Dit gedeelte van het interview met Bill Clifton begint met herinneringen van Bill aan het eerste Newport Folk Festival, hij maakte daar deel van het ‘board of directors’ uit. Eerder in deze reeks heeft Bill hier ook al over gesproken. Hij vervolgt met opmerkingen over het allereerste Bluegrass Festival, dat op 4 juli 1961 in Oak Leaf Park in Luray, Virginia werd georganiseerd (door Bill Clifton). Het was in verschillende opzichten een gedenkwaardige dag met een schitterende line-up. We laten Bill natuurlijk uitgebreid aan het woord, maar ik heb ook een recente analyse van deze dag toegevoegd. Duidelijk wordt daarin dat het na dit festival niet veel beter ging met de vriendschap tussen Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs aan de ene kant en Bill Monroe aan de andere kant. Wederom wens ik je veel lees en/of luisterplezier. En uiteraard mogen de bekende kanalen weer gebruikt worden voor opmerkingen, aanvullingen en commentaar…

Newport Folk Festival & Luray, Virginia


You’ve mentioned the Newport Folk Festival a couple of times now. How did you get involved with that? Got a letter one day. When I was living in Charlottesville I was working as a stock broker. Which I did for two years. It pleased my dad. He had paid for my fees for my master’s degrees program at the University Of Virginia. When I finished that I felt like I well owed him something and he really wanted me to be a stock broker and he thought I should do that. And I didn’t want to go to Baltimore and do that so I thought ‘Well, maybe I can do it in Charlottesville’; which is a town I really like. And I managed to get myself hired by a company there which is now called ‘Pane/Webber’ but it used to be called ‘Abbott, Procter & Pane’ back when I joined them. And it was just a small office. There were four of us that worked there and I got a couple of really nice accounts but it just wasn’t my style; I didn’t like it at all, you know, and I wanted to get out. The New York Stock Exchange gave me a ‘buy or leave’. They said you may be a registered representative of The New York Stock Exchange in fact but you must first say that you’re gonna give up music before we give you full title to that position. I told the people that hired me, ‘I can’t give up music. I’ve got a record contract for three more LP’s and I have to honor that’. They said: ‘Yeah, but then you need to give it up’. And I said: ‘Well, I’m not sure I can do that but we’ll talk about it’. To make a long story short: I, finally after two years, I turned in my resignation and a couple of days after I turned in my resignation I was told that The New York Stock Exchange said it was OK. I could continue to play music and I said: ‘Too late!’ And I knew I didn’t want to do it for full time. But when I was there in Charlottesville I… how did we get here?

We were trying to get to the Newport Folk Festival… Oh, Newport Folk Festival. I got a letter from Pete Seeger and Theo Bikel, who were the two people that had been asked by the man who ran the Newport Jazz Festival if they would take over and do a Newport Folk Festival. Now the same man who had done the Jazz Festival had also done a Folk Festival, Newport Folk Festival prior to that but it hadn’t been successful. And so Pete and Theo got together and said to George Wein, who was the man who does the Jazz Festival, they said: ‘George if you let us do this as a non-profit thing we will try to get other people involved on the board who have different interests in folk music and where it comes from and make up a board and we’ll have a non-profit organization and, yeah, well do it in 1963’. Well, this was 1961, when they said that. So I had the letter in 1961 and I had it right after I had done the ‘All Day Bluegrass’ in Luray, Virginia.

