to avoid the draft by staying in school. Mayne decided to apply and was accepted into the folklore program at Indiana headed by the late Richard M. Dorson.
“I went to Bloomington in 1962 and tuned in on Bean Blossom. I joined Neil’s group, the Pigeon Hill Boys, on guitar and played other local country and coffeehouse gigs both with Neil and as a solo.” But at school, a conflict turned up. On the one hand, it was a “coup” for Dorson to have the son of Henry Nash Smith in his folklore program; Dorson had been a younger student in the American Civilization program at Harvard when Henry was a graduate there, thought of Mayne’s father as a star and wanted to be on his good side. On the other hand, Henry Nash Smith’s son happened to be a folksinger and musician and that didn’t set too well with Dorson, who saw folklore strictly as a serious academic discipline. Music was linked to popularization, which he detested and folk music scholars were outside the mainstream of serious folklore research as far as he was concerned. “Dorson coined the term ‘fakelore,’ ” says Mayne. “He rejected almost everything that was done in the area of music, certainly in terms of performance. This all came under the heading of fakelore, including the folksong compendiums of Botkin and Lomax. This was also one way you could get funding from the government—if you could call your study a ‘hard discipline,’ or science.” Fortunately for Mayne, another scholar at I.U., an ethnomusicologist in the anthropology department named Alan P. Merriam, encouraged him to follow his instincts. “It seemed self-evident that there was a strong and vital link between bluegrass music and folklore. Actually I stressed in my theseis that bluegrass has an intimate relationship with traditional music but that it is a commercial form. I wanted to point out to all these people who kept calling bluegrass ‘folk music’ that there was something else going on here.” I recall Mayne saying that the microphone makes bluegrass commercial—that it was nearly as important to a bluegrass performance as one of the instruments.
Like Neil and Scott, Mayne has made significant contributions to the scholarly knowledge about bluegrass. His master thesis, Bluegrass Music And Musicians: An Introductory Study Of A Musical Style In Its Cultural Context (MA, Folklore, Indiana University, 1964), was the first serious study of the music and his “An Introduction To Bluegrass,” published in the Journal Of American Folklore in 1965, was the first article on bluegrass in a scholarly journal [and later reprinted in Bluegrass Unlimited during its first year],
“But I had to escape the stifling scene at Indiana,” recalls Mayne and he found himself transferring to U.C.L.A. to begin work on a Ph.D. with the late D.K. Wilgus. “Wilgus was a legitimized scholar who recognized the importance and value of what scholars call ‘hillbilly’ music. It’s ironic that the word ‘hillbilly’ was used in the scholarly world; it was the only place where it was a legitimate term. Bill Monroe and I think a lot of country musicians were turned off by the word. We were aware of its pejorative connotations, but our use of it as a jargon term came from Charles Seeger, I think, who distinguished ‘citybillies’ from ‘hillbillies’ in an article I read very carefully and critiqued. He might have coined the word ‘citybilly’ and he was using both words in a totally unpejorative fashion.” Still, using the word ‘hillbilly’ later got him into trouble with Bill Monroe, at the first Roanoke bluegrass festival in 1965. He had given Carlton Haney a copy of his paper to show Monroe, who turned a cold shoulder when he saw the term.
Later, Mayne wrote an insightful report on that first festival, based on his notes, published in Sing Out! in January, 1966 (‘‘First Bluegrass Festival Honors Bill Monroe,” Vol. 15, No. 6). He carefully describes Carlton Haney’s near-religious belief in Monroe as sole creator of the music: “ ‘Other groups have the beat, but Bill is the only man that has the true time and the only man you can learn it from so that people will pay to hear it.’ ” Mayne also took the occasion to adjust some of his earlier contentions, based on conversations with Monroe at Roanoke, telling Sing Out’s folk-music readership: ‘‘Although in the popular mind bluegrass banjo playing is one of the outstanding features of bluegrass music, to Haney it is the rhythmic features of the music which make it a unique style. And talks with Monroe make it clear that the refinement of Snuffy Jenkins’s three-finger banjo style by Don Reno and Earl Scruggs, the development of the tense, high-pitched singing style, the melodic kinship of bluegrass fiddle and mandolin with the blues—all these elements are subordinate in Bill’s mind to the beat and time of bluegrass.”
Eventually Mayne made the decision to leave school and the scholarly world. ‘‘Academia had begun to feel increasingly parasitic to me. I decided not to become a critic/musicologist; I wanted to do rather than to analyze so much. I was on the brink of a lovely career, like the career Neil’s had, but I began to feel it wouldn’t be authentic for me to do that. I love the immediacy, the joy, the thrill that comes from performing. Nothing in the academic world was as powerful for me. So I left school and started doing music, although I had also begun to realize that I wasn’t really a bluegrass musician. I realized I had a talent for writing songs, but I didn’t want to write bluegrass songs. I wanted to make a unique contribution.”
Before leaving U.C.L.A., Mayne worked at McCabe’s guitar shop and got involved in the L.A. music scene. From 1964 to ’66 he was sound man at the Ash Grove folk club, running the sound for virtually every gig the Kentucky Colonels had there during that period. He developed a friendly relationship with them and it is Mayne’s voice introducing them over the house P.A. on side two of their live collection on Briar (now Sierra) Records, “Livin’ In The Past” (BT-7202, 1975). For a short time he played bluegrass with Richard Greene and David Lindley, but concentrated heavily on songwriting. Mayne produced a demo tape of twelve of his original compositions featuring backup instrumentalists such as Ry Cooder, Clarence White, Richard Green, Bill Keith and Taj Mahal. Nineteen of his songs have been recorded by various artists; “The New Hard Times,” co-written with Bobby Kimmel, was recorded by Linda Ronstadt on the album that marked her breakaway as a solo star (“The Stone Poneys Evergreen Vol. 2,” Capitol T-2763, 1967). Rosalie Sorrels, Michael Murphey, Guy Carawan, Larry Croce and sister Janet Smith have also recorded his songs. (One of Janet’s songs, in turn, has been recorded by Doc Watson.)
While still living in L.A., Mayne began a continuing friendship and musical association with singer-guitarist Mitch Greenhill, son of Boston folk impresario Manny Greenhill [long-time manager of Doc Watson] and this started Mayne’s career playing rock-influenced electric music. He’d been a James Burton fan for years and credits the country guitar wizard as a critical influence on his Dobro playing. “He played some great stuff on a record I had in college, Glen Campbell’s ‘K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y.’ It so happened that Nick Venet, producer of that record as well as the Stone Poneys, later did one for the country-rock group Hearts and Flowers and I played Dobro on a session for them.” Playing Dobro gave Mayne a chance to do plenty of backup work and take a break from the lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist/front man role he’d been in for so long. He picked up a fair amount of session work around the L.A. studios in those early days of the acoustic-country-folk-rock amalgam scene and has recorded Dobro, steel, guitar, banjo and vocals on eighteen releases over a 24-year period. This makes him the most-recorded of all the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, although never in a bluegrass context.
At McCabe’s Mayne learned some guitar repair and refinished his 1952 Martin D-18 that he’d bought from some friends of Neil’s, Miles and Joan Gibbons, in Columbus, Ohio. He also made a new pickguard for it that is sort of a Mayne Smith trademark. Hideo Kamimoto, respected luthier, told Mayne that he always remembered him by the unusual shape of his pickguard. “The guitar had some top damage that I wanted to cover,” Mayne relates. “I always liked the oversize pickguards that country singers such as Jim Eanes and Lester Flatt had, but I didn’t want to copy the usual shape. So I designed my own shape, which pays homage to a certain part of the anatomy of my girlfriend at the time. That pickguard is authentic.” As Neil Rosenberg said, quoting from Bill Monroe during an interview about the background on some song lyrics, “That has a story, but it don’t need to be told.” For a family magazine, enough has probably been said about Mayne’s pickguard.
Although it was difficult for him to give up the idea of making music as a full-time living, that is exactly what Mayne started thinking about after moving back to the Bay Area and his home ground in 1969. But there was still music to be made. He and Mitch Greenhill picked up where they had left off in L.A. and did a two-week tour with singer-songwriter Mark Spoelstra. They formed the country-rock group The Frontier Constabulary, later called the Frontier, which played gigs as both an acoustic and an electric band.
There was a second marriage that ended but did produce Mayne’s son Noah, now a dedicated guitarist at twenty and a fairly intense period in which he worked the commercial country and western circuit as a steel player around northern California and the Pacific Northwest. “I got a good take on the life of a travelling musician by working with a country band out of Seattle for a year and a half. I enjoyed playing for dances and developed my chops a lot, but I didn’t feel I was making any great contribution to people. I gradually burned out on the superficiality and constant travel. Also, I didn’t have the kind of talent to make it to the level of say, Buddy Emmons.” At this point Mayne really wanted to be a father, to have a reliable income and a stable home life for the first time in years. “I was tired of the night owl existence and I spent entirely too much time waiting for the telephone to ring for gigs. It was real hard, but I just let go of it. I had pushed it as far as it could go.”
One of his songs, “Slave To A Six-String Guitar,” chronicles what he calls his low point, in the mid-’70s. Then he heard of a job opportunity at Hideo Kamimoto’s guitar and violin shop in Oakland and it turned out to be a good thing. He ended up working there from 1977 to 1983. “It felt like something worth putting my weight into and I learned a lot working for Hideo. It was productive, valuable and it felt positive. There was even a chance for some musical expression,” as the scene at Kamimoto’s was vital, with many musicians working there part-time, among them fiddlers Paul Shelasky and Jack Leiderman. At one point they had enough musicians working at the shop for a full bluegrass band. When Hideo’s business relocated to San Jose in 1982, he asked Mayne to continue, but after a year the commute was too much and Mayne and his wife Gail settled on a house in the Richmond Hills, near Berkeley.
Even though Mayne followed through on his decision to leave the world of academia and not look back, he has nevertheless written nearly a dozen papers on music including articles, reviews, and album liner notes. The “Chronology Of Country Music,” which is a unique six-page foldout chart (published in The Country Music Who’s Who, ed. Thurston Moore, Record World, New York, 1970, reprinted 1972), displayed his special skill at collating a tremendous amount of information in a practical and artistic package.
At present Mayne is applying his high standards and innovative skills in the computer industry with a Fortune 500 company, having already acquainted himself in earlier jobs with textbook editing, electronics manufacturing and international trading in music accessories. The difference is that now he produces his specially-designed charts and catalogs using the latest computer technology. He is president of the Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music, which owns and operates the Freight & Salvage coffeehouse, one of the Bay Area’s most important alternative music venues. He still performs, with Mitch Greenhill and others and has lately been putting considerable energy into Redwood Canyon Ramblers reunions with the possibility of their touring in Japan.
Mayne stresses his partnership with Mitch, a true soul relationship that’s lasted over twenty years. He says that even if he were to go back on the road with another band, “playing with Mitch will always be my main expressive musical outlet. It is a real partnership.” Mitch and Mayne appear on the “Berkeley Farms” LP and they released an LP, “Storm Coming” (Bay 215, 1979) and a cassette, “Back Where We’ve Never Been” (Bennett House BHR 107, 1986). They’ve also done two European tours as well as countless club and festival dates on this continent.
It’s also been a treat to see him playing some bluegrass guitar and Dobro again, one night in particular at a 1990 bluegrass event at Black Owl Books in Berkeley. It may be that at one point bluegrass was “old hat to Mayne,” a statement made years ago by his old picking buddy Neil Rosenberg to explain why we didn’t get to hear Mayne sing much bluegrass anymore, but it’s a hat he can wear again with comfort and integrity. He can still ‘throw his head back and sing,’ as we once characterized him in Pete Seeger’s likeness and he does it with great affinity for and understanding of the American music traditions. What bandleader and High Country founder/mandolinist Butch Waller said about Mayne, referring to the old Redwood Canyon Ramblers’ days (Bluegrass Unlimited, September, 1985), is still true today: “Our socks were rolling up and down, you know. It was intense music. Mayne—he was into it. He could sing the high stuff.”
Next month—Neil Rosenberg
Redwood Canyon Ramblers — Part Two of Four
Written by Sandy Rothman
Part Two Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
June 1991, Volume 25, Number 12
Readers of this magazine probably know Neil Rosenberg’s name primarily because of the monthly column he has written since 1980 called “Thirty Years Ago This Month,” if not because of his classic and lamentably out-of-print Monroe bible, Bill Monroe And His Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography (Country Music Foundation, Nashville, 1974) or his book generally regarded as the definitive history of the music, Bluegrass: A History. He has published over fifty essays in books and numerous articles in scholarly folklore journals, as well as more than thirty articles in popular magazines. He’s edited or written liner notes for more than twenty important bluegrass recordings on major labels, has presented papers at over fifty scholarly meetings since 1963, has given more than thirty public lectures, workshops, or seminars at such places as East Tennessee State University and the Earl Scruggs Music Celebration in North Carolina. And he even hosts a weekly bluegrass radio show, Bluegrass Country, over CKIX-FM in St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada, where he lives and teaches at the Memorial University of Newfoundland (initials M.U.N.) in St. John’s. In 1986 he received the Certificate of Merit from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), and in February, 1991, was voted Bluegrass Feature Writer of the Year for the third year in a row by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) at its national convention in Nashville.
The list of awards goes on and on . . . but what very few people know is that Neil is a fine banjo player and an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. He was a two-time winner (1963-1965) of the banjo contest at Bean Blossom, and he often played banjo with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys while working with the house band at the Brown County Jamboree during those years.
Neil Vandraegen Rosenberg was born on March 21, 1939, in Seattle and raised in the town of Olympia in Washington state. His father Jess earned his law degree at the University of Washington and served as Assistant Attorney General before moving the family to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1949 where he worked on the legal staff of the Atomic Energy Commission. In June of 1951, they finally moved to Berkeley when Jess took the position of General Counsel for the Western Highway Institute, a research foundation established by the trucking industry in the eleven western states.
His law specialty was interstate taxation and his major contribution was the development of the pro-rata license system used on the big rigs—those plates that you see with little squares for stickers from various states.
“My mother played the piano,” recalls Neil; “just fooled around with a few pop tunes now and then and could read well enough to play for party singalongs. My dad had an old Washburn guitar that he strung with just the top four strings and played like a uke. He’d sing camp songs, old pop tunes, party songs. I remember my parents singing ’20s and ’30s pop songs when we would be travelling in the car, often back and forth from Olympia to Seattle. I took violin lessons starting at age seven in Olympia and continuing on through Los Alamos and until I was fourteen in Berkeley. My first consciousness of folk music was through my father’s sister, Aunt Teya, who lived in Berkeley. She had records of sea chanteys and things like that, which my father also liked.” By this time Neil had also been playing the uke and fell in with some other kids at Garfield Junior High who played uke. “We were the ‘Flexi generation,’ riding those Flexible Flyers, predecessor to the modern skateboard, all over the Berkeley hills. We took our ukes with us camping and sang ‘Dan, Dan, The Lavatory Man’ and other tasteless stuff.”
