Earl Scruggs, Bluegrass Pioneer, Dies at 88
Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass banjo player whose hard-driving picking style influenced generations of players and helped shape the sound of 20th-century country music with his guitar-playing partner, Lester Flatt, died on Wednesday in a Nashville hospital. He was 88.
His son Gary confirmed the death.
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt probably reached their widest audiences with a pair of signature songs: Foggy Mountain Breakdown, which they recorded in 1949 with their group the Foggy Mountain Boys, and which was used as the getaway music in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde; and The Ballad of Jed Clampett, the theme song of the 1960s television sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. (Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt also appeared on the show at times.)
But he also helped shape the high, lonesome sound of Bill Monroe, often called the father of bluegrass, and pioneered the modern banjo sound. His innovative use of three fingers rather than the claw-hammer style elevated the five-string banjo from a part of the rhythm section or a comedians prop to a lead or solo instrument.
What became known as the syncopated Scruggs picking style helped popularize the banjo in almost every genre of music. Earl Scruggs, who had played banjo since the age of 4, got his big break when he joined Monroes band, the Blue Grass Boys, in 1945. The band included Monroe, who sang and played the mandolin; Lester Flatt on guitar; Howard Watts (a k a Cedric Rainwater) on bass; and Chubby Wise on fiddle
Neighborhood investigation shows him to be a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folk lore music, being very temperamental and ornery. . He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner, and paying practically no attention to his personal appearance. He has a tendency to neglect his work over a period of time and then just before a deadline he produces excellent results. (from the FBI file on Alan Lomax, 19401980)
RECORDING IN DOMINICA 1962
FOT BY ANTOINETTE MARCHANT
In an age that decries romanticism, Alan Lomax stands out as an enormously romantic figure. I thought of Alan as a Minotaur half man, half supernatural who defied life as we know it, wrote one of his old friends, Bill Ferris.
Alan was proudest of his driving his thousands of miles and days down nameless roads seeking out the jewels of the human spirit. He is most famous for his work in the penitentiaries, plantations, and lonely farms of the Mississippi Delta, where he returned no less than seven times between 1933 and 1985 to listen, observe, fraternize, and record night after night, year after year; but he repeated this feat with astounding results in hundreds of obscure places in the U.S., the Caribbean, Europe, and North Africa.
Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, and the Reverend Gary Davis were only a few of the many geniuses, famous and obscure, who were in reality telling us the true story of our country over Alans microphone. The sympathy, connoisseurship, and technical avant-gardism he poured into his work in every platform from the interview to the printed page, concert stage, commercial disc, and scholarly article yielded some of the most passionate and intimate documents of any era, which might have been lost but instead led to the ecumenical vision of the worlds music we have today. But more than this, what Alan Lomax had in mind was the renewal of the forgotten springs of human creativity.
Alan Lomax recording in Dominica, 1962. Photo by Antoinette Marchand.
In the 1930s and early 40s Alan and his equally temperamental father, folklorist John A. Lomax who was among the first collectors to recognize the value of African American music as a sui generis art form and one of the richest sources of indigenous American culture helped to develop the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song as a national resource, recording thousands of songs and oral histories in their original settings, throughout the South, the Northeast, Lake States, Midwest, Bahamas, and Haiti. Among Alans earliest collaborators and lifelong friends were Zora Neale Hurston, Stetson Kennedy, Jerome Wiesner, Nicholas Ray, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Henry and Sidney Cowell, Román and Svatava Pirkova Jakobson, John Henry Faulk, Margaret Mead, and Edmund Carpenter. He gave young Pete Seeger his first job, searching for commercially recorded gems of regional Americana at the Library of Congress in 1938 and later at Decca Records, where they rescued some from the reject pile and tossed others down the airshaft.
Alan introduced Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson, Lead Belly, Josh White, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Jean Ritchie on national radio and in concerts, records, and books, igniting careers and folk song movements. With the Seegers, Tillman Cadle, Aunt Molly, and Guy and Candie Carawan, and others he helped to bring the vital element of protest in folk songs into the union struggle, the Wallace campaign, and the Civil Rights Movement.