The Stanley Brothers waren ook op dit allereerste Bluegrass Festival aanwezig. Van links naar rechts: Ralph Stanley, Bill Torbert, Carter Stanley, George Shuffler (foto van Phil Specht).
Deze dag was was de eerste keer dat er ééndaags concert werd georganiseerd dat de naam ‘Bluegrass Festival’ had. De dag werd georganiseerd en bekend gemaakt door Bill Clifton. Het allereerste Bluegrass Festival werd georganiseerd op 4 juli 1961 in het Oak Leaf Park in Luray, Virginia. ‘The fourth of July’ is een nationale feestdag in de Verenigde Staten, iedereen is dan vrij omdat het ‘Independance Day’ is . Het was voor het eerst dat er meer dan twee artiesten/bands werden geboekt in één show. Voorafgaand aan Bill Clifton’s ‘All day bluegrass’ kon je tijden een bluegrass-optreden naar één en maximaal twee artiesten/bands luisteren. Voor dit allereerste Bluegrass festival werden Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, The Country Gentlemen, Jim and Jesse, Mac Wiseman geboekt en uiteraard trad Bill Clifton zelf ook op met zijn Dixie Mountain Boys. Deze ‘All day bluegrass’ in Luray, Virgina was bovendien de eerste keer dat Bill Monroe voormalige Bluegrass Boys bij hem op het podium riep en dat er gezamenlijk songs gespeeld en gezonden werden. Er waren die dag 2,250 bezoekers; en het was het begin van oneindig veel Bluegrass Festivals in de daaropvolgende jaren.
The world’s first bluegrass festival, 1961.
To modern ears, bluegrass might seem like an eternally safe space for close harmonies, gentle, collaborative musicianship and everyone uniting to preserve tradition – almost a nostalgia for nostalgia itself. But initially, the reality was somewhat different, and by the time the very first bluegrass festival took place on July 4th 1961, it was all-out war. As a musical genre that had only been invented two decades earlier by ‘the father of bluegrass’ Bill Monroe, it was still on the periphery for many earnest fans of folk music (seen as the nerdy brother of country) and faced fresh assault from the new sensation of rock & roll. Having even one bluegrass band at a folk festival could get a mixed reaction from folk purists; having any more would be a huge gamble. Yet one man was bold enough to put his money where his mouth was: singer and recording artist, Bill Clifton. And history was made. Like many musicians, Clifton also had a day job as a sales broker and stockbroker. He really knew his music, though, and compiled one of the first comprehensive bluegrass songbooks – his first in 1951 even containing a foreword by Woody Guthrie. From this, he was hired as a producer for the outdoor venue of Oak Leaf Park in Luray, Virginia. From May through September he snagged every bluegrass act around, calculating there was an audience to make every Sunday special. But for July 4th 1961, he decided to book an entire bluegrass line-up for an all-day festival, changing bluegrass history forever. The very first event to use the term ‘bluegrass festival’, many must have thought Clifton was nuts – nobody in their right mind ever programmed bluegrass acts across a whole day. But when 2,200 people attended the show – mainly from the D.C., Baltimore, Northern Virginia region, but also from as far away as New York City and Boston – it opened up a new platform for bluegrass music; a route out of potential obscurity and dwindling relevance. On the bill were some of the most exciting acts of the era: Washington’s hot new progressive bluegrass band, the Country Gentlemen; Jim and Jesse aka the McReynolds brothers from Virginia; fellow Virginian Mac Wiseman (who was also co-founder of the CMA); and the festival host himself with his own band, the Dixie Mountain Boys. But big trouble was brewing from the huge headline acts and their egos: the Stanley Brothers – Carter and Ralph; and ‘the father of bluegrass’ Bill Monroe. Clifton had also initially wanted two more of popular acts: Flatt and Scruggs, and Reno and Smiley. But the latter duo’s manager, Carlton Haney, wouldn’t lower their fee from $500. Flatt and Scruggs simply refused to appear on the same stage as Monroe, let alone the Stanley Brothers. Professional grievances were simmering away – for even though fans just loved the crossovers of styles and material in all the bluegrass outfits, the acts themselves resented anyone parking their tanks on their particular bit of lawn. To these artists, identity and uniqueness was everything. Imitation was not the sincerest form of flattery (even if Elvis Presley had recorded a cover of Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ as the B-side of his debut single, ‘That’s All Right’). Monroe proudly boasted: ‘Bluegrass is wonderful music. I’m glad I originated it’, and pointedly said, ‘I was determined to carve out a music of my own. I didn’t want to copy anybody’. Ever the peacemaker, Clifton didn’t take sides; giving in and