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Bluegrass Generation: A Memoir

By Neil V. Rosenberg

University of Illinois Press, 273 pages, $21.95

Reviewed by Fred Frawley, September 2018

Find it on Amazon

Neil V. Rosenberg has, quite literally, written the history of bluegrass music (see "Bluegrass: A History"). An academic and banjoist, in no particular order, Rosenberg has captured the essential narrative of bluegrass music over many years.

Rosenberg's memoir, "Bluegrass Generation," seems to have a modest field of vision; namely a telling of his early academic days and their interrelation with the nascent bluegrass music scene of the early 1960s. But "Bluegrass Generation" turns out to be much more. It lays out the case for bluegrass music as a uniquely American music genre and, in the telling of the tales, shows why it stands apart from other genres.

The centerpiece of Rosenberg's memoir is his time (first as a visitor and later as a manager) for Bill Monroe's Bean Blossom music venue in that era. Bean Blossom was owned by Bill Monroe and run by Birch, his brother. Monroe is a powerful figure in the book, as he is in the genre, and the reader can fairly conclude that bluegrass came about through Monroe's sheer force of will.

The story of bluegrass is told through Rosenberg's lens. It helps that, during the central time period that the book, he was an obsessive note taker and recorder of live shows at Bean Blossom and elsewhere. What flows from all this is a detailed description of the comings and goings of bands, their players, and trends throughout the early 1960s. For that alone, the book would be worth a read.

But there is much more woven into the fabric of Rosenberg's recollections. These stories, taken collectively, illustrate the collaborative, improvisational and cultural dimensions to bluegrass music. It's a rich dive into the milieu of struggling musicians with singular devotion to playing together, emulating each other's styles and laying down tracks that form the basis for bluegrass music today.

Rosenberg hails from the Bay Area, but went east to Indiana to pursue folklore graduate studies. His journey reflects that of many other musicians who were drawn to the mountain tradition, but layering on new techniques and forms of expression. Thanks to his tireless recordings and tape swapping with others, the reader gets a fulsome narration of how bluegrass music moved around the country, was finally accepted on college campuses and was buoyed, but not overtaken by, the folk revival of the early 1960s

Rosenberg's narrative brings older, now forgotten, characters back to life and puts them in the context of the baseline of bluegrass music from which newgrass, jamgrass and today's bluegrass forms grew and matured in later decades.

Tellingly, Rosenberg leaves a summation to Monroe, who after all created the bluegrass form in the '40's and continued to fuel the fire until his death in 1996. Monroe was notoriously cranky and was generally a man of few words. But Rosenberg shares a transcript of one of his tapes made in early November 1963 at the Bean Blossom venue in which Monroe uncharacteristically summed up his philosophy of bluegrass music:

"Friends, with starting bluegrass music, I really done one thing in my favor. Now, when we started work on the stage you see here today, Roger[Smith] was playing the fiddle and Vernon [McQueen] was playing the bass, Joe Stuart was playing the guitar and, ah, I was playing the mandolin and Brad [Bill Keith: Monroe always referred to him as "Brad" to avoid having two "Bills" in the Bluegrass Boys]. And we, uh, had a good group right there....But doing bluegrass, you can go in any state, nearly, today, and if you want a bluegrass group to fill in and help you why you can go looking around and you can round up a bunch that'll play good 5-string banjo, play about as good as Brad or Don Reno, or Earl Scruggs...But that is right, laying all the joking aside, you can go in any place, New York and any place today and get a good bluegrass group"

So, there it is. The essence of bluegrass. Established instrumentation, common forms, a new musical language built on tradition whilst being in the moment of improvisational instrumental breaks and key changes on-the-fly to suit whoever is playing at the time. (Monroe would call out the key of a new song by dropping a single chord on his mandolin just before firing up the song).

Neil Rosenberg was there. His memoir tells the story of bluegrass through his own lens, but reveals universal truths about the music.