Neil remembers when he first met Mayne Smith, shortly after the Smiths arrived in Berkeley in 1953. “I got invited to kind of an introduction get- together at the Smiths’, probably because of my musical interests and because we had some mutual friends. I remember not long after that, Mayne spent the night at our house and brought his guitar, a little mahogany Martin. He got me interested in moving from the uke to the guitar and I bugged my dad to let me put the bass strings on his guitar. Eventually I got to take the guitar to Aschow’s violin shop in Oakland and have it converted to six nylon strings.” This was long before any folk guitar shop appeared in the area; the friendly, violin-making Aschow brothers were always glad to help any budding musicians. “At about the same time I begged to be allowed to stop taking violin lessons and was told I could do so only if I promised to take guitar lessons. Through another friend at Garfield, a member of the Temple Beth El teen club that I belonged to, I found out about Laurie Campbell and her weekly children’s program on KPFA radio. This was in 1955. I took guitar and voice lessons from Laurie until she got married and moved to Chicago the following year.”
By this time Neil was getting together with Mayne plus Scott Hambly and some of his friends to jam. “We started going out to Canyon to wail and the infamous parties began to happen. We were influenced by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, the Weavers. Early on we made the big switch from nylon strings to steel string guitars. This was pretty revolutionary, because most people were still playing nylon string guitars.” Neil recalls going into the KPFA studios one afternoon with this group of friends and taping “our version of jazz, fifteen minutes of ‘St. Louis Blues,’ for a later broadcast.” Another time Mayne was invited to perform on the Midnight Special and he brought Neil along. “I had a successful audition with Barry,” says Neil, “and soon our scene moved into that setting and to other ones such as the Northgate hoots.”
A 1957 poster from Cooper’s Northgate restaurant reads, “Folk Song Jam Session, Fridays, 9 p.m., Coffee, Coke, Burgers, Pie, Root Beer—Euclid near Hearst, Berkeley—Everyone Welcome,” sounding just like a college campus in the ’50s. The happenings at Northgate got the attention of Oakland Tribune staff writer Morton Cathro, who surveyed the scene in a Parade magazine photo spread in the Sunday edition on October 10, 1957. Carrying the subhead, “Berkeley’s Modern Minstrels Spark Revival of Folk Singing in the Bay Area,” the report pictured Barry Olivier arriving with a lute in one hand and two guitar cases in the other.
Cathro asks Olivier to explain “the current upsurge” in folk singing. “ ‘Well, for one thing,’ says Barry, ‘it ties in with the do-it-yourself craze. A person who can count and keep time should be able to learn the guitar well enough to entertain themselves and maybe their friends. If a person sings well, he or she may make a good folk singer; if they don’t sing well, they’ll make an even better folk singer.’ . . . In a more serious vein, young Olivier feels there’s a deeper reason. ‘Psychologists say that one of the troubles of our society today is that young people feel no connection with the past. Folk music opens the door to a vast treasure of rich folk lore and give them a link to other times and other lands.’ ”
One of the “other lands” being introduced to a few of the local singers was, of course, the American Southeast—the land of bluegrass and old-time music. But as we’ve heard before, playing bluegrass in the Bay Area was not—is not—the easiest thing in the world to do. The campus folksong revival certainly helped to close the musical gap, but the home region of bluegrass is still a long way from California and for a variety of reasons any bluegrass roots the Bay Area has been able to nurture are still tender. If this is so today, to the early Redwood Canyon Ramblers it must have felt something like introducing a totally foreign botanical species to the New World. As Mayne said, they had to educate people everywhere they went just to get an audience. The bluegrass singing style is still fairly alien to the ears of Bay Area music listeners and so they center their attention on the instrumental side of the music; groups who don’t sing but still sound a little like bluegrass—David Grisman’s for example—more easily capture the local interest. But in the folk scene of the ’50s one problem was the loud banjo or sheer force of a bluegrass group in contrast to a solo folksinger or guitarist, so the parties in Canyon were not only a rural setting, they were also a place where Neil, Scott, Mayne, and their friends could pursue the music they wanted to play. “Canyon was the place for blasts,” says Neil. “I wrote a song around then called ‘That’s The Way A Blast Should Be.’ It was a safe place for us to congregate, drink, and carouse.” And play loud music, something you couldn’t do in the city or in the highly protective folk community. Neil: “In this sense, bluegrass was something of a rock and roll surrogate for us.” Bluegrass was as problematic for the folk scene as rock music was for the rest of the world.
At the beginning of 1957, Neil decided to go east, to Oberlin College in Ohio. “I wanted to go to Oberlin because it was a small liberal arts college with no fraternities or sororities, and because it had a reputation as being a place where there was a folk music scene. Also, Mayne had already applied and been accepted and he urged me to join him. We were roommates for the first year. Luckily our friendship still survived.” Neil majored in history, Mayne in English literature. “The folk crowd at Oberlin probably saw West Coasters as upstarts and I felt like a transplanted West Coast folkie.” But at Oberlin they began hearing and learning a lot about bluegrass. “Some of our classmates knew about bluegrass and also about Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France, which I got turned on to. Joe Hickerson had left Oberlin by then to study folklore at Indiana but former members of the Folksmiths, the group he’d helped lead (they made a Folkways LP), were still there and the folk scene was very active. “American Banjo—Scruggs Style” was just released, as well as the first Flatt and Scruggs Columbia and Mercury LPs. Everyone was trying to learn the banjo.”
Neil and Mayne took their first trip to New York during the 1958 spring break, meeting some of their East Coast counterparts in the city folk scene such as Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman. Neil credits Weissberg with showing him finger-style guitar and he still plays a lot of guitar, writing many original tunes as he does on the banjo. “Some of the East Coast musicians had a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder attitude,” remembers Neil, “but they were ahead of us musically. Alice Gerrard, Mike Seeger, and others were very helpful to us … I felt like we were following them. They also introduced us to the mystique of instruments and music.”
That summer, during what was to become their customary trip home to Berkeley during school vacation, Neil, Mayne, and Scott played together in a series of shows and KPFA radio appearances, and at summer’s end they went into Pacific Sound—a custom branch of radio station KRE that was run by Scott’s father—and produced a 12-inch acetate recording. Neil recalls making 36 hand-duplicated copies which they sold or gave to friends. Included were two bluegrass-style performances, “Little Maggie” and “Jesse James,” with Neil on guitar, Mayne on banjo, and Scott on mandolin.
While getting his B.A. in history at Oberlin, Neil began his bluegrass education in the Ohio environment. “I got to meet and play with genuine Carter County hill people from around Mansfield, the kind of people who would say ‘the banjo’s crippled up’ when the fifth string wouldn’t tune.” He and Mayne, with fiddler Frank Miller, played in the Lorain County String Band, precursor to the Plum Creek Boys, a band remembered by a lot of people around Oberlin in those years. (See “The Plum Creek Boys—College Bluegrass in the Early Sixties,” by Mark Schoenberg, M.D., Bluegrass Unlimited, December, 1986.) The Plum Creek Boys opened the show when the Osborne Brothers gave their first college concert at Antioch College in February of 1960. “Everyone was starting to know a lot more about bluegrass. I learned a lot by watching. I remember Benny Birchfield showed me the second break to ‘Earl’s Breakdown’ at the Antioch show.” Neil points out that Scott and Mayne had seen Bill Monroe in California, at the Dream Bowl, at just about the same time.
One of Neil’s first articles on bluegrass was a piece done in 1967 about these formative events of early 1960. Bluegrass Unlimited had recently begun publication, in 1966, and so Neil sent in “Bluegrass and Serendipity,” and it appeared in the November, 1967, issue (Volume 2, Number 5). He refers to a trip that he and some fellow Plum Creek Boys members took to WWVA’s World’s Original Jamboree radio show as per an invitation Bob Osborne gave onstage at the Antioch concert. “They announced the last act,” wrote Neil after describing the Osbornes’ brief set, “a name we were not too familiar with, being new to bluegrass, and out came what we thought was the funniest combination of physical types we’d ever seen. The guitarist and mandolinist were quite chubby; the fiddler tall and broad-shouldered; and the banjo picker was so skinny that it appeared his Mastertone might pull him down at any moment. We didn’t have time to laugh, for the moment they reached the mike the guitar player hit an E chord and the banjo player started playing the wildest single note stuff we had ever heard! Surprised? We were stunned—we’d never heard of Jimmy Martin or J.D. Crowe or Paul Williams or Johnny Dacus and we’d never heard ‘Hold Whatcha Got.’ ”
Fired up about bluegrass in a big way, the Redwood Canyon Ramblers really began to take shape when Neil came to Berkeley in the summer of ’59, and that’s when they got their name. “Scott named the band in nostalgic reference to our high school blasts at Canyon. At first Pete Berg played with us as second guitarist, then shifted to washtub bass because of the problems you tend to have with two guitars in a bluegrass band. Our first gig was at a little place on Telegraph Avenue called the Peppermint Stick, across the street from where Cody’s Books is now. Mayne got mononucleosis, so Pete went back to guitar and Campbell Coe got Betty Aycrigg to play string bass with us. We played Northgate and the Midnight Special in this same configuration.”
This marked the time when Neil became the full-time banjo player, when he was in town, and the banjo he used was a 1954 Mastertone with a skin head that he had on loan from banjoist Mike Wernham. At the end of the summer Wernham sold Neil the banjo, which he later upgraded by trading the pot assembly to Coe for a prewar shell. “Campbell was the first older person with direct knowledge and expertise about country music and instruments that I met,” Neil recalls. “Whenever you expressed enthusiasm about some aspect of the music, which for us meant bluegrass, he responded with some nugget of information that was guaranteed to be a conversation stopper. Sometimes they turned out to be tall tales. When I told him I couldn’t figure out how Scruggs was playing the guitar part on ‘God Loves His Children,’ he said it was because Earl was using a specially-constructed guitar with a five-string neck. In a sense the truthfulness of this didn’t matter. The important thing was his support of us and what we wanted to do. Like Gert Chiarito at KPFA, he was an understanding and enthusiastic adult.” In September Gert engineered a second demo tape for the band and then Neil went back to Oberlin—this time without Mayne, who had decided to stay in Berkeley. At Christmas break Neil and the Ramblers trio, without Pete or Betty, recorded four more numbers at KRE.
As Mayne mentioned earlier, the summer of 1960 was the heyday of the Ramblers. Neil and Frank Miller drove out from Ohio and with Scott and Mayne they reconstituted the band; Mayne recruited Tom Glass, an artist and jazz bassist originally from Columbus, Ohio, to round out the classic ensemble. They played gigs all over the Bay Area until the end of August—parties, radio shows, coffeehouses, benefits, and finally the crowning Washington School concert, where they had a chance to show an eager audience what they could do. Glass, the first Bay Area bluegrass bass player in a full band context, played the traditional role to the hilt, coached by the members who had been seeing the eastern bands. He straggled onstage, dressed as a comedian, and the band had comedy routines inspired by the Stanley Brothers. “This was before the Equal Rights Amendment for bass players,” Neil points out. “Earlier, the banjo player was a comedian, but Earl Scruggs changed that. Reno and Smiley solved the problem by everyone costuming, thereby singling no one out. The Kentucky Colonels did the same.
“Frank and I had summer jobs as housepainters and while we worked we listened to the live tapes we’d gotten from Pete Kuykendall and others. We really got into the ‘show’ aspect of the music—Frank especially did. I remember we played at Barry Olivier’s Continental Restaurant, a little coffeehouse northwest of the campus at Oxford and Berkeley Way and some of the New Lost City Ramblers came to see us one night. They commented that they didn’t do gospel songs or wear country-style outfits like we did.”
The Redwood Canyon Ramblers also started a trend for bluegrass in San Francisco’s North Beach, an old Italian neighborhood and local home of the Beat Generation. Clubs on Grant Avenue featured bluegrass all through the ’60s and ’70s, mixed in with the tourist crowds and jazz scene. Jack Dupen, plectrum banjoist and owner of the Red Garter dixieland club, liked the Ramblers and wanted to help promote them. “Jack had seen Monroe in the Bay Area in 1954,” relates Neil, “and he wanted to learn bluegrass banjo, but there was no one around to teach him. He got interested again after hearing us and took some lessons from me.” Dupen arranged an audition for them at the hungry i, the famous music and comedy club where Lenny Bruce was working, which was interesting because the New Lost City Ramblers had auditioned there earlier the same week. “[The NLCR] told us that the hungry i, people had been condescending, that they hadn’t even listened to a whole tune. This may have been because they didn’t see any commercial potential in them and maybe the band had little interest in the commercial aspect as well. Probably they were put off by the overt commercialism of the North Beach folk club scene. Although they didn’t want to allow themselves to become a ‘show,’ their dislike of it was ideological. They were in fact theatrical and liked for it.” In any event, the “other” bunch of Ramblers went over well with their string ties and their comedy routines such as the “Arkansas Traveler” [“How Far To Little Rock”] from the Stanley Brothers. “We didn’t get hired either, but we were well received,” remembers Neil. “Jack Dupen wanted to buy a club and make us the house band. He tried to talk us into going into music full-time. I often wonder what would have happened if we had decided to stay with it. We might have done really well.” Another friend and fan, Tim (“Rockin’ Rufus”) Doyle, also a Columbus, Ohio, native, had Redwood Canyon Ramblers business cards printed up with his name as manager and did what he could to promote the band. He even wrote letters published in the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian, when their writer said the Ramblers couldn’t be considered bluegrass because they were sometimes a trio. Rufus knew that even without a full band, these pickers played real bluegrass. But as fate had it, they all went back to school instead. Music was too risky.