booking Flatt and Scruggs for later in his season. On the day, the Stanley Brothers performed a couple of sets, and it was also the first time Monroe called former members of his group, The Blue Grass Boys, up to the stage to play with him. It felt like a rose-tinted, nostalgic re-creation of his earlier gigs, even if he alienated his peers in other groups, including Reno, who happened to be observing in the audience. Reno notably wasn’t invited up on stage, but his manager, Carlton Haney, was making notes. Haney could see that this bluegrass day worked, and that fans would go some distance to see their favorites live. So even though Clifton himself failed to capitalize on his 1961 festival success – instead joining Newport folk foundation to help organize the 1963 Newport Folk Festival – Haney gleefully adopted the ideas for his own weekend festivals, including Roanoke in 1965. But the real bluegrass wars at Luray were lubricated by alcohol and fired by seething resentment. Monroe could happily nurse a grudge for years, with some harking back to incidents earlier in his career. Professional rivalry spilled over into open conflict, and Monroe’s feuding with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (who were originally part of his Blue Grass Boys) was also common knowledge. On stage, Monroe – who’d be joined by Carter Stanley to duet on ‘Sugar Coated Love’ – couldn’t stop himself from taking a swipe at his former sidemen who had refused to share this stage with him. ‘It’s a shame’, he said to the big crowd, ‘a lot of bluegrass people you know don’t want to be on a show with you or something, if the folks will think you started them. Well, it’s the truth, so they shouldn’t mind that, and they should be glad they got a start, they’d-a probably had to plough a lot of furrows if they hadn’t-a been in bluegrass music’. Even though Monroe showed his irritation at his famous protégés, he crucially hadn’t named them. But that only seemed to loosen the lips of the now tipsy Carter, who said: ‘I understand there was a group that some of the folks asked to come in here today. They said no, they didn’t want to play… because Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers was gonna be here. And that was Flatt and Scruggs. You know, we missed ‘em a heck of a lot, ain’t we?’ Once the crowd laughed and names were named, Monroe wouldn’t let it lie: ‘Well, you’re talking about Lester and Earl… I started the two boys on the Grand Ole Opry, and they shouldn’t be ashamed to come on the show and work with us’. Laughter continued as he added, ‘I am sure I wouldn’t hurt either one of them’. Unfortunately, someone was taping the concert – complete with Monroe’s blatant chiding of Flatt and Scruggs – and a recording was sent to Scruggs and his wife, Louise, who was also their manager. At the festival itself, the crowd’s reaction was knowing laughter, but in the cold light of day Louise Scruggs was furious, and apparently threatened legal action over Monroe’s comments. In short, while Monroe could have lost his place on the Opry and faced a lawsuit at the exact time he was trying to rekindle his career, for everyone else concerned – and for bluegrass festivals – it was a kiss of life and the start of bigger things. Apart from the immediate boost to the bluegrass festival circuit, the years that followed also saw the genre go mainstream, with Flatt and Scruggs recording a live album at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. The hugely popular TV series the Beverly Hillbillies (1962) used their song, ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett’, and the movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967) starring glamorous couple Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, utilized yet another Flatt and Scruggs’ classic, ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’. Both used bluegrass for hillbilly connotations, paving the way for Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s later smash hit ‘Duelling Banjos’ from the film Deliverance. Meanwhile, Bill Monroe stuck to his guns with his pure, acoustic bluegrass sound. Yet as the decade moved on, the likes of Jim and Jesse ‘went country’, and temptation reared its ugly head further, with some bluegrass acts even daring to go electric! There was a glimmer of hope that bluegrass would thrive when cool new bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers enlisted bluegrass musicians Chris Hillman on mandolin and Bernie Leadon on guitar. The inextricably linked Byrds also recruited players who’d cut their teeth in the genre, like John Hartford and Clarence White. But ultimately, though bluegrass soared with the advent of festivals like that of 1961 and reaped TV and movie acclaim, to keep afloat with the ever-expanding scenes in the 60s, it was a genre that was forced to constantly reinvent itself.

