What better way to round up our summer celebrating some of the best- and least-known of Jim’s festival work than with these shots documenting one of the first big bluegrass gatherings back in the day: The North Carolina Bluegrass (some tickets and handbills spelled it Blue Grass) Music Festival at Camp Springs, N.C. over Labor Day Weekend in 1969. And to think, just a couple of weeks earlier Jim had been at Woodstock … if ever there was proof needed that Jim’s ears and eyes knew no boundaries this would be it: one week he’s pulling all nighters to grab early dawn shots of Jefferson Airplane and The Who and the next he’s noticing the beautiful symmetry of a line of Good Ole Boys with stand up basses in North Carolina. You gotta love it.
Thanks to the “interwebs” I found a few bluegrass enthusiast sites that offer some wonderful info on a festival that, frankly, I had never heard of before I saw these shots from the JMP archive. What I have been able to glean so far is that a booking agent and festival promoter named Carlton Haney, who some considered the “P.T. Barnum of country music” had been putting on these bluegrass gatherings over Labor Day since the mid-’60s. In 1969 he bought a bunch of acres at Camp Springs, N.C. near his hometown of Reidsville to allow for a permanent home for the festival – including the dedication of North Carolina Bluegrass Park – and Jim was there to document it all.
The festival’s lineup featured some of the biggest acts working at the time, thanks to Haney’s connections, including Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Josh Graves and many, many others, all of them now viewed as main cogs in keeping bluegrass and “old timey” music alive and thriving 40 years later. “I believe Bill Monroe’s the only man you can learn bluegrass from… You can sing off-key until you go to singing with him for about a year and a half and you’ll sing just as true as a dollar and you’ll play an instrument just true as a dollar. He’s the only man in the world can make you do that. What Bill Monroe plays is bluegrass, and what everybody else plays is just a copy of him.”-- Carlton Haney in an interview in Muleskinner News, September, 1971.
Also of great use to someone with a burgeoning bluegrass jones is The Bluegrass Blog, where I uncovered an invaluable audio archive (recorded on reel-to-reel with mics on stage) from the 1969 festival on the site of West Virginia banjo picker and microbiology professor Ken Landreth. But for me, the first time I really “got” bluegrass was the soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou” when I heard Ralph Stanley’s version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Of course, it didn’t hurt that Stanley’s world-worn sexy voice was coming out of George Clooney’s face as lead singer of the “Soggy Bottom Boys,” but I digress.
On October 13, 2009 on the Diane Rehm Show, Dr. Ralph Stanley of the Stanley Brothers, born in 1927, discussed the song, its origin, and his effort to revive it: “ ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ is probably 200 or 300 years old. But the first time I heard it when I was y’know, like a small boy, my daddy – my father – he had some of the words to it, and I heard him sing it, and we – my brother and me – we put a few more words to it, and brought it back in existence. I guess if it hadn’t been for that it’d have been gone forever. I’m proud to be the one that brought that song back, because I think it’s wonderful."
“Man Of Constant Sorrow”
I am a man of constant sorrow
I’ve seen trouble all my days
I bid farewell to old Kentucky
The place where I was borned and raised
(The place where he was borned and raised)
For six long years I’ve been in trouble
No pleasure here on earth I find
For in this world I’m bound to ramble
I have no friends to help me now
(He has no friends to help him now)
It’s fare thee well my own true lover
I never expect to see you again
For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad
Perhaps I’ll die upon this train
(Perhaps he’ll die upon this train)
You can bury me in some deep valley
For many years where I may lay
Then you may learn to love another
While I am sleeping in my grave
(While he is sleeping in his grave)
Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger
My face you never will see no more
But there is one promise that is given
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore
(He’ll meet you on God’s golden shore)
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
This week’s blog is also our way of giving a shout out to the 10th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival slated for Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 at Golden Gate Park. The free festival is subsidized by SF venture capitalist Warren Hellman, a halfway decent banjo picker in his own right, and has drawn upwards of 750,000 people over the 3 days.
Among a veritable milky way of rock, indie, and country stars, Ralph Stanley (still going strong at 84 years young) & the Clinch Mountain Boys, will perform -- proving once again that bluegrass is not just good for the soul but the body and mind as well.