Back east again, in June, 1961, Neil married Ann Milovsoroff and started graduate school in folklore at Indiana University. (Their two daughters, Teya and Lisa, now 28 and 26, live in Edmonton, Alberta, and Vancouver, B.C., respectively.) Frank Miller, best man at the wedding, started art school at Ohio State that winter and introduced Neil to Carl Fleischhauer and the vital Columbus bluegrass scene that included Sid Campbell and Robby Robinson. They hung out at Irv and Nell’s, the legendary Columbus bluegrass bar that later became Bob and Mabel’s, and heard a lot of great music. That’s when Neil got the idea to have Robby make a reproduction neck for his banjo, a neck he still plays on. The Bay Area folk scene and the Redwood Canyon Ramblers must have felt very far away to Neil as he was becoming part of a quite different culture. “I got into the midwestern mentality of bluegrass and I realized that places like Ohio and Indiana were much more the center than New York City. The local folkies at I.U. were less sophisticated than the ones on the West Coast, but a lot of them were interested in bluegrass and the bluegrass scene was miles ahead. Bloomington was a magnet.” Neil adds that some of these same people played dixieland, which he did for awhile too, and he also recorded Bob Dylan’s ‘‘Don’t Think Twice,” some years later in 1964, in a unique instrumental arrangement with the Rick Sutherlin Big Band. “It was a demo for a banjo and big band album that never happened. We played the arrangement in public at least once, at the Monroe County fair in Bloomington where the band worked as backup for the Buffalo Bills barbershop quartet.” Neil was playing a lot of Eddie Adcock-style banjo at this time—he’d always liked the Country Gentelmen and booked their first college date at Oberlin in May 1961—but his banjo work on “Don’t Think Twice” was pure Scruggs. “Sonny Osborne really turned me on too,” Neil acknowledges. I know this was true; Neil was into Sonny very heavily, encouraging me to learn “Cumberland Gap” the way Sonny was playing it at the time. Neil’s always been strong on emphasizing pure melody in his playing, a trait he credits to his father: “Dad was just like Earl Scruggs’s mother—he didn’t like for me to get away from the melody!” In late June of 1961, the Bloomington crowd encouraged Neil to go see Bill Monroe out at Bean Blossom, just about twenty miles from town. He tells the story in the Monroe discography: “My next door neighbor, a fan of old-timey country music, told me about a nearby country music park which Monroe owned and his brother Birch operated. On a beautiful Sunday evening in late June—the time of year that Bill now holds his festival—we drove out into the Brown County hills to Bean Blossom. No more than a half dozen cars were there at the Brown County Jamboree, even though it was 5:00, show time, and we wondered if Monroe would actually perform for such a small crowd. My neighbor and I approached a blonde woman standing next to an old Oldsmobile station wagon with Tennessee plates and asked her if Bill Monroe was really there. She assured us that he was, so we paid and went in.” There he met the late Shorty Sheehan (bass player on the classic Monroe session that had produced “Christmas Time’s A-Coming” and “The First Whippoorwill” a decade earlier) and his wife Juanita, musical Fixtures at the weekend jamboree. Neil says there were only about forty people in the audience in the old barn. Bill had Shorty playing fiddle, Bobby Smith on guitar, Bessie Lee Mauldin on string bass, and Tony Ellis playing a fancy double-resonator Paramount banjo with a skin head on it. “Shorty got me to play a tune on the banjo for Monroe and I played ‘Bury Me Beneath The Willow,’ probably an influence from Adcock and the Gentlemen. ‘That boy’s gonna be good if he keeps it up,’ said Monroe.” Neil didn’t forget that.
Shorty and Juanita constituted the Bean Blossom house band in 1961 and Neil played off and on with them there and at other gigs over the next seven years. In the fall of 1963, the Brown County Boys came together as the house band at the park, led by local fiddler Roger Smith, with Vern McQueen, Osby Smith, Jim Bessire, and Neil. They played again the season of 1965, then taking the name Stoney Lonesome Boys, also doing occasional gigs at other local venues.
Neil became quite close with the late Marvin Hedrick, a native of Brown County who collected bluegrass, played thumbpick guitar, and was a friend of Edd Mayfield’s. Hedrick once accepted an F-4 mandolin from Bill Monroe in trade for a sound system for the bam at Bean Blossom. He owned Hedrick Radio Service, a radio and RCA-authorized TV repair shop on the edge of Nashville, Indiana, the county seat, just about ten miles from Bean Blossom, and oftentimes in the evenings amid the clutter of TVs a friendly bunch would gather to pick. This could include Neil as well as the two Hedrick boys, Gary and David, who years earlier had been pressed into service for their dad, taping bluegrass radio shows for him in the early mornings before going to school. Many of these—sometimes dim broadcasts from faraway WRVA in Richmond, Virginia—as well as shows recorded by Hedrick live at Bean Blossom in the ’50s are in circulation among tape collectors.
It was the fall of 1961 when Neil played his first show with Monroe onstage at Bean Blossom, something that was repeated a number of times as Monroe often drove up from Nashville with less than a full band. “I was very nervous,” Neil remembers. “I kept asking what key the next song was going to be in. I think Bobby Smith gave me the wrong key intentionally one time. I didn’t have any time to decide what banjo tune to play and I blew a lot of breaks. I didn’t even know ‘Georgia Rose,’ which Bill said was a good number for the banjo. I remember apologizing to him after the show. He said, ‘That’s all right—you done the best you could.’ ” Neil also recalls how Monroe stood right next to him on the stage, emphasizing odd rhythms on the mandolin. He feels now as he did then that this was a kind of test to see how sure his sense of timing was. Neil’s banjo playing has always been rhythmically strong, so that wasn’t a problem. But he had concentrated on bands that featured the banjo more and he knew their material better. ‘‘Bill was a bit distant,” he says, ‘‘but not nasty in any way.” He adds, “There was no pay for playing the show.”
Neil also played banjo on two bluegrass recordings made in the Indiana area. One was an EP with Bryant Wilson and the Kentucky Ramblers (Adair 225, 1964) and the other was an LP called “Darkened Way” (Jewel 115, 1967) with George Brock and the Travelling Crusaders bluegrass gospel group. Neil thinks his banjo playing “didn’t really get cooking” until 1964, which is when “Don’t Think Twice” was done; in any case, his Scruggs intensity seemed to reach a peak in these years and if anyone can find these now-vintage recordings, the truth of this can be verified. During the period from 1967 to 1971, his playing “was propelled into a more experimental, personal space,” although—and this is something every banjo picker can relate to—Neil has never been one to let his chops stay down. As for his time in Indiana, he says, “I felt I had achieved something when someone came up to me at Bean Blossom and said, ‘The way you play “Bill Cheatham,” it sounds like a banjo.’ ”
Commemorating his days in Indiana and at Bean Blossom, Neil dedicated his book Bluegrass: A History respectfully “To the memory bluegrass bands got together in this way publicly, each drew its own audiences to the shows, creating more contacts. Eventually, these would lead to local bluegrass scenes which existed separate from both country music and the folk revival.” On the nonanalytic side, the show also presented an opportunity for Mayne’s driving guitar rhythm to match up to Ray Park’s sublime fiddling; very often Vern and Ray performed without a fiddle, as Ray could rarely find a strong enough rhythm player and usually had to do it himself.
This was also the year when Rick Shubb got to take a banjo lesson from Neil at Christmas, with me tagging along, and when Campbell Coe had the Ramblers play at some of the outdoor jam sessions he held in the alley near his shop. Campbell once had the Kentucky Colonels play there in the alley behind Telegraph and Haste; it was following Neil as Neil had followed him to Oberlin. Through 1964 the two of them played together in the Pigeon Hill Boys, which also included Chuck Crawford (now with the Toronto bluegrass band, Silverbirch), Fred Schmidt, Jim Neawedde, and Tom Hensley (now playing keyboards with Neil Diamond). There was a small flurry of Redwood Canyon Ramblers-related activity in the summer of 1963, when Neil and Mayne came to Berkeley and they did a gig at the Cabale coffeehouse where I played guitar and Mayne played Dobro; essentially, this was the final Ramblers performance. In February, 1964, Scott visited Bloomington from his Air Force base in Florida on a long weekend pass and the original band, assisted by Ann Rosenberg on bass, recorded seven songs for a demo. Neil recalls a few of the titles: “Childish Love,” a Louvin Brothers/Jim and Jesse number that Scott always loved; “I Ain’t Broke But I’m Badly Bent,” which Mayne learned from Edd Mayfield’s singing on a 1954 Monroe show recorded by Marvin Hedrick; “I’ll Walk Out On You,” an original Smith composition; “After Dark,” Scott’s version of a Kitty Wells recording that Red Allen had done in bluegrass style, and “Auld Lang Syne” as a banjo-mandolin instrumental. This was to be one of the last reunions of the Ramblers until they started getting together again nearly twenty years later.
For most of the 1963 season Neil managed Monroe’s jamboree at Bean Blossom. This was fraught with difficulties and if you get Neil started he can recall some pretty amazing stories from that period, such as the first show of the season when Bobby Helms came up from Nashville to play a show and drove his Cadillac into the back barn. But not everything was so funny. Bluegrass as a business seemed to be declining and it was all they could do to get new cement on the floor and things like that. Neil says that Marvin Hedrick helped him a lot; he calls Hedrick the “spiritual manager” of Bean Blossom. Working with Birch, who had been managing the park, could be difficult at times. Ralph Rinzler, Monroe’s booking agent, wanted to see Bean Blossom run a little tighter than Birch was doing it, so with Bessie Lee’s agreement he asked Neil to manage it. Bill was furious at first. He got in his car with the rest of the band and drove off to Nashville, leaving Bessie Lee to fend for herself. (This incident is described in detail by Jim Rooney in Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1979). Eventually Bill came to accept and value Neil as manager. Working closely with Monroe this way certainly gave Neil unique insights into the mind of Monroe, the man, and it may be no accident that it’s been his lot to unravel some of the knots and tangles of bluegrass history.
I had been inspired by tantalizing letters from both Neil and Mayne while they were living in Bloomington—“just came from seeing (fill in the blanks: Bill Monroe, Reno and Smiley, the Stanley Brothers . . . ) out at Bean Blossom,” etc., etc.—so in the spring of 1964 I drove east with Jerry Garcia, banjo player in the band I was playing guitar in, so we could immerse ourselves in the real bluegrass scene. Neil and Ann were kind hosts to us and we also spent hours copying tapes from Marvin Hedrick, at Neil’s introduction. We did a lot of jamming with and without Neil around Bloomington, never quite mustering enough courage to ask Bill Monroe for a job in the band when we saw him at Bean Blossom. Neil also showed us the joys of an authentic bluegrass tavern in Ohio, taking us to see the Osborne Brothers at the White Sands in Dayton; for better and/or for worse, life for me has never been the same since.
Neil remained at I.U. until July, 1968. He got involved playing “weird original music” with Peter Aceves (now Narvaez) and also started writing more original tunes. “I developed my own style then. For four or five years I didn’t play much bluegrass; I got tired of it. I got an old F-4 and started to play more mandolin—old-time, straightforward mandolin, not Monroe style.” Neil and Peter, along with singer David Satterfield and fiddler Richard Blaustein and some others, recorded an album called “Homegas” for Takoma records (Takoma C1026). The album, more or less dedicated to a house that burned down, featured one dynamite banjo tune in open C, “Die For A Dime,” which Neil says grew out of Robert Johnson’s “Last Fair Deal.” “We were an acoustic blues-oldtime-bluegrass fusion group; we called ourselves Friends of Greasy Greens and played a concert at the University of Illinois and a few other shows. We mystified most of our musical followers. The old-timey crowd came to bee Richard and they were disappointed; the blues freaks came to see Peter and they were disappointed; the bluegrassers came to see me and they were disappointed.”
Neil wrote his M.A. thesis in folklore, on parrot jokes, in 1964 and was writing about bluegrass with increasing focus. “The parrot joke subject came about because my attempts to do an M.A. on ‘White House Blues’ were shot down by my faculty advisor. I was advised to stay away from hillbilly music, essentially the same thing that happened to Mayne. So I chose a topic that was of interest to the head of the department, Richard Dorson. I did find jokes and joke-telling interesting, so it wasn’t a hard study. And the parrot in folklore has a long and interesting history; it is a fascinating metaphor for the human soul as manifest in speech. But it was a pragmatic choice.” Neil’s Ph.D. in folklore came in 1970.
He had been collecting data and working on discographies of several bluegrass artists, Bill Monroe in particular, so it was a joy when the Country Music Foundation published his acclaimed Monroe bio-discography in 1974, now long out of print. The sheer abundance of fascinating information wedged between session listings makes this book—like the notes he and Charles Wolfe have been writing for the Bear Family CD releases—essential reading for anyone seriously interested in bluegrass or Monroe. Explaining his scholarly interest in Monroe in the chapter called How This Discography Came Into Being, Neil writes: “As a student of folk music I recognized many traditional songs and tunes in his repertoire and, aware of the important role of print and recordings in Anglo-American folksong traditions, wanted to learn more about the ways in which Bill Monroe Fitted into these traditions as a conserver, carrier, and initiator of tradition.”
Looking at all of Neil’s writing, not least his monthly column in this magazine, one marvels not only at the wealth of facts and details but also his ability to pull it all together into a meaningful whole. “People think I remember all that stuff,” laughs Neil. “Actually, I have files full of information I’ve researched over the years. And I take a lot of notes.” But Neil’s notes are not just any notes. He has the trained senses of a historian and folklorist and that means careful study of whatever is in front of him. The ‘notes’ he took during a trip to Earl Scruggs’s homeplace in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, numbered twenty-four typescript pages from a four-day visit. The notes include what people ordered at meals plus a description of a local delicacy called liver-mush: hog’s liver and lean hog meat ground and fried, with cornmeal, salt and pepper added to taste. Earl’s brother Florace told Neil that Earl eats it and many natives crave it, so finally Neil ordered some at a cafe on the last day of his visit. “I mixed it with eggs,” he recorded in his notes, “like one does with grits. Maybe it’ll help my banjo picking, who knows.”
Neil moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1968 where he joined the Department of Folklore at the provincial university, Memorial University of Newfoundland, as folklore archivist and professor of folklore. He teaches courses on both the graduate and undergraduate levels on such topics as folksong, ethnomusicology, oral history, and Canadian folklore. His research—in addition to his work on bluegrass—has included Canadian fiddling, country music in the maritime provinces, and Newfoundland folksong. He’s performed since 1973 with a St. John’s bluegrass group called Crooked Stovepipe, has hosted his weekly hour-and-a-half-long bluegrass radio show since 1984, and continues to work on arrangements of his many banjo, mandolin, and guitar compositions. Quite a few of these are named after California themes. “Goat Road Blues” comes from Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues,” which Neil heard growing up by Berkeley bluesman K.C. Douglas. “In high school the flatlanders called us hill kids ‘goats’; I guess I’m a goat from Berkeley.” Another title is “Shasta Daylight,” named after a favorite West Coast train he rode as a boy. Some of the tunes sound old-timey; others fit more into the ‘new acoustic’ category. Introducing her guest last year in a St. John’s radio interview, host Ingrid Fraser said Neil “spun off from the bluegrass of Kentucky and landed on a cable car in San Francisco, the home of Dawg music.” While that sequencing is out of order, it’s true that Neil is a fan of the new music as well as classic bluegrass; as a historian he doesn’t overlook any aspect.