That was one of the first bluegrass festivals, wasn’t it? Well, that was the first, yeah. And it was on a Tuesday, but it was 4th of July, it was a holiday for most people. But it was a Tuesday which meant people couldn’t travel too far. Nobody thought it would be successful but I had people from California, New York City and Boston, Philadelphia and Washington and all over the place that came, so…

Bill Monroe’s band bestond in die tijd uit Bill Monroe, Bessie Lee Mauldin, Billy Baker, Bobby Smith, Tony Ellis. Hier zien we Bill Monroe en Carter Stanley samen bij de microfoon. Op de iets verderop genoemde CD staan twee duetten van Bill Monroe en Carter Stanley. Allereerst ‘Sugar coated love’ en vervolgens ‘What would you give (in exchange for your soul)?’ Ik heb beide opnamen in deze post verwerkt; voorafgegaan door het moment dat Carter Stanley door Bill Monroe het podium opgeroepen wordt.

Who were the ones performing? At the first bluegrass? Had Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys, I had Jim & Jesse and The Virginia Boys, The Stanley Brothers and The Clinch Mountain Boys, Mac Wiseman, myself and The Dixie Mountain Boys. I can’t remember if there was anybody else there or not right now but that was the main thrust of the event. And the idea was to get Bill Monroe together with former Bluegrass Boys and get on the same stage and sing a song together again. And they did, Bill did. But it was the first time Bill had done that since any of his former Bluegrass Boys had gone out and formed their own band. So, from that point of view, yes it was the first bluegrass festival but it was only a one-day event. And it did not occur on a weekend, it occurred on a Tuesday. We still had 2.250 people, which wasn’t bad.

Het lijkt er op dat Bill Monroe meer dan één set gespeeld heeft. In 2017 werd er een CD uitgebracht op het Britse Kipepeo Publishing label. 35 minuten lang wordt je mee terug naar 1961 genomen. Drie opnamen zijn hieronder te vinden. Door op de bovenstaande afbeelding van het hoesje van de CD te klikken opent een nieuw tabblad waarop alle 17 tracks van deze CD te vinden zijn (je kan de individuele tracks dan ook downloaden).

Well, for a first festival… Yeah, it was pretty good. Now, if you look back at it, I’m amazed that we had that many people ‘cause we didn’t advertise it.

But then again: there weren’t any bigger names in the bluegrass business than the ones you had then. Well, that’s right. Except Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and I had invited them. And I also had invited Reno & Smiley, who were very popular. I did not invite The Osbornes or Jimmy Martin but, don’t ask me why but I think, The Osbornes I should have invited and would have invited because I knew them. They were people I respected and I could have easily had them on, I’m sure. But it was a matter then of how much money can we say that we can put up here for this thing? And will we be able to get that money in at the gate? Well, we did get the money in at the gate but only just. Actually, I said I had 2.200, but I had 2.250 paid entries and the bill I had to pay for all the talent was $2.200,- So I had [made] fifty dollars at the end of the day and that was all! But it was still a wonderful event and I still meet people who teil me that they went to that. I didn’t know in those days. Talking about the Conference in London, he wrote the book on Bill Monroe, the first one. He lives in up in… Neil Rosenberg. And Neil said he was there. Well, I know Dave Freeman was there but I didn’t know that until many years later and a lot of other… Pete Kuykendal of the Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. A lot of those people came that I didn’t know at the time. Actually I did know Pete Kuykendal, I take that back, but a lot of other people I didn’t know came and in later years I met them.

Er is in elk geval één van 1000 handbills van Bill Clifton bewaard gebleven, gescand en op het Internet gezet. Hieronder vindt u trouwens een opname van ‘Sweetheart of mine’ een duet van Bill Monroe en Mac Wiseman dat op deze dag is opgenomen.

Did you do a lot of advertising for that festival? None, none at all. I had one thousand handbills printed and they were sort of nine by eleven [inches] I guess it was, in size and about that tall and about that wide [shows size with his hands, A4].  And I just mailed a few out to radio stations, yeah about that size, and, you know, would leave a few here and there at a business or whatever and that’s all I did.

Did the bands advertise it that were… Well, I knew Bill Monroe would advertise it on WSM and it helped.

That would help, yeah. And I guess The Stanley’s and Jim & Jesse but they were down in Live Oak, Florida and in Georgia so, you know, I didn’t expect any people to come up from there and they didn’t. But I’m sure they advertised it on radio and television, The Stanley’s were on television in Live Oak, Florida at the time. Jim & Jesse were in Bethesda, Georgia. I don’t remember whether they were doing television or radio but they were working full-time there. And I’m sure both of them probably mentioned those dates but nobody’s gonna drive up from there to Virginia…

Ik denk dat Bill Clifton zo’n 43 jaar na dato iets vergeten was te vertellen, want Jim & Jesse McReynolds waren weldegelijk aanwezig op het Bluegrass Festival op 4 juli 1961 in Oak Leaf Park in Luray, Virginia. Waarom ik dat zo stellig weet? Via deze link kunt u de opnamen van het optreden van Jim & Jesse McReynolds integraal beluisteren die op 4 juli 1961 gemaakt zijn. Ook The Stanley Brothers waren aanwezig; een foto van hun optreden staat in deze post en we hebben de opnamen kunnen beluisteren dat Bill Monroe aan Carter Stanley vraagt naar het het podium te komen; vervolgens hebben we ook de opnamen van twee duetten van Bill Monroe en Carter Stanley…
50 jaar nadat het allereerste Bluegrass Festival in Oak Leaf Park in Luray, Virginia werd georganiseerd, werd deze plaquette geplaatst om de herinnering aan deze bijzondere dag blijvend te maken.

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