In the 1950s, Alan Lomax collected throughout Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, and Spain dogged there by Francos political police.
He enriched national folklore archives, created interest in indigenous folk music, and compiled for Columbia Records the first world music anthology. To the delight of British audiences, Lomax and Peter Kennedy shook up the normally staid BBC, putting fresh talent from the field live on the air each week with wildly unpredictable results. And just before the Queens radio address on Christmas Day 1957, native and immigrant folk musicians sang in the holiday on live hookup from the Hebrides, Glasgow, Cork, Manchester, Wales, Cornwall, Sussex, and Londons East End in an unrehearsed extravaganza.
In essence, the many facets of Lomaxs career were an expression of his belief in what he called cultural equity the idea that the expressive traditions of all local and ethnic cultures should be equally valued as representative of the multiple forms of human adaptation on earth.
After 1960 he devoted himself to comparative research on world music and dance with collaborators from musicology, anthropology, dance, and linguistics. This culminated in the early 90s with the Global Jukebox, a monumental attempt to organize and synthesize the findings of anthropology and musicology that evoked relationships between expressive style, human geography, and long-standing patterns of subsistence and social life.
Reverence for language, and the desire to become a full-fledged writer, permeates Lomaxs every composition letters, speeches, grant proposals, and off-the-cuff remarks to say nothing of his compressed song descriptions, private diaries, and longer works. Like Levi-Strauss, he was a writerly ethnographer and was proud of having pioneered the oral musical biography. Mister Jelly Roll (his biography of the famed New Orleans jazz composer) and his award-winning memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began, exemplify his admiration and respect for the artistry of oral historians, raconteurs, and poets.
Alan Lomax was a flamboyant, protean personality, difficult to pigeonhole. 1986, New York, photo by Peter Figlestahler
He was loved for his warm enthusiasms, generosity, loyalty, and intense interest in people, hated for his high-handedness,
his outbursts of Calvinistic fury, and admired and envied for the breadth of his ideas and accomplishments. To many he was a father figure, though he chafed under the role. Alan had enormous respect for women and their achievements, but he feared their power and never settled down. As a Texan he was smooth, genial, yet extremely touchy a contrarian and a rebel, painfully empathetic with the troubles of others. Though sustained by an essentially sanguine temperament, he was often afflicted with gloom and loss of confidence. As a result of childhood illness Lomax suffered a partial loss of hearing, yet he had an incomparable ear for vocal music. A massive stroke forced him to retire in 1996 and live under the care of his family. He died on July 19, 2002, at the age of 87.
In his brief career, Eddie Cochran made a lasting imprint on rock with songs like "Summertime Blues.," one of rock's most revered anthems of teen boredom. He was was an exceptionally talented guitarist, an energetic stage performer, and an early master of studio overdubbing; he played and sang all the parts on both Cmon Everybody and Summertime Blues. Cochran was 21 when he died on April 17, 1960, in an auto accident en route to the London airport.
SATAN IS REAL The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers By Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer
By Charlie Louvins own account, people who saw the Louvin Brothers perform were mystified by the experience. Ira Louvin was a full head taller than his younger brother, played the mandolin like Bill Monroe and sang in an impossibly high, tense, quivering tenor.
Charlie strummed a guitar, grinned like a vaudevillian and handled the bottom register. But every so often, in the middle of a song, some hidden signal flashed and the brothers switched places with Ira swooping down from the heights, and Charlie angling upward and even the most careful listeners would lose track of which man was carrying the lead.
This was more than close-harmony singing; each instance was an act of transubstantiation. It baffled a lot of people, Charlie Louvin explains in his crackling new memoir. We could change in the middle of a word. Part of the reason we could do that was that wed learned to have a good ear for other peoples voices when we sang Sacred Harp. But the other part is that we were brothers.