At the moment Neil is fascinated by the fact that people have started taking his book—the 450-page hardcover that he once quipped would make a good doorstop—around to bluegrass shows for musicians to sign. No doubt he’ll write something about that. He and Charles Wolfe have also completed work on a second Bill Monroe CD set and the first part (1949—1959) of a Flatt and Scruggs series that includes some previously unissued takes both released earlier this year.
Not much is left to question about the depth of Neil’s scholarly insight into the music and the industry. What is left is for people to hear him pick the five. When he does that, he’s back to being a ‘goat from Berkeley,’ a kid from the hills, member of the Flexi generation who is a folksinger, innovative instrumentalist, and a tradition-bearer in his own right. And he’s ready to rip right into “Pike County Breakdown” just like any good banjo picker from Kentucky or points south.
Next month—Scott Hambly
Redwood Canyon Ramblers
Part 3 of 4
By Sandy Rothman
Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
July 1991, Volume 26, Number 1
Of all the Redwood Canyon Ramblers principals, mandolinist Scott Hambly has stayed especially close to a strong emotional involvement and interest in bluegrass and traditional country music. He was a member of the Country Boys (later the Kentucky Colonels) while Roland White was in the service, thus putting him in close contact with Clarence White. During his graduate school days in Los Angeles he played with most of the well-known bluegrass pickers of southern California at that time such as Don Parmley, Byron Berline, Randy Graham, John Hickman, Pat Cloud, and Leroy (Mack) McNees. He even played mandolin on a 1968 Everly Brothers recording session. And, with a special interest in Jesse McReynolds’s mandolin style and the Virginia Boys sound, he came to know them and their classic band during the ’60s and ended up writing the extensive liner notes for their double album on CMH, “The Jim And Jesse Story” (CMH-9022, 1980), and for their Rounder reissue LP (“Epic Bluegrass Hits,” SS-20, 1985). Yet, because he hasn’t pursued music as a full-time occupation, he has been seriously underrecorded. That he hasn’t recorded a bluegrass or mandolin album to this date could not have been predicted by Toni Brown, Bay Area musician and writer of an essay entitled “Can Blue Grass Grow in City Streets?”, published in 1964 (American Folk Music Occasional, No. 1): “There is a young mandolin player who has yet to record, from Berkeley, Scott Hambly, whose technique is astounding . . .” Anyone hearing his unique mandolin style would never forget it or his searing vocal work, coached personally by none other than California’s resident genuine high lonesome tenor, Vern Williams. As is so with all of the Ramblers, relatively few people have seen Scott perform, yet his influence has spread through other key individuals in bluegrass.
Scott is also the only actual Bay Area native among all four original Ramblers. He was born on March 2, 1940, in Oakland and raised in Berkeley, surrounded by a considerable amount of musical interest in the family. His father, Don Hambly, had been a dance band musician and comedian who played soprano, tenor, and alto saxophone in several bands in the late 1920s and into the 1930s; he played in the Bob Kinney Orchestra from 1927 to 1933, working several summers at Yosemite National Park. Beginning part-time work at Berkeley radio station KRE in 1929, he rose to General Manager there until moving to KSFO as engineer in 1967, where he stayed until retiring in 1979. I had noticed Scott’s strong rhythmic sense and affinity for unusual rhythms when I first heard him play, so something clicked at Washington School in 1960 when Campbell Coe had this to say about him during the introduction: “Approximately three years ago on the Berkeley scene, if you want to call it, a group of people got together from various pursuits in folk music, and one of them is a former drummer.” I recall being shocked by this news, as though you couldn’t come to folk music from drumming. Scott: “When I was about four years old I was a member of a ‘rhythm band’ in north Berkeley with ten or so other kids. I played temple blocks, then graduated to drums. I would beat on nearly anything to keep time to records or the radio, including beating on the wall in imitation of Gene Krupa’s floor tom solos I heard on my father’s Benny Goodman records.” In high school Scott played drums for local dances with a pianist “and other pieces as the pay would allow.” His father was coowner of Pacific Records and Royal Recording Company, producing music of various genres; along with big band swing Scott was exposed to dixieland and traditional jazz, and local black orchestras and performers. “I listened avidly to KRE’s Sunday Nite Session, emceed by my father at about 10:30 each week. I first heard ‘Cattle Call’ then, as well as the Lu Watters Jazz Band; the Frisco Jazz Band with Clancy Hayes, a six-string rhythm guitarist and dixieland vocalist; and Leadbelly.”
In 1954 some neighbors in the same house where Scott and his wife Katie now live—in which his father was born just as it was being completed at the beginning of 1909—gave Scott a ukelele, and his first lesson from a twenty-five-cent printed tutor showed him that the young southpaw was holding the neck in the ‘wrong’ hand. He later got a banjo-uke at the Salvation Army in Oakland, his first self-bought instrument, and also learned some tenor guitar on a Martin that his friend John “Skinny” Thomas had. Still playing drums, now on a new set his father helped him pay for, Scott bought his first guitar, a Columbia six-string, from an Oakland pawnshop for twenty-five dollars.
With a part-time job at KRE as janitor and also working the switchboard, doing some recording, and working in the music library as a cataloguer, Scott witnessed some things many blues fans would give their eyeteeth to have seen in the ’50s: “I saw heaps of black gospel groups. On Sunday nights those groups would come in and physically rock the building! I learned a lot about rhythm. I remember Jimmy McCracklin coming to the studio in a canary-yellow Cadillac.” These were live radio broadcasts, and also blues recording sessions; his father brought home Royal Recording acetates of some of the sessions. One electric guitar solo really knocked him out, and he put a deArmond pickup and some flatwound strings on his Columbia, thinking that was the way to get the blues sound. Then he heard something that made the biggest impression on him in terms of blues guitar: the great single-string blues breaks and fills by Lonnie Johnson. “I began learning flatpick, single-string blues guitar by listening to those Lonnie Johnson 78s; Josh White and Leadbelly records; and the blues bands my dad recorded at KRE. There was one Leadbelly record I really loved, a little ten-inch LP that some of my friends had too.”
Scott recalls meeting Neil Rosenberg for the first time in December, 1956: ‘‘It was at a biology class party at Berkeley High. Neil was picking finger-style blues guitar and folk music; his original tune ‘Foggy Flats Blues’ was a favorite of mine. I was impressed with his picking and singing.” He first saw Mayne Smith play guitar and sing at a Berkeley High production rehearsal, as he was on the set crew for the theater. “He was a star,” Scott recalls; “one of the leading lights of operetta at Berkeley High School. I remember his vocal teacher was disappointed when Mayne went in the folk direction.” Soon after, Mayne came to one of the after-school jam sessions that Scott and some friends had been having in his basement. He sang “Darling Corey” and “St. James Infirmary,” big numbers for him then, along with Scott playing drums, Roger Hackley on barrelhouse piano, and David Jones on clarinet. “The parties continued out at Redwood Canyon, where we had moved from the Thomas home to ‘Easy’ Barker’s rustic cabin perched just east of the bluff over the Sacramento Northern Railway right-of-way, remote enough so that our noise wouldn’t disturb the rest of the Canyon colony of residents. The remoteness helped to foster our independence and rebellious behavior. My parents thought we were ‘glorifying the unwashed’ with our musical tastes, but Canyon was a perfect place to reunite the music with the mountain setting.”
In the fall of 1957 Scott bought a new Martin D-28 at Sherman and Clay in Oakland (for $250) which he later brought to Jon Lundberg’s shop where Carl Dukatz shaved the bracing to improve the sound and volume. He also had Campbell Coe rework the nut, bridge, and fingerboard for easier playing action. Then at the family Christmas party his first cousin Alvin Hambly, M.D., spontaneously gave Scott his first mandolin, a bowl-back Washburn. “Alvin himself played French horn and piano and sang in the church choir; he just never got around to learning mandolin, so he thought it would be better off with me as he saw the progress I was making the guitar.” But progress on the mandolin was difficult at first, as there were no local examples. “I couldn’t find anyone in town to teach me, or any printed tutors, and I didn’t know any chords. ‘Folk mandolin’? It was like going to Venus.” But he picked out some melody lines on “Woody’s Rag” from Pete Seeger’s playing on a Weaver’s record on Vanguard and “Little Maggie,” mostly on the first string, from what he calls “a pivotal Stinson LP featuring Southern Appalachian pickers and singers. I remember seeing a picture of a mandolin on a record jacket and thinking, what’s this volute (curl)? This doesn’t look at all like a Washburn ’taterbug!”
Scott credits Neil with showing him some mandolin chords Neil had figured out that really got him moving towards bluegrass mandolin in the summer of ’58, when Neil was in town from Oberlin. A second and essential factor, Scott says, was a Gibson F-4 landing in his hands via Dave and Vera Mae Fredrickson, Berkeley folk music people, who had it on loan from a friend of theirs. For the eventual writer of a doctoral thesis titled “Mandolins In The United States Since 1880: An Industrial and Sociocultural History of Form” (University of Pennsylvania, 1978), playing a Florentine mandolin for the first time was an auspicious event. “I viewed this act of trust and support as an honor, and this instrument, with its much more professional neck with extended fingerboard, allowed me to make greater technical strides in working towards playing bluegrass. Tom Bebring, a graduate student in marine biology at U.C., let me listen to some ten-inch Stinson LPs of Southern Appalachian songs by Harry and Jeanie West, and many Monroe Brothers 78s in his collection, which I borrowed and dubbed at Royal Recording. This was my first exposure to pre-bluegrass Monroe-style mandolin. Tom was really into the old brothers acts—the Monroes, the Callahans, the Bolicks. I also heard the Stanley Brothers Rich-R-Tone records, which Miriam Stafford had. All these records brought me along well as a grounding in the foundations of bluegrass, almost a minichronological development in the genre as players back then would have experienced it.” Visiting at Neil’s house, Scott heard some Flatt and Scruggs 78s for the first time. ‘‘The Lester and Earl stuff, and later Jim and Jesse, really put me over into wanting to pick bluegrass. Bill Monroe’s first Decca LP, ‘Knee Deep In Bluegrass’ (DL 8731), knocked me out. Every cut was a winner. I loved all the instruments. By the time I’d listened to this album several hundred times in a few months I had become a convert to bluegrass, especially Monroe-style bluegrass. Mayne, Neil, and I were still playing a lot of folk songs, but I was especially moving beyond folk and more towards bluegrass. I wanted to become a mandolin picker/singer.”
In the fall Scott started at U.C. Berkeley and met Pete Berg, who was “picking a Gibson jumbo guitar somewhere.” Pete introduced Scott to Campbell Coe at Coe’s apartment near the campus. “Coe put on a stunning performance of five-finger picking on his father’s mint-condition F-4 mandolin, said to have been made by his father while working at the Gibson company. I also met Paul Frakes there, another mandolin aficionado and Louvin Brothers fan, and he showed me the crisp, clean, dry sound obtainable from tortoise shell picks, which I began to use thereafter.” That winter of ’58, with Campbell’s encouragement, Scott went to the Dream Bowl and saw Bill Monroe live for the first time. The legendary Dream Bowl was a real country dance hall where real country people would go out to listen to music and dance. The only other place of its kind was in the opposite direction, south of San Francisco, Napredak Hall, where Monroe played in 1963, four years later.
“I really loved that night at the Dream Bowl,” says Scott, remembering it better than most dreams. “Jack Cooke played knockout flatpick guitar and had super duets with Bill. I introduced myself to Bill on the floor during intermission and showed him how I was doing on my mandolin. He said my right hand was all wrong, that the stiff-arm approach was strictly no good. He showed me how to elevate my wrist so that most of the rotation is done from the wrist without anchoring any fingers on the pickguard. He also recommended using a much heavier pick than the tortoise shell picks I was using. From that time, I stopped using stiff-arm vertical movements; the relaxed arm gives a more fluid approach and, I think, allows for faster playing. But I don’t play mandolins without pickguards because when I play crosspicking style I do anchor my right ring finger to the surface of the pickguard. Bill said, ‘Practice an hour a day.’ I practiced two.” Scott followed the word of the masters, including Campbell Coe, who directed him towards scales and harmony and doublestops and was also a strong advocate of the elevated right hand technique.
Another big bluegrass fan at the Dream Bowl that night was Roosevelt Watson, who never missed a Monroe show and usually had dinner with Bill. Roosevelt and Scott didn’t meet that night; that was to come later, and eventually Roosevelt let Scott tape all his Monroe 78s. Roosevelt also told Scott about Vern and Ray. “Vern Williams put the immediate spark in a lot of songs for me that I was hearing on records,” reports Scott. Vern spent time with him, showed him how to get power and projection, and they are two bluegrass singers who don’t need a microphone to be heard. Scott also cites Earl Taylor’s singing as a favorite on numbers such as “The Prisoner’s Song,” “Pretty Polly,” “Little Maggie,” and “Molly And Tenbrooks” (from “Alan Lomax Presents Folk Songs From The Blue Grass,” United Artists UAL 3049, 1959), all of which became good vehicles for Scott’s singing. Another vocal influence was the Osborne Brothers: “Their trios were exquisite; Bobby’s pure, high vocals were a sublime treat—like bel canto lead in Italian opera.”
While the Oberlinites—Mayne and Neil—were busy at school, Scott was doing some picking with Pete Berg, and the two of them scoured the Bay Area for record outlets. “Pete discovered a big country music record shop in Castro Valley where we bought lots of Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs singles, and there was a shop in Richmond, Art’s Records, which was still selling new Flatt and Scruggs 78s! I also found many out-of-print bluegrass gems at Jack’s Record Cellar in San Francisco, and bought all I could by mail order from Jimmie Skinner’s Music Shop in Cincinnati.” They also haunted Art Music Company, a wonderful record store at Telegraph and Channing near the U.C. Berkeley campus, where you could take records into private listening booths. Campbell Coe also sold smaller-label LPs in his shop, Starday and King especially, and he always had the country radio stations on, favoring KRAK out of Sacramento. “He advised me on the value of Jim Eanes and Jimmy Martin; he loved Eanes’s ‘Wiggle Worm Wiggle.’ Dave Fredrickson is the one who turned me on to Monroe’s first gospel LP, ‘I Saw The Light,’ and around this time I got into Jim and Jesse and the crosspicking of Jesse McReynolds, a fascinating approach to mandolin picking that was akin to the Scruggs banjo sound I loved so much. Jesse put my ear on sideways. His mandolin breaks on ‘Too Many Tears’ were absolutely coruscating. Brilliant. It was so complex and dense.” Through Jimmie Skinner’s he learned of Pete Kuykendall, then sound engineer at the music division at the Library of Congress, who provided tape copies of out-of-print singles and selected live bluegrass shows. “I owe him a great debt of gratitude for allowing me to hear the difference between live shows and recordings and to learn how spontaneous, fluid, and inspiring the shows could be. These are cornerstones in my bluegrass education.” They had to be, as there was precious little in the way of live bluegrass in northern California at the time. Scott didn’t go east like Mayne and Neil did, so the tapes were like gold for him, and he studied them diligently.
In June, Mayne and Neil returned from Ohio, and they named the band—‘Redwood Canyon’ after the small free-style community of Canyon, and ‘Ramblers’ after the New Lost City Ramblers—and had their first gig, at the Peppermint Stick, which lasted for several nights in a row. “I think we played for our dinner there,” recalls Scott. “Their garlic sausages were my favorite. We never had garlic at our house because my parents didn’t like it.” A month or so later the band appeared at Northgate, and at one point Scott and Neil played as a duet at the Gull Bookshop in Point Richmond. This may have been the first bluegrass-style music played in a Bay Area bookstore; today the tradition continues in Berkeley where Black Oak Books has presented bluegrass in addition to its author readings and book signings.
At the end of 1959 Bill Monroe came to the Dream Bowl again. His Christmas tours of the West that went on for a number of years were a saving grace for local bluegrass lovers separated from the homeland. Scott: “Jack Cooke was still in the band and I was still knocked out by his driving rhythm guitar and runs as well as his vocals. Billy Ray Lathum was picking five-string banjo instead of Buddy Pennington, Bill’s banjo picker in the previous year. This was the first time I saw Billy Ray. He seemed scared nearly witless by Monroe throughout the show for fear of doing something wrong while picking for the Master.”
And then came 1960, the banner year for the Redwood Canyon Ramblers. “We now had a full bluegrass band and we got more professional in our advertising, musical arrangements, and appearance. Tom Glass designed a poster for us after the ones used in the Midwest circuits with blank spaces to write in the particulars of the gigs. We donned string ties in emulation of Flatt and Scruggs’s ties and bought hats like the ones we saw in pictures of other bands. Dark slacks and white shirts remained a standard. We rehearsed a lot for gigs and thought we were working hard on perfecting arrangements, our repertoire, and overall cohesiveness. The Washington School concert in August was the highlight of our performances. Lots of youth, enthusiasm, and dedication overcame lack of technical mastery; there was critical and popular acclaim, and we had a sense of pride in having our music and ourselves taken seriously.” The excitement in the air that night is evident on a tape of the show, as Campbell Coe introduces the band. Seeming to take forever as we waited for the band to start, he brought his preamble—actually barely three minutes long—to an abrupt close, saying, “I think that all of you are aware of the instrumentation so I won’t waste any time, and I think without any further ado, since I see it’s twenty-seven minutes past and they have forty numbers for you this evening, so get ready for a good country music concert—here are the Redwood Canyon Ramblers!” While they didn’t play quite forty tunes, the show was every bit as good as the introduction.
One of the highlights of the show was Scott’s singing and mandolin picking. He had already begun to fashion and perfect a unique style of crosspicking similar to the guitar roll pioneered by George Shuffler and refined by Clarence White. Like Clarence’s roll, Scott’s crosspicking pattern is the reverse of McReynolds-style: ‘‘I stumbled across my own style by playing to Smiley Hobbs’s version of ‘Little Rosewood Casket’ on ‘American Banjo – Scruggs Style’ and Don Reno’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ on ‘Don Reno and Red Smiley: Instrumentals and Ballads’ (King 579). The style consists of mostly downstroke melody on the third string, with a second downstroke on the second string followed by an upstroke on the first string.” Scott’s mandolin crosspicking is such a well-developed personal technique that Mayne Smith has suggested it should be known as “Hambly picking.”
Even though the end of 1960 meant that the Ramblers would ‘‘start rambling in different directions,” as Russ Wilson stated in his review, Scott was the one who stayed in Berkeley. The band did play shows periodically until 1964. But bluegrass connections brought Scott even deeper into the music as time went on. It was early in 1961 when he met Roosevelt Watson, through an Arkansas fiddler named James Henley who frequented music shops often with his nephew Bert Johnson, now mandolinist/fiddler with A Touch Of Grass, in tow. “Henley found me by way of seeing a Mastertone banjo in a music store that I had bought but hadn’t brought home yet,” Roosevelt reminisced. Evidently Henley wanted to know who was buying a Mastertone; it had to be a bluegrass person. “The owner gave him my address, so one day he showed up. He introduced me to Scott—I think he’d met him at Campbell Coe’s. I told Scott about Vern and Ray playing good music, so he went to see them, and the rest is history.” Miriam Stafford said she went to the Dream Bowl one time with Scott and Pete Berg and they saw Vern and Ray, and “Vern’s singing really got to Scott and Pete.” Scott: “Vern and Ray opened the show as a temporary backup band for Mac Wiseman, and I thought their singing was the best in the West. Vern Williams became my vocal mentor and was responsible for encouraging me to really stretch out vocally, both in volume and range. I made many trips out to his home near Stockton, and he occasionally visited Berkeley. I also visited Roosevelt’s home on many occasions, sifting through and selectively taping parts of his enormous classic country and great hard-core bluegrass collection. He helped me refine my collecting, listening, and performing taste in traditional bluegrass music.”
Another important bluegrass connection was Mike Seeger, at first through his influential booklet accompanying “Mountain Music Bluegrass Style” (Folkways FA 2318, 1959) and later when the New Lost City Ramblers played Berkeley. Barry Olivier brought them to his U.C. Folk Festival in 1962, and Seeger asked Scott to participate in the mandolin workshop. “Mike came to a party at Henry Nash Smith’s home. He praised my mandolin work and let me play his old, white, v-necked Lloyd Loar F-5. Til warn you,’ Mike said, ‘things will never be the same after this!’ It was the first Loar I ever played. He had four of them at the time and promised to get me one, which he later did, a 1924, for $375. I had a tough time getting the loot together, but managed, thank goodness. I almost returned it to him because it was so different from the recent model I was using – a late ’50s F-5 1 got from Harry West and later sold to Butch Waller – that I didn’t know how to approach the Loar. After about two or three weeks I began to realize how fine an axe it was.” Scott affirms a very cordial relationship between the Redwood Canyon and the New Lost City Ramblers: “Here were city guys doing a real conscientious job of recreating oldtime country music.” Not one to go that long without a band, Scott recruited Al Ross, a guitar player (later L.A. session man) he’d met in an Italian language course at U.C.: “I taught him rhythm and crosspicking guitar, inculcating in him the best of bluegrass as I saw it then.” One day Rockin’ Rufus heard a New York banjo picker named Greg Lasser on the Midnight Special; Scott “drove to the station immediately to meet him, and the three of us put together a band called the Ridgerunners. We played a lot of North Beach showcases and at the Bear’s Lair tavern on campus during the 1962 Berkeley Folk Festival. In town with the Greenbriar Boys, Ralph Rinzler came in and sat in on mandolin for a few numbers, and he had me on his afternoon mandolin workshop. I had made ‘Get Up John’ during this period into a virtuoso performance of extended improvisation which once lasted almost eleven minutes; it was very popular in North Beach, where jazz was so much admired and esteemed. Tapes of the Ridgerunners were sent back east by Greg, where New Yorkers approved of these efforts. Dave Grisman was later to say that, based on the strength of these early listens, I was the first of the ‘freak-out’ mandolin players on the West Coast.” For someone with Scott’s always neat and conservative appearance, even on special occasions when he may be wearing the traditional Hambly family’s Scots kilt or other unusual garments, the term ‘freak-out’ doesn’t quite seem to fit, but probably his jazz background influenced some elements of his playing. The rhythms he uses are often highly experimental, and his solo work stretches out melodically in a kind of free jazz method, yet his music always sounds country. Conversationally he is also unique, mixing a comprehensive English vocabulary with jazz musician jargon. Maybe he could be called a conservative hipster, not really fitting so easily into either classification.
Graduating from UCB in January ’62, Scott was on vacation in southern California with some friends (“Skinny” and Vera Thomas, Hugh Peterson, and Tim (“Rockin’ Rufus”) Doyle) when they happened to hear on country radio that a bluegrass group called the Golden State Boys would be appearing on KCOP-TV’s Saturday afternoon show along with Joe and Rose Lee Maphis and Don Helms, Hank Williams’s steel player. “We drove over to the station and were greeted by Gordon Terry, who played some on my new Loar and approved of it heartily. He sent us down to the studio where the Golden State Boys were rehearsing; they auditioned me for a tune or two, then immediately found a jacket and string tie, and we zoomed on stage to play their segment! Joe Maphis really thought the ‘new mandolin picker’ was exciting. Don Parmley, the banjo player, took us over to his house in Downey, where we picked most of the night with Leroy Mack (McNees), who had seen us on TV and wanted to get in on the picking. Leroy later had us to his home in Burbank to pick with the Country Boys, who were now calling themselves the Kentucky Colonels to avoid conflict with Mac Wiseman’s band name.”
The culmination of this fortuitous little excursion in the L.A. area came in March, when Scott was asked to play a two-week engagement with the Colonels at the Ash Grove, as Roland White had gone into the Army and they needed a mandolin player. The Colonels were substituting for Mac Wiseman, who had undergone surgery and couldn’t fulfill the booking, during which he had planned to use the former Country Boys as his backup group. (An odd twist of fate in the annals of band names.) Scott stayed in the area for the summer, continuing to play mandolin with the Colonels. “Our steady gig was the Ash Grove’s talent night, Monday evenings, I think it was. We used to make enough to each buy a Pepsi and one or two chili dogs at Pink’s chili dog stand at Melrose and Vine.” This was two years before the Colonels finally began to receive their long-deserved honor in the bluegrass world. But with the steady picking and lots of all-night parties, a musical camaraderie developed between Scott and Clarence that was fulfilling and musically evolutionary; they both liked to investigate uncharted rhythmic territory (“I like to fool with time,” Clarence once said in an interview), and they could bounce ideas off of each other easily. One part of this was the crosspicking technique. Both of them crosspicked with incredible speed, an ability that Scott also passed on to Al Ross, who could take crosspicking breaks on virtually any instrumental.
Another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came when Josh Graves arranged an audition for Scott with Flatt and Scruggs (actually only Flatt was present) in 1962. “Josh found out about me through Leroy Mack; I had the interview in the back room at the Ash Grove. I sang ‘Childish Love’ and Clarence backed me up on guitar.” Flatt liked the number, but he was looking for a tenor vocalist at the time to replace Curly Seckler, who later rejoined the band.
Back in Berkeley by mid-1962, Scott appeared often at the Cabale coffeehouse with Pete Berg and Al Ross (as the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, since there were two founding members), and many people remember this incarnation of the band. Cofounded by fingerpicking and flamenco guitarist Rolf Cahn, on San Pablo Avenue in west Berkeley near the Blind Lemon, the Cabale became the happening place for the folk scene at the time, hosting national artists on the folk circuit. In 1964 the Colonels appeared there for a week—tapes have turned up on various live albums—and on other nights you could see blues greats such as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee or Jesse Fuller. The flow of performers resembled the scene at the Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time; this and other linked cultural elements were reflected in a poster concept by Rick Shubb and Earl Crabbe called “Flumbead’s Map of the World” (published in Baby, Let Me Follow You Down), where Berkeley and Cambridge shared a border. Mayne and Neil played with Scott at the Cabale on occasion, and for other gigs the Ramblers would reunite with Pete Berg as the banjo player. “We started at the Cabale almost from the start and were consistently booked there by Debbie Green until my demise into the Air Force,” says Scott. Until that happened—in March, 1963—he did a lion’s share of work helping to promote bluegrass in the Bay Area, doing the publicity for appearances by Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers and spreading the word about Clarence White, the exceptional guitarist he’d been picking with.
Just before leaving for officer training school in San Antonio, Scott decided to buy a banjo from Jon Lundberg, a ’20s TB-3 Mastertone archtop- conversion-to-flathead with a Tom Morgan neck. “I didn’t play yet,” says Scott, ‘‘but I just knew in my heart I could play the banjo.” Scott always paid close attention to bluegrass banjo techniques, and it gave him something else to play besides mandolin while in the military. From 1963 to ’67 he remained in the service as a second lieutenant in the active-duty reserves, moving from Texas to Florida to Alaska to New Mexico to Iowa, during which time he was able to sandwich in a few musical interludes including a visit with Neil and Mayne in Bloomington, when they made the demo tape mentioned earlier. Other moments of bluegrass sanity for Scott included a visit Bill Keith and I made in ’63 while he was stationed in Panama City, Florida, when Keith had a few days off from Bill Monroe’s band in Nashville, and another one in ’64 me and Jerry Garcia meeting Charlie Moore and Bill Napier and Fiddling Ralph Mayo in Panama City; and travelling around to various localities as ‘‘musical tourist and fan” of Jim and Jesse, who were living nearby and had TV and radio shows that Scott could pick up and sometimes tape. One time Scott went to visit Jesse at his home in Prattville, Alabama, and recorded him playing a bunch of great originals and fiddle tunes, a tape which became a McReynolds-style mandolin ‘lesson’ and tape-swapping item par excellence. He learned some banjo from genial Allen Shelton, one of his big favorites on the five-string, while in close proximity to the classic Virginia Boys band, and Bill Keith had also showed him some rolls in Panama City.
On annual summer leave in 1966 he and Tom Foote, another bluegrass picking serviceman (in the Navy at Panama City), drove to Boston and went to see the Lilly Brothers at the famous Hillbilly Ranch. ‘‘Bea Lilly was there, but Everett had the night off. We had a great time in a great haunt of country and bluegrass music.” In California for Christmas leave that year, Scott and the Thomases went to see who was playing the Ash Grove, and it turned out that the Kentucky Colonels—including Clarence, who was with the Byrds at the time – had showed up to play on the wrong night! ‘‘We decided to make the best of it anyway, and picked at ‘Skinny’ and Vera’s place in East L.A. until nearly dawn.” Just before separating from active duty, Scott joined Neil Rosenberg at the Chicago Folk Festival, where Jim and Jesse were booked (February ’67). They co-interviewed Allen Shelton in his hotel room, which material culminated in an extensive Shelton biography in Banjo Newsletter (March and April, 1977). It wasn’t the first time Scott had written on bluegrass; with articles, book and record reviews, and album liner notes, he has published close to twenty pieces on music and several on another longtime passion, railroad signal lamps (of which his collection numbers over one hundred).