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Times Topic: Country Music
Ira died in a car wreck in 1965. Charlie who rolled his first cigarette at the age of 5 died last year at 83, just two months after talking the book out. (The contributions of his co-author, Benjamin Whitmer, are pretty much invisible, which makes them difficult to praise, and all the more praiseworthy.) True to his subtitle, Charlie tells Iras story, as well as his own, devoting 47 chapters to their shared lives and careers, and just three more to the years that followed Iras death. He is profane, piquant and brutally honest in ways that are sure to offend the country music establishment but might have delighted Ira, who was no less of a demon than the ones the Louvins who cut their teeth as a gospel duo, and never really left the church behind so often sang about.
Charlie and Ira came up hard, on a tiny Depression-era cotton farm in southern Appalachia. Their mother taught them songs from the Sacred Harp hymnal, while their father worked and beat them, mercilessly, until they felt they had no choice but to sing their way off the land. We were two determined little bastards, Louvin recalls. We were no good at quitting at all. Whether or not he meant to, Id say thats one of the greatest gifts Papa gave us.
That gift (a great inspiration to the Everly Brothers, the Byrds and many other harmony singers who followed in their footsteps) carried the Louvins through two difficult decades it took them years to make it, and just as they did, Elvis Presley came along and swept the music world theyd known aside. The ups and downs were bad for Ira, whod gotten the worst of his fathers beatings and turned into a meanspirited, self-destructive drunk. But theyre good for the book, which is full of fistfights, road stories and behind-the-scenes looks at fellow travelers: Presley, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Little Jimmy Dickens and not a few others. In one chapter, titled Duets, Louvin recalls the Delmore, Monroe, Wilburn, Everly and Bolick brothers (the last performed as the Blue Sky Boys) duets that put out the most beautiful music you could imagine, but when they werent onstage, they wouldnt speak to each other. And they wouldnt speak to you, either, if you happened to like the other one.
Somehow, he says, Ira and I managed to remain some kind of friends. If so, it was despite Iras own best efforts to ruin every relationship in sight. One night, drunk, he said a crude, racist thing, ensuring that Presley, whod called the brothers his favorite duet and opened for Ira and Charlie on one of his first tours, would never record The Christian Life, Satan Is Real, or any other Louvin Brothers song. (If I had to guess, Id say that one statement by Ira cost the Louvin Brothers music catalog two or three million dollars, Charlie says.)
On other nights, Ira smashed and stomped his mandolin to pieces (hed later glue it back together), fought with drunks in the audience or simply failed to show up, costing the brothers top-tier bookings and getting them banned from their regular, hard-earned slot on the Grand Ole Opry. It was an ugly thing when he drank, Charlie recalls, and there was no fun in it.
And then there was the womanizing and spousal abuse. In February 1963, Ira Louvin wrapped a telephone cord around his wifes neck. She shot him six times with a .22-caliber pistol, and when the police arrived on the scene she was said to have told them, If the blankety-blank dont die, Ill shoot him again. Ira lived, and Charlie stuck by him (and, amazingly, the wife) and ignored Iras threats to quit the duet. But the Louvin Brothers broke up that year.
Ira was traveling with a new wife (his fourth) and another couple on the night of his wreck. Atypically, according to Charlie, Ira who had a D.U.I. warrant out for his arrest seems to have been sober that night, while the driver of the car that hit him was nine times over the legal limit for drunkenness. Oddly, given his habit of smashing mandolins, Iras new mandolin a four-stringed, electric instrument hed designed himself was the only thing that wasnt smashed to splinters.
SATAN IS REAL
The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers
By Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer
Illustrated. 297 pp. Igniter/It Books/HarperCollins Publishers
BY Alex Abramovich who's writing a history of rock 'n roll
THE LOUVIN BROS - I CAN'T YOU IN LOVE WITH ME
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Selections recorded by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax that are included on a new album, The Alan Lomax Collection From the American Folklife Center, and will be part of the Global Jukebox, a huge online digital collection of traditional music dating to the 1930s.
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Last June, Glen Campbell (75) announced that he had Alzheimers disease, and on Saturday night Januari 7 2012 he came to Town Hall as part of what was billed as the Goodbye Tour. Everyone in the room understood. The faithful, reverent crowd appeared not to mind that for much of the show Glenn Campbell was reading lyrics from prompters that had been set between the monitors at the foot of the stage.
There will always be a Rhinestone Cowboy on his way to Phoenix,