By late summer 1967 Scott had decided to join his musical interests and his intellect with the world of academia and a planned scholarly career in folklore. He moved to Venice Beach to attend U.C.L.A. and undertake the master’s program in folklore and mythology, naturally searching out the music possibilities around southern California: ‘‘Before the fall quarter began, I reacquainted myself with Don Parmley and we formed Bluegrass California. The band didn’t play many gigs, but we had a lot of good music in Don’s kitchen in Santa Fe Springs. In 1968 I joined Aunt Dinah’s Quilting Party, more or less the house band at the House of the Rising Sun in Redondo Beach. Tom Kuehl sang the best ‘Golden Vanity’ I ever heard; I wish I could learn to sing it with that much rolling power. Some party gigs we had paid as much as $50 a person, which I thought was nice coin at the time for having fun.” Scott stayed with the band until its breakup in 1969. In August, L.A. studio guitarist Dave Cohen got Scott into the Everly Brothers recording session, which also featured renowned guitarist James Burton, playing crosspick mandolin on a song by The Band called ‘‘The Weight.” And he formed a group with Randy Graham and Pat Cloud to host the hoots at the Ash Grove, but they never got to pick because the club was firebombed by Cuban nationals the night before they were to begin.
Scott earned his M.A. from U.C.L.A. in June of 1969, taking on a series of teaching, editing, archival recording, and other academically-related jobs, writing often on the mandolin and bluegrass for scholarly journals. Just prior to their marriage he and Katie embarked on an all-consuming field trip to research the life and work of Lloyd Loar, travelling to Loar’s birthplace in Illinois and occupational places in Michigan (the Gibson Company, Northwestern University). Scott’s magnum opus on the mandolin remains the only biography on Gibson’s venerable acoustical engineer and the most extensive work on the history of the mandolin in America. While doing Loar research in 1970 at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, Scott spent time with Tom and Mary Morgan and made the bluegrass rounds in Washington, D.C., sitting in with Cliff Waldron and the New Shades Of Grass at the Red Fox.
Returning to U.C.L.A. for its planned doctoral studies program in folklore in 1971, he met John Hickman through banjo maker Chuck Erickson. “John and his younger brother George used to come over and we’d pick for hours, trade tapes, and have a great time. We called ourselves Homegrass, because that’s where we played. After a year we decided to take some gigs, playing McCabe’s at first and other southern California showcases.” While Scott was playing in Homegrass, Neil played on a record the same year called “Homegas,” released in 1971, a two-letter coincidence.
But the folklore Ph.D. was not yet set up at U.C.L.A., and Scott eventually got tired of waiting. He interviewed strongly for a job through Tom Foote at Evergreen State College while on a bluegrass lecture tour of colleges and schools in Olympia, Washington, but was rejected as a “last-class candidate,” according to the hiring dean. “I was a WASPy type: no disadvantaged background; no economic destitution; no ethnic background; and not female.” So he took a job as editorial assistant of Pennsylvania Folklife, and from 1973 to 1976 the Hamblys lived in Philadelphia and he was able to pursue his doctoral degree there, at the University of Pennsylvania. “Picking was severely restricted the first two years except for trips to Tennessee to visit the Morgans and to New Brunswick to play music with Neil.” Scott won a predoctoral fellowship for one year at the Smithsonian’s Division of Musical Instruments, and in December of 1977 he earned his Ph.D. in folklore and folklife.
However, as anyone knows who has tried to deal with job placement as a folklorist, this wasn’t exactly cause for celebration. Unlike Mayne Smith, who opted out of an academic career, Scott’s energies were aimed at working in folklore all along. Neil relocated in Newfoundland for a teaching post, but Scott was never able to find a good position. He continued to write and publish articles, one of them a study of regional characteristics in Bay Area bluegrass musicians that was published in the John Edwards Memorial Foundation’s Quarterly (No. 59, Fall 1980), and he also taught banjo, mandolin, and guitar lessons. After a period of “postdoctoral depression,” housing a storage area filled with fascinating research files barely tapped, he took a job as medical editor at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland where he still works. Several musical efforts have punctuated the past decade, including frequent reunions with the Redwood Canyon Ramblers. In late 1990 they made a demo tape while Neil was in town for a folklore convention, submitting it to Neil’s fellow folklorist Toru Mitsui in consideration of a Japan tour, which took place in May of this year. Unfortunately, Scott wasn’t able to obtain leave, so Ed Neff filled in as honorary Redwood Canyon Rambler mandolinist. Following the Japan tour was a 31st year reunion show as Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse with Scott on mandolin and Ed on fiddle, which attracted a nostalgic and enthusiastic crowd of many old Ramblers fans and supporters.
Scott continues to perform occasionally in other configurations; a recent appearance at Black Oak Books in Berkeley harkens back to when Neil and Scott played their first bookstore gig more than thirty years ago. Scott and Katie play and sing together at home, and they are also avid followers of the best in today’s ‘classic country music’ acts. He still hasn’t recorded that mandolin album, and there are still too many bluegrass enthusiasts who have never heard him sing or witnessed his playing. But it hasn’t kept Scott from continuing to sing and to refine the unique mandolin stylings he “stumbled upon” in his early Redwood Canyon ramblings.
Next month—Pete Berg and conclusion
Redwood Canyon Ramblers
Part 4 of 4
By Sandy Rothman
Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
August 1991, Volume 26, Number 2
Pete Berg was the ‘phantom member’ of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers. He played washtub bass in the earliest incarnation of the group, switching to guitar on occasions when Mayne Smith didn’t play, and sometimes as second guitarist. And he clearly became the banjo player after Neil Rosenberg left the Bay Area. But he has always had very wide musical interests, and playing in a bluegrass band exclusively is not the kind of thing that comes to mind when I think of Peter.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of people who heard him play with the Redwood Canyon Ramblers in the late ’50s through the mid-’60s who thought he was the Bay Area’s answer to Ralph Stanley. (We also thought Mayne Smith resembled Don Reno and Scott Hambly evoked Bob Osborne). He always preferred a dry, archtop kind of banjo tone, and he has a clear, high tenor voice. Apart from his sometimes reading short, droll newspaper clippings between songs as emcee work, his stage manner was also a good bit like Stanley’s—quiet, understated, concise, but intense. He loved the Stanley sound, still does, and he brought the old-time mountain influence to any band he was in. Interestingly enough, with his longtime interest in jazz and jazz guitar in particular, he also brought considerable instrumental technique to his playing, adding an unusual but quite compatible dimension to his devotion to essentially pure and emotional traditional music.
Peter was born on October 9, 1940, a first generation Californian, in Los Angeles—the only Redwood Canyon Rambler not born in March. He remembers living in the San Fernando Valley when it was just orange groves and cornfields. When he was ten the family moved into west central L.A., and he went to Los Angeles High School. His father, a native Canadian, was in the kinescope recording business in the mid-’50s. “By 1957 or so he was importing French and English lenses and cameras,” explains Peter, “supplying optics to the TV-on-film industry. Actually, he’s the one who first brought those 10:1 zoom lenses that they started using for sports. Those were designed for TV specifically.”
There wasn’t any music in the family, but something inspired Peter when he first heard the exciting bebop then coming out of the New York jazz scene: “I heard Lester Young and Billie Holiday and it very, very clearly spoke to me. I was thirteen, fourteen years old. All of a sudden I was interested in music. My mother had tried to get me marimba lessons when I was maybe eight or nine, but that didn’t take. I had one drum lesson with a friend, but that didn’t take, either.” A family acquaintance had some folk music revival records—Pete Seeger, Sam Hinton—that Peter remembers liking. “But then I heard Bo Diddley, in 1956 or ’57, and it galvanized my attention. I liked R&B more than rock. By high school I was heavy into soul and R&B listening with a friend, Don Peake, now a film music writer. He played sessions with black artists in south L.A. and was an early influence for me. I also heard some big band jazz, Stan Kenton and others, at my grandfather’s place in Newport Beach. I didn’t love it, but it had an intensity.”
After attending summer school at U.C.L.A., Peter left Los Angeles in September 1958 and came to Berkeley, where he had been accepted at U.C. He didn’t know anything about the active folk music scene blossoming at that time in the Bay Area: “I just knew Berkeley was 400 miles from L.A., and that sounded good to me!” He landed in an apartment near campus on Delaware just west of Shattuck, and it so happended that Tom Bebring, mandolin and guitar enthusiast, lived upstairs. Tom gave him an introduction to the Carter Family and the early brother teams, and other country duets—Harry and Jeanie West, the Monroe Brothers, and the Blue Sky Boys. “That stuff moved me a lot, especially the Carter Family. Tom also showed me my first guitar stuff. When I got tired of studying I used to go outside and practice guitar in my pickup truck.” Bebring was tapped into the whole Berkeley folk scene; he knew Dave Fredrickson, Miriam Stafford, all the parties, and the Midnight Special radio show. “In 1958, ’59, there was a lot of vitality in the Berkeley music scene. There were endless, endless parties—music party after music party, sometimes five nights a week. The early ones were at Bart and Helen Abbott’s house, then later at the Fredricksons. Campbell Coe came. There were People’s World parties, with a lot of people into leftist politics. Roger Shaw played guitar. Carl Granich was an absolutely inspired guitar player. Doug Brown was inspired.” The party scene as Peter describes it was informal, friendly, respectful, and a good place to learn to play instruments. “People would dance, and you could pick up instruments easily. It wasn’t a real competitive scene. You’d learn to play whatever was needed.” That’s what happened to Peter. He literally became a multi-instrumentalist at these parties, as did others, picking up the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle whenever one was needed for a grouping.
Campbell Coe wasn’t one to miss a lick when there was any upcoming talent around, and he had ties to the country and western scene, playing venues with his band, the Country Cousins, which also featured “yodeling Betty Montana.” This was Betty Aycrigg, the same musician Coe later sent to the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, using her other stage name, Betty Mann, as a bass player. The Cousins took Peter out to the Dream Bowl and Blackjack Wayne’s country music TV show as a banjo and guitar player. Peter: “Campbell was a good musician, in my estimation. He was into the country and western scene, and also played pop and jazz guitar, but he had an open ear. He wasn’t judgmental. He also had a real sense of humor; he was always pulling people’s leg. And he also repaired our guitars. I remember all those ‘apartment repair jobs’ he did for us in his place on Haste Street: ‘Hey, Campbell, I’ve got a gig tonight and my guitar’s broken!’”
By June of ’59 Peter had met up with some of the Berkeley players who were gravitating in the bluegrass direction; true to form in terms of taking up whatever instrument was needed, he played washtub bass with them at first. Peter says that Eric Weissberg may have been the first city bluegrass banjo player he heard, one time in L.A., adding that “some of those players didn’t seem to be so interested in the music as a whole, but they spent a lot of energy at it.” He heard Neil later. “Those guys were astounding—they learned it all off records. Scott was very diligent. He developed his own way to play.” More of interest to Peter than any sort of instrumental prowess was singing, a love he came to through old-time music. “The aspect that moved me the most was the singing, and the Stanley Brothers were especially good. But there’s lots of good singing in bluegrass. Singing was the part we were weakest at. We got certain aspects of the playing together, certain aspects. We didn’t learn our instruments as kids, so that took a lot of time and energy, and just by that process of attention the singing didn’t get as strong as the playing did. We didn’t have the luxury of growing up in the context of singing.” Summing things up this way, Peter articulates a big part of the difference between bluegrass in its homeland and bluegrass in “city streets” about as well as anyone ever has. His perceptions and feelings about this situation led him to gravitate towards old-time music and eventually to branch out into jazz guitar and then world music of all kinds, African and Latin music in particular.
Collegewise, Peter was in and out of school a lot, taking nine or ten years to get a B.A. in anthropology. “I was kind of into zoology, but I left school after my first year. I had a lot of music gigs, and a job at Record City.” Record City had taken up where Art Music left off, except for the listening booths, but its owner, Sandy Schneider, liked folk music and would play cuts off records you wanted to hear. He carried bluegrass albums, one of the few places in the Bay Area where you could find the major labels. “I also got started helping Dave Fredrickson at his archaeology digs and ended up doing that for six or seven years, all native California Indian sites. Academia was not for me.” Along with his stated preference for singing, Peter had a certain musical elegance and taste that we younger pickers could notice back in the early ’60s. I know that his distinctive economy of motion—another Stanley trait—made a big impression on me. When I first saw him play the banjo I thought his left and right hands were barely moving at all. His eclecticism and tendency to favor the unconventional players, as well as instruments, turned us on, for example, to banjo greats other than Earl Scruggs. “I liked Ralph Stanley’s sound the best; his tone as well as his rhythmic sensibilities. Don Reno had a great sense of humor on the banjo. And I liked Don Stover a whole lot, too.”
Recounting how the Redwood Canyon Ramblers finally settled on Mayne Smith as sole guitarist, Neil Rosenberg says that “Pete was hard to pin down; he had an on-and-off interest in bluegrass. When we played at Northgate he couldn’t decide if he would play a D-28 or had to play on his fancy Epiphone guitar.” Playing bluegrass or not, Peter has always had a liking for unusual instruments, generally avoiding the obvious ones associated with a genre. For most of his banjo-picking career he played a fancy Weymann banjo, and he had a five-string neck made for it with absolutely no fretboard inlays at all. He later traded the banjo to Jon Lundberg, who sold it to Jerry Garcia, another player who liked uncommon instruments. In an April, 1961, letter to a friend Peter wrote: “ . . .I’ve had a guy start work on a neck for a shell which I bought about three months ago. It’s a Weymann banjo, and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The gold plating is a little too much, but the engraving is beautiful, and there is a lot of green, white, and designed wood laminations all around the edges. It should be quite a banjo when it’s finished. I also picked up a very old Gibson L-7 guitar. This one was made about 1932, but is in immaculate condition and has a wonderful sound.” Preferring the dry Weymann tone to a ringy Mastertone with a plastic head, Peter even glued popsicle sticks under the Weymann’s bridge to further deaden the tone.
In the same letter he writes, ‘‘Music here has sort of slacked off, except that a lot of Eastern musicians have been coming through. A kid . . . has been here for a while and … belongs to the ‘velocity school of guitar playing.’ He has no taste, but is very fast. He is one of about four or five different guys, all alike, who have been through here recently. Scott, Mayne, and I are still playing a little bluegrass now and then when there is work . . . .” Some of this sociomusical commentary dovetails into a subject Peter is very clear about, and that is the effect that bluegrass groups, or even individual folk players in some cases, had on the Berkeley music party scene: “I’m not sure that it was so much bluegrass as an attitude that accompanied it. It was dominated by volume, and there was more of a performance aspect to it, while the parties had been more egalitarian—just for fun. ‘People couldn’t party’—this was a common gripe. And I was as guilty as anyone. But we were young and stupid then, and insensitive. People wanted to party. Before that, or when certain people weren’t around, everybody was everybody. It wasn’t ‘them and us’ ”.
Something that developed from these sensibilities was the formation of a group that came to be known as Crabgrass, which was documented by record producer Chris Strachwitz (“Out West – Berkeley,” Arhoolie F 4001, 1964). Dave Fredrickson sang cowboy songs, Art Koch played old-time fiddle, Peter sang and played mandolin and fiddle, Toni Brown sang and played guitar. “We did plenty of Hank Williams bar songs.” Peter and Toni also sang a lot of great country duets; Toni, considered Berkeley’s answer to Kitty Wells at the time and later a founding member of the Joy of Cooking rock group, recorded a single for Arhoolie—two of her originals in the Wells style (“You Turned Your Back”/“How Could I Stand It,” Arhoolie 45-505)—accompanied by Peter on guitar, Mayne Smith on Dobro, and Doug Brown on bass. “Crabgrass was fun; that was a reaction. It was a group, it had a name, but it was more egalitarian, with a real good spirit and attention to the singing. People were intent about it but didn’t take themselves so seriously. In the bluegrass scene there was an overriding seriousness that was overbearing. Deadly seriousness—earnestness to the max. Hardly anything can kill music quicker than that.”
Coming into our conversation when Peter was talking about being “young and stupid and insensitive”, Peter’s longtime partner Susan Ruskin (formerly Umanov) said with a laugh, “You must have been a banjo player.” Susan commented that a lot of banjos passed through her hands as a dealer at Matt Umanov’s music shop in New York, “but not fast enough.” Added Peter, “Any music store owner probably has a different attitude about banjo players than anybody else on the planet!” Some of these sentiments about bluegrass banjo have been reflected in the course of the bluegrass-related acoustic music scene that developed in the Bay Area. The Good Ol Persons, the David Grisman group, and others have thrived on a banjo-less sound. And banjo jokes are popular, such as one told by former Persons fiddler Paul Shelasky: Q – What’s the difference between a banjo and an onion? A – No one cries when you cut into a banjo. Banjoist Rick Shubb is keenly aware of the provincial attitude towards the banjo; in a ’60s parody of a Vega Banjos promotional sheet he wrote, “The Pete Berg model is ideal for banjo players who hate banjos. Comes in a locked case with no key. Although we constantly advertise this model, it is not really for sale.” And from Rita Weill’s notes to a Folkways LP called “Berkeley Farms” (FA 2436, 1972), documenting an event known as the Berkeley Old Time Fiddlers Convention: “First prize went to a regular on the folk scene who was in Geneva, Switzerland, at the time, teaching mathematics. The judges’ ruling: ‘We felt the ultimate thing a banjo player could do, in terms of good taste, was to be at least 8,000 miles away’ ”.
Many musical directions later, Peter now lives in Hawaii and plays when he can with a San Francisco-based salsa band called Conjunto Flores. It’s an eleven-to-seventeen-piece band with a folkloric aspect in which he plays an amplified twelve string guitar that sounds like the tres, a nine-string instrument with three courses of three. Although Peter recalls hearing Cuban drumming at Northgate way back in the late ’50s, he says it was hearing an influential New York deejay named Felipe Luciano play great Afro-Cuban, Cuban, Puerto Rican, salsa, and crossover African music that got him to start playing this music.
And what about the bamboo nursery? “I got into bamboo from anthropology, reading monographs on Southeast Asian islanders. Bamboo touched every aspect of their lives from food to medicine to clothing to housing to boats.” Peter first started growing a few bamboo varieties around 1966 in his Bay Area back yard—there are 70 kinds of bamboo in the genus alone, perfect for someone who likes as much variety as Peter does—and then he and Susan went to Hawaii and made a tent out of bamboo to stay in. They thought of growing it commercially in northern California, but land is much less expensive where they are in Hawaii, and there is a good market for bamboo as windbreak, soil erosion control, privacy hedges, ornamentals, and the young shoots for food.
So it looks like Peter loves the island life as much as the musics. He talked excitedly about a great blind musician named Arsenio Rodrigues, saying that the music “shares more than it doesn’t share with bluegrass. The African influence encompasses white music and the Carter Family. Tom Bebring has a friend who found a Jimmie Rodgers record in Africa.” Emphasizing the wonderful rhythm (‘time’) of this music, Peter says: “Cubans and Africans understand time better than we do. But, Ralph Stanley has pretty great time!”
It was the Redwood Canyon Ramblers who paved the way for bluegrass to exist in the Bay Area. Prior to their formation the only music anyone can recall being close to bluegrass was Ed Amos, a banjo player who had recorded with Mac Wiseman, playing on country promoter Blackjack Wayne’s band.” Bob Pinson, now at the Country Music Foundation’s Media Library in Nashville, audiotaped the show over several weeks with Amos playing “Earl’s Breakdown” and “Black Mountain Rag” and “Liberty” (Huck Fields on fiddle) from 1956. Vern and Ray and the Carroll County Country Boys were active around the Stockton area then, but the first time they were heard in the immediate Bay Area was at their joint concert in Berkeley with Mayne, Scott, and Pete in 1961.
The Ramblers’ influence on the present-day scene is oblique and could easily be lost to dim memory without a historiography such as this attempt. Occasionally I run into old Ramblers fans still in the area, but they’re often unaware that anything happened here for bluegrass after the group disbanded. One recently asked, “Does Pete Berg still play the banjo?”
Their repertoire remains unique in bluegrass; with three music scholars in the band they could draw on a vast resource of folksongs unlike any urban bluegrass group I’ve ever heard. Elements of their repertoire may extend in small part to the present, through tapes and the subsequent influence of their followers or the followers of their followers. One vehicle was a songbook Rick Shubb collected of songs we performed together in the Pine Ridge Ramblers, based partly on songs we heard the Redwood Canyon Ramblers sing, and this book has been added to and distributed among many West Coast bluegrassers, although few of them may know the background. Butch Waller has a similar songbook. Mayne Smith developed an arrangement of Jimmy C. Newman’s “Cry, Cry, Darling,” adding harmony parts based on a backstage tape of the Blue Grass Boys made by Marvin Hedrick in 1954; that arrangement filtered down to current Bay Area performers such as Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis. Herb Pedersen, with Butch Waller a member of the Pine Valley Boys, another ’60s band that listened to the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, liked Pete Berg’s version of “Little Maggie” and may have also liked his dry wit and cool, controlled stage presence.
In a Ramblers band biography Neil Rosenberg writes: “During their heyday the Ramblers influenced many young Bay Area musicians who would subsequently go on to careers in bluegrass, country, folk, and rock music. At their concerts and listening to their radio performances on Berkeley station KPFA were such influential musicians as Jerry Garcia, Herb Pedersen, Butch Waller, Sandy Rothman, and Rick Shubb. At various times Mayne, Scott, and Neil gave lessons to these and other musicians; in 1962, for example, a young Chris Hillman commuted regularly from southern California to study mandolin with Scott.”
But unfortunately the Ramblers never recorded professionally. Going into recording studios and making acetates was a familiar custom—Mayne Smith even has one his family made of him singing in 1941, when he was two years old—and several of those do exist, from KRE and their early bluegrass efforts. Yet no producer in the Bay Area has ever put much faith into documentation of the bluegrass scene, nothing like what Folkways was doing on the East Coast or County and Rebel did for the South and Mid-Atlantic. Contrasting sharply, in fact, with the Starday albums of the ’50s prominently advertising “Featuring 5-String Banjo” across the covers to attract southern listeners, the records that finally did appear out of the northern California scene were sometimes bluegrass-influenced but specifically devoid of banjo playing, such as releases by the Good OP Persons and Dawg groups.
There are good bluegrass radio shows in the Bay Area now, among them Ray Edlund’s Pig In A Pen on KPFA and Bay Area Bluegrass Sunday on KCSM (from the College of San Mateo, with a rotating cast of deejays). Another good show on KPFA is Panhandle Country, which includes bluegrass along with western swing and country. Its host, Tom Diamant, owns Kaleidoscope records and was once a mandolin-playing bluegrass follower in the Chicago folk music scene. Yet when I called to ask him to stress a special local appearance by a six-piece bluegrass band from another country, he mentioned the date in a cursory way, reading the names from a weekly list of bands at Paul’s Saloon. When I called again, he said, “You know, bluegrass is dead in the Bay Area as far as the media is concerned, unless it’s someone who’s going in the singer/songwriter direction, like Laurie Lewis, etc.” I thought this was interesting because, as a member of the media himself, Diamant was fulfilling “his own prophecy.
That a record label owner in the area hasn’t wanted to document the local bluegrass scene is of course a matter of personal preference. Bay Records owner Michael Cogan has documented elements of the folk and old-time scene. But a much better market is in the blues, jazz, and swing genres” to which the West Coast has long been relatively friendly. Even in blues (and country music as well) the Texas swing influence, having swept west across the Dust Bowl out to the coast, is stronger in California than the less sophisticated, raw southern styles that went north and crystallized in Chicago. And in terms of acoustic music from the folk scene, it’s easier to swing without the banjo roll breaking the beat up into little tiny pieces. Players who adapt jazz to the five-string still have that built-in banjo tone, an Appalachian music hallmark, to deal with. There has in fact been a kind of leap made in the local tastes, straight from old-time music to swing or jazz grass; interest in bluegrass banjo has been nearly eliminated, leaving a series of ironic jokes as an entertaining reaction.
Before Diamant and Kaleidoscope, Arhoolie record label owner and American music connoisseur Chris Strachwitz elected to exclude local bluegrass from his label since West Coast players have ‘no birthright’ to the music. A purveyor of excellent taste and purist standards for decades in the Bay Area, Strachwitz has just two bluegrass albums in his 350-record catalog: “Del McCoury Sings Bluegass” (Arhoolie F5006, 1968) and Rose Maddox—“A Beautiful Bouquet” (Arhoolie 5030, with the Vern Williams Band). In both instances Strachwitz’s decision to record came from personal friendships with the artists and respect for their considerable birthright to the music. But the poor documentation of the local music hasn’t helped the many musicians who consider playing bluegrass and furthering the art form more than, or irrelevant to, a simple matter of being born into the music. That no record producer has thought enough of the bluegrass scene to issue even an historical compilation over the last thirty years is hard to imagine, artistically and in terms of musicians’ livelihoods. A tremendous amount of excellent music has come and gone in the region without documentation. Pat Enright spent years in the Bay Area, forming several strong bands around the centerpiece of his heartfelt vocals, until it became clear that when it came to letting the rest of the world know about it, it wasn’t going to happen here. He finally went to Nashville and helped to form the Nashville Bluegrass Band.
Jack Tottle interviewed Neil Rosenberg for Bluegrass Unlimited some years ago (October, 1987 issue), and they were talking about bluegrass song lyrics, how people hear them; Neil came up with some reflections on people doing bluegrass who don’t have the birthright to it that other people think they should:
“I think that one thing that ties together people who listen to bluegrass is the fact that they all, or an awful lot of them, had to deal with moving from one place to another, and certainly this is my experience. I spent my first ten years in Olympia, Washington, and then went to spend two in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and then moved to Berkeley, California, and then I went to college in Ohio and was moving all the time. I experienced home sickness, a realization that even if I could go back to Berkeley it wouldn’t be the Berkeley of the 1950s that I grew up in, that I think very fondly of. To me that is no different than the problem of going back to the cabin on the hill … I remember the first time I met John Duffey and I said something to him which was sort of apologizing for being a city boy. He said, ‘You know that song “Hills And Home” that I wrote, I have a line in there about “You can smell that mountain laurel blooming” and I don’t know what mountain laurel even looks like!’ … So I thought about it, and you know, I can smell bamboo curtains and incense—the Japanese influence that is so strong in California that seems exotic to everyone else. I grew up with that . . . Everybody has something to be nostalgic about. It’s one way bluegrass cuts across class lines and lets you identify with it regardless of your background.”
Scott Hambly recounts an incident from the ’60s when the Redwood Canyon Ramblers actually gained an audition with Chris Strachwitz, an unlikely scenario to begin with since they already knew that bluegrass went counter to the canonized folkdom of the Berkeley in-group, in which bluegrass was too loud or too fast or just generally inappropriate: “He listened to four or five numbers, then turned us down. He said we were not ‘authentic players.’ Since he knew that to be the case, why did he have the audition in the first place? We felt a sense of humiliation and rejection.” The Crabgrass group, on the other hand, didn’t have the ‘commercial’ bluegrass beat in their oldtime-country amalgam sound. “Crabgrass burlesqued bluegrass skills,” evaluates Hambly. “They were anti-skill.”
The ‘bluegrass reaction’ music of the Crabgrassers did earn Strachwitz’s approval, and he issued the “Out West” album, writing copious liner notes without once mentioning the word bluegrass, “The music on this record is by no means a definitive sampling of the music heard in Berkeley – perhaps future releases will present more – but it does in my opinion represent some of the best younger talent which performs somewhat within traditional styles. Berkeley has of course its rock and roll groups, gospel quartets, jazz combos, classical musicians, flamenco guitarists, interpreters of folk songs, cowboy singers, older songsters and blues singers, bag pipers, etc., and with one of the world’s largest and leading universities, it is truly cosmopolitan, yet it is not inundated by commercial show business which has ruined much of American music and has robbed our folk music of its guts and natural beauty.” This final phrase bears probably reference to the urban folk revival – the ‘folk scare’ – and commercialized efforts by groups that were recording around the time this album was produced. Another record label owner in southern California, Peter Feldmann, once said something to the effect that Bill Monroe’s bluegrass corrupted the music of the people. By not even mentioning bluegrass in his recounting of Berkeley’s musical diversity, Strachwitz dismissed its validity in the hands of urban players and effectively negated local exponents of the music, artistically and in the sense of personal worth as well as economic survivability.
It’s fairly amazing that bluegrass took hold even as much as it did in the local scene. Fortunately for the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, and this was echoed by all of the Ramblers members including Crabgrasser Berg, they did have a lot of support from the likes of Campbell Coe in the opposite camp. “He was a musical maverick in the local folk scene,” notes Hambly, and he had no problem with commercialism. Like Roosevelt Watson, he lent support personally and through his immense record collection—doing the same for many other local musical ventures, supplying ideas and material for Annie Johnston and the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band, Commander Cody, and Asleep at the Wheel from his wall-to-wall 78 shelves—and in doing so gave the players a sense of professionalism in the commercial mainstream. Mayne Smith said that “the microphone makes bluegrass commercial” and likened it to the sixth member of a bluegrass band; by extrapolation, Coe was like a fifth wheel or extra band member, using his country connections to take people around to the appropriate venues, usually outside of Berkeley, thus amplifying their social and musical horizons. And there were others, some of them Ramblers friends and fans, who knew what bluegrass was and could see what they were trying to do, who are all part of the reason bluegrass has an existence today in the Bay Area acoustic music scene.
Concisely, Neil Rosenberg summed up the whole problem of bluegrass in the scene: “Bluegrass was passe in the folk revival.”
The folk revival was in the ’60s, but the situation isn’t that much different today. Thinking about why “playing bluegrass in the Bay Area is not the easiest thing in the world to do,” we can consider the litany of usually-cited reasons: the distance from the music’s homeland; lack of cultural roots; not enough of a knowledgeable audience; shortage of capable band personnel. Today, there are a number of bands on the scene, as there were in 1974 when Mayne Smith wrote in his book proposal: “When I helped start the San Francisco Bay Area’s first bluegrass band in 1959, we had a hard time finding sizeable audiences who could relate to what we were trying to do. For the next ten years there were seldom more than two professional local bands at any one time. I doubt that anybody was able to support himself by bluegrass alone. Today, however, the Bay Area is home for High Country, the Phantoms Of The Opry, Western Union, the Hired Hands, the Homestead Act, and Vern and Ray. Most of the members of these six bands live on their earnings from music—or at least survive.” Now there are roughly the same number of bands on the scene. But almost all the members support their expensive Bay Area lifestyles with day jobs and play music for the love of it, including most of the players in High Country, the Good Ol Persons, Vern Williams, Sidesaddle, Tenbrooks, Ed Neff’s Rhythm Wrasslers, the Fog City Ramblers, the All-Girl Boys, and others. Bands have increased more than the venues. The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley and Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco are the two major showcases; Paul’s is considered the city’s “home of bluegrass music,” yet on a good night a musician might make $40. Festivals have been successful in California, a relatively small number of them, with one in Grass Valley looking ahead to its sixteenth annual event. But festivals aren’t enough to sustain the costs of year-round living. This situation isn’t unique to the Bay Area; most bluegrass professionals even in the top-ranking bands can relate to the problem if they look back far enough. The uniqueness of the Bay Area’s situation is more linked to the relationship between bluegrass and the local folk scene, although similar things happen elsewhere.
Long before many record producers or purveyors of taste in the media were on the local scene, there was a certain musical elite around Berkeley in particular that some people call the “folk intelligentsia,” others the “music police,” and their preferences definitely favored old-time music over bluegrass, its modern interpreter. In a way this mirrors the academic stance; Neil Rosenberg says it’s common to music scenes everywhere, although due to a stronger cultural context bluegrass was more accepted in the South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic areas, even among urbanites. The northern or western musical elite or ‘ruling class’ tends to reject bluegrass out of hand as a commercial, performance-oriented, popular subset. On the other hand, bluegrass enthusiasts usually recognize old-time music as entertainment and the source of musical tradition. The dilemma is that, generally, bluegrass people prefer bluegrass and appreciate old-time music, while old-time people prefer old-time music and don’t appreciate bluegrass. Not all of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers may concur with this, but I think it was a major element of the climate in which the Ramblers began to perform in the Bay Area. Some anecdotes may help to sketch the landscape.
“What I remember about the Barrel,” says Neil Rosenberg, musing about Barry Olivier’s first folk shop, “was that Barry didn’t like us to come in and play Scruggs-style banjo on his banjos, and that he didn’t care for our repertoire as ‘not folksongs.’ I remember him also getting angry at me at a Northgate hoot where I was subbing for him because he was late from another gig. He came in to find I’d allowed Carl Granich and Doug Brown to do ‘Wake Up, Little Susie,’ which wasn’t a folksong to him. I felt like the ‘sorcerer’s apprentice.’ It wasn’t a folksong to me, either; it was a commerical song on the radio, at the top of the charts at the time, and I knew Barry wouldn’t like it. Letting them do it—the crowd response was laughter and applause at breaking the rules—was akin to the rock and roll act. We high school punks enjoyed poking fun at the too-serious rules about folksong propriety.”
There are a couple of fascinating documents that help to portray the local musical/social ethos of the time. One is a satirical little piece written by Ken Spiker, charter member of the folk scene and a good fingerpicker and classical/flamenco guitarist, from the American Folk Music Occasional (1964) with the lengthy title, “A Study In The Interpersonal Dynamics Of A Subculture Structured On Traditional Music – or, Folkmanship in Berkeley, California.” This tongue-in-cheek essay exposes the coffeehouse-scene absurdities of the time, the musical elite’s rules of order and how a neophyte should conform:
“It is best not to appear eager to play on the stage. If you do, it must be because you are asked, need the money, and just want to try out a new brand of strings on your guitar. Then you must play directly to whatever elite representatives are present, ignoring as much as possible the rest of the audience. When on stage, it is very important never to appear as if trying to please the public. This is the most serious mistake that a neophyte can make. The less you play in public, the better. I know a banjo picker who hasn’t performed for anyone except his wife for the last three years, but his reputation has increased to enormous proportions in that time . . . Above all, never attempt to impress anyone with instrumental technique in an instrument shop. Folk musicians traveling cross country to get their hip cards punched invariably fall into this trap. They always make sure to arrive in the afternoon, and the first place they fall by is the instrument shop. Thirty feet from the door they have their finger-picks on and their fingers twitching. Before they are inside ten seconds they have a guitar off the wall and are well on their way into an uptempo version of ‘Ella Speed.’ After sweating through the entire song they look amazed to find that not only is no one listening, but would you please be quiet there is a customer trying out a jew’s harp. Already they have blundered and they have only been in town five minutes. Their mistakes will cost them dearly in the coffeehouse that evening.”
The other piece is the notes to the “Berkeley Farms” album on Folkways, written by Rita Weill, where she first describes a national bluegrass act’s appearance at the early Freight and Salvage coffeehouse: “Everyone remembers the recent Ralph Stanley engagement. The band was attired in brocade and dubious facial expressions amid a sea of denim and fringe. No doubt Berkeley’s reputation had preceded us . . . Did we carry bombs in our instrument cases? When the audience requested the best old-timey songs and fiddle tunes, they relaxed. Their exit was made grinning, to the only standing ovation in Freight and Salvage history.” She goes on to describe the inception of the Berkeley Old Time Fiddler’s Convention, saying that the event was “conceived in the back of a Volkswagen bus, on the way to a party in Marin County, in 1968, by a group of people who wanted to retain the good music and interplay they’d witnessed at Southern fiddle-banjo contests, without the competition and corruption extant there. They wished to avoid the effect of regionalism that decreed there was a right way to play a tune and a wrong way, as well. After all, they felt, who could pinpoint one tradition for Berkeley. So it happened with but one rule, ‘No fair ’lectric instruments.’ Our first one was the ‘35th Annual.’ At the sign-up tables, people asked ‘Who’s sponsoring this?’ The answer given was ‘Nobody! We’re just having it, that’s all.’ The judges were chosen for their musicianship and their inherent sense of the absurd. Bribes were openly solicited, the judges preferring a particular brand of booze. First prize was three lbs. of rutabagas, second prize was five lbs. of rutabagas. This tactic, in addition to the judges being encouraged to render arbitrary decisions, was designed to deflate competition and tension. Naturally, everything was free. In fact, one year, so many people gave us money to help defray costs that the board (everyone who wanted to be on it) quit because it didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with it . . . (One musician) got onstage with a three-string violin of ancient ancestry, and gave a dissertation as to its lineage and evolution. He ended his remarks by noting that it was probably the only true fiddle at the convention. He then played an exquisite mediaeval dance tune that enthralled everyone. He was disqualified for not having a real fiddle.”
These mixtures of satire, sarcasm, and cynicism help to comedically defuse the very real predicament of people who don’t view their musical seriousness just as a liability. Bluegrass musicians are famous for their ultraseriousness. Even Campbell Coe, a Convention judge along with Jon Lundberg and country guitarist John Campbell, pointed out in his 1960 concert introduction that the bluegrass tradition was “very formal, very stiff; I don’t agree with that wholeheartedly; I am dressed and I think that’s my one concession to the practice.” Certainly Bill Monroe is serious, and so are performers who use much more personality in their shows than Monroe does. The stern-faced bluegrass stereotype comes from a variety of factors: imitation, concentration, or disinterest in the show aspect. And there’s no denying the relative lack of entertainment skills in Bay Area bluegrass bands, certainly in comparison with most country music or bluegrass acts of the Southeast. But bluegrass’s serious image is exaggerated when its listening aspects are culturally isolated. In its native context bluegrass is a listening medium but also a dance music. The problem is that the dancing element is virtually unknown in the West.
If bluegrass was understood as viable dance music in the Bay Area it might enjoy some of the status accorded to Cajun and zydeco sounds, which are extolled by music mavens to the virtual exclusion of bluegrass—except for the preferred singer/songwriters. No contest, gumbo is a stronger taste than cornbread and beans—and the corresponding music can bring an audience “to a rousing, deliciously sweating climax,” to quote from tabloid writer Derk Richardson’s glowing review of last year’s thirtieth anniversary celebration party for Arhoolie Records. Wonderful things are said about Cajun and zydeco, New Orleans music, mariachi, Tex-Mex conjunto, R&B—every kind of music except traditional bluegrass, which is hardly ever reviewed by local music writers. Factors besides danceability seem to keep bluegrass out of the alternative mainstream as well as the commercial mainstream; political incorrectness or the redneck image, for example. It would also help if bluegrass bands were as attentive to commercial presentation as they tend to be to the music—a paradox in light of the intense criticisms about bluegrass being too commercial, although that complaint usually comes from another camp. But if people didn’t require electric bass and drums for dancing and could perceive a bluegrass band as a qualified dance band, the music might better enjoy a full citizenship on the West Coast.
Even Mayne Smith said he was unaware that people back east dance so much to bluegrass music. In a recent conversation I had with Jack Leiderman, fiddler for Bob Paisley’s band in Maryland, he verified that people always dance to fast and slow tempo numbers, while medium-tempo bluegrass is better for listening. The Paisley band may attract an older audience, more likely to dance to bluegrass, but away from the West Coast I’ve seen people of all ages dance to it. “When I play the fiddle, people definitely get out on the dance floor if there is one,” said Jack. “It’s very rewarding to me as a Fiddle player to play for people dancing. It really struck me when I moved back east—people dance to bluegrass! They don’t do that in the West.” Jack is uniquely qualified to make that comparison, having lived and played in the Bay Area for years, notably with High Country. Playing for people dancing takes away the deadly seriousness of bluegrass. It creates an energy exchange. When you add this element and some others into the total picture of ‘bluegrass culture,’ things look a little different from the way they do in the Bay Area’s back forty, where observers may often see what appears to be an overbearing seriousness, concentration on instrumental technique, and slavish devotion to a form. There may in fact be an overabundance of that devotion in direct proportion to the distance in time and space from the land of bluegrass. What looked like “earnestness to the max,” the music- killer and ruination of the egalitarian party scene described by Peter Berg, may have been, more than anything, an accountable focus on a form that was fighting to survive out of context, like a plant or animal moved out of its natural habitat.
Neil’s explanation of why bluegrass has never really been embraced by the Berkeley/Bay Area folk music crowd might be different if he lived here and read the local media week after week, but as a historian’s viewpoint it is helpful and unifying. “Viewed from afar,” he says, “Berkeley and the Bay Area have a goodly number of bluegrass groups, and they reflect the local tastes in various ways. But my experience with this issue is that while its local dynamics are always unique, the same situation exists almost everywhere you find a group of folkies and a group of bluegrassers. It’s true in St. John’s and it’s true in Ottawa, and in Vancouver, and Minneapolis, and … on and on, like the man said. The folk music people will always have a problem with bluegrass’s easy and open acceptance of professional and commercial factors, because the folk music people believe in folk music as egalitarian, nonprofessional, and anti-commerical. And there will always be aesthetic differences too. The two crowds—bluegrassers and folkies—are on the margins of music-art-culture everywhere but their circles only partly overlap.”
Neil is good at tying these things together, making sense out of it all with a tactful overview. As he points out, the important thing about the Redwood Canyon Ramblers is how they emerged from the folk revival, far from the geographical center of bluegrass, and how each in their own way played a role in bringing bluegrass to people who’d never heard it before.
Transcending all their early local trials, each member also took the steps that are traditionally taken by people who master a genre, in this case musical: they apprenticed in working bands. Mayne Smith did it by playing in country and western bands up and down the West Coast. Neil Rosenberg played in the house band at Bean Blossom. And Scott Hambly worked with the Kentucky Colonels. But in the beginning they did what pickers do everywhere when they first start out—they made their own band, with friends they were already hanging out with. It’s amazing that, more than thirty years later, they’re still finding time to play music together. Neil thinks they sound better now than they ever did. They have a kind of rare musical integrity and uniqueness in their choice of repertoire and just the way their rhythms and melodies interact. Even as a trio they have that perfect bluegrass mixture of clankiness and polish, that trainlike drive and continuity that’s a little rough in exactly the right way.
The Redwood Canyon Ramblers took it as far as they could here in the Bay Area. Given the opportunities of their time and the relative youth of bluegrass itself, barely a decade old when two goats from the hills of Berkeley met one flatlander and started to play together, they really did accomplish something. Even if only they and a handful of other people knew about it until now.
I wish to thank many people, especially the following, for their help in the form of interviews, telephone conversations, written information and memorabilia, and encouragement: Peter Berg, Tim Doyle, Scott and Katie Hambly, Ann Merrifield, Barry Olivier, Bob Pinson, Neil Rosenberg, Mayne Smith, Miriam Stafford, Butch Waller, Roosevelt and Winnie Watson, and Vern and Marge Williams.