Ralph Rinzler

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Woody Guthrie and Ralph Rinzler

excerpt from “The Music That Matters Part One: Bill Monroe and Ralph Rinzler,” by Juli Thanki:

Ralph Rinzler was born in 1934 in Passaic, New Jersey. His father was a doctor and of Russian-Jewish descent, perhaps making Rinzler’s foray into folklore and traditional American string band music as an adult a little unexpected. However, as a boy he was fascinated with the family’s phonograph; thus he learned at an early age to appreciate traditional and folk music thanks in part to his uncle Samuel Joseph, a lawyer who at one time was a student of folk studies pioneer George L. Kittredge.

This burgeoning interest in folk music led the young Rinzler to the Lomax Library of Congress field recordings as well as to other forms of traditional music when he was a preteen; this hobby would eventually become his career. Of Rinzler’s folk music leanings, Monroe biographer Richard D. Smith writes, “like many of his generation, Rinzler was entranced by The Anthology of American Folk Music.  While some folk revivalists began seeking out Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and other African-American blues players represented in Harry Smith’s collection, Ralph was among those who sought its southern white string band musicians.”

Before “finding” and remaking the faded legend of Monroe, Rinzler “discovered” two other string band musicians who would also prove essential to the American folk music canon: Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. Ashley, a clawhammer banjo player, was a medicine show performer whose early recordings were featured on Harry Smith’s The Anthology of Folk Music under the name Tom Ashley. This is almost certainly how Rinzler became aware of the musician before stumbling across him in the hills of North Carolina.

When Rinzler first discovered Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, also in rural North Carolina, the musician was at the time supporting his family as a rockabilly electric guitarist. It was with “the utmost difficulty” according to Bluegrass Breakdown author Robert Cantwell, that Rinzler persuaded Watson, a blind musician who played with a unique flatpicking style that would soon be known to aspiring guitarists nationwide, to revert to playing the old style folk music with an acoustic guitar. 

Ralph Peer did the same thing in the late ‘20s when discovering hillbilly artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and signing them to record contracts. According to scholar Benjamin Filene in Romancing the Folk, Peer primarily “wanted to record artists who were comfortable enough with traditional music to sing songs in the older styles that attracted hillbilly music’s audiences.”

Indeed, Rinzler was correct: playing old style music with acoustic instruments jumpstarted Watson’s career, landing him a spot on his first recording, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s and garnering him a performance slot at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, which exposed him to the young, college-age fans of Dylan and Baez. This is the first instance we see of Rinzler mindfully altering his subject in order to present a carefully engineered “authentic” folk figure for the public’s consumption, but it wouldn’t be the last, as Monroe would later prove on the bluegrass festival circuit.

Rinzler would eventually put his musical leanings to practical use when he joined The Greenbriar Boys, a New York City-based string band, as the mandolin player.  Eventually the band became popular enough that they were approached by folk and blues label Vanguard Records about possibly recording an album. Rinzler wasn’t enthusiastic about this prospect—he seemingly had no desire for music stardom or commercial and financial success—but friend and New York Times music critic Robert Shelton convinced him that making a record could lead listeners back to the traditional folk music that Rinzler had spent his entire adult life preserving and promoting:

“[Shelton] said if you record what you fellows do, the people that you admire and learn from, that you’re trying to encourage people to listen to, will be heard by the people who are listening to you. But they won’t be heard if you don’t pave the way, because you’re an interpreter, you’re a middle road for city listeners. And the city listeners can go from digesting your music to the more strident or deeper rural based material, but they won’t go to that if you don’t serve as a transition group.” (Neil V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005, p. 181.)

Rinzler finally assented to the recording session, but subsequently wrote an essay in the liner notes of The Greenbriar Boys’ 1962 self-titled album which focused not on the band, but those influential bluegrass musicians that came before in hopes that Greenbriar fans may become inspired to seek out the recordings of seminal bluegrass artists such as Monroe and the Stanley Brothers: “I thought it was preposterous for us to play [Monroe instrumental track] “Rawhide” or any bluegrass on a recording and take it seriously.”  The Greenbriar Boys didn’t play any Monroe classics or typical hard-driving bluegrass instrumentals on this first album, instead choosing to alternate traditional songs such as “Nine Pound Hammer” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” with original songs like the Rinzler-penned “Coot from Tennessee” and the lighthearted “We Need A Whole Lot More of Jesus (And a Lot Less Rock & Roll)”.

It was around this time in New York City that Rinzler would begin associating with other folk enthusiasts and revivalists, including the late musician/folklorist Mike Seeger with whom Rinzler shared a close friendship. In fact, it was at Seeger’s urging that Rinzler first saw Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys perform in 1954 at New River Ranch, a country music park located in Rising Sun, Maryland.  According to Rinzler, New River Ranch “was like going into another world. I was fascinated by the totally different lifestyle—dinner on the ground, different speech patterns—a whole different way of life.  The whole idea of it really astounded me—that this existed.” (Jim Rooney, Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters, New York: Dial, 1971, p. 77.)

From that moment on, Rinzler was a Monroe devotee, learning everything he could about the man and his unique style of music. It seems that both Rinzler and Monroe became frequent visitors to the New River Ranch; in the Ralph Rinzler Archives there exist several tapes of performances staged at the ranch by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys and recorded by Rinzler throughout the years. It’s very possible that this moment at the New River Ranch was the primary inspiration for what was to become one of Rinzler’s most lasting and important contributions to the world of folklife: the creation of the folk festival, an event which can be enacted for the people to celebrate different elements of folklife; material culture, folklore, or, as we would see in Rinzler’s conception of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a combination of the two.

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4 Responses to “Ralph Rinzler”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    So many memories of Ralph Rinzler. I guess if the other readers are too shy to post memories of a great man, I better speak up. He is still peering over my shoulder once in awhile – making sure that I don’t forget his teachings.
    I was a local old time banjo player in the Washington, D.C. area when the Folklife Festival idea became reality in 1967. There I stood – drooling in front of the stage as the names of the past walked up and started playing LIVE AND IN PERSON. It did seem impossible that people who were on my “Anthology of Folk Music” records were alive and all around me. I spent every day schmoozing with the performers and audience, and Ralph approached me about sitting on the stage with the performers during the “Banjo Workshop” and making them feel more relaxed.
    So – starting with the second year (1968), Ralph would find me -where ever I lived, and pay my way to come sit with the old time banjo players on the stage, and make sure things went smoothly.
    I was always broke, so he would slip me some money for expenses. I think those dollars were pretty much my income for the summer back in those days. Above my desk sits the 1968 banjo stage photo. Next to me is Doc Boggs, Buell Kazee, and Don Stover.
    I call it “Marionette Syndrome.” Ralph Rinzler knew that sending me to these folks homes and meeting them before they came to Washington, D.C. would leave lifelong impressions on me. The music was just a part of the performer. Thank you Ralph Rinzler –
    your teachings worked and are still treasured.
    He brought the earliest still functioning steel band from Trinidad.
    Since he told them that he was interested in the earliest tunes that were in Trinidad, they promised to play the very earliest Trinidad steel drum tune they knew. We sat in anticipation as they dedicated this yet unannounced tune to Ralph Rinzler…….
    Out came Ghost Riders In The Sky…………”Of Course” exclaimed Ralph – smiling – “…that would have been the first hit tune of 1947 – the year that our soldiers left behind the vast numbers of oil drums when the War was drawing to a close………..”

    I felt lucky to be with a man who could instantly solve such a puzzle and appreciate the love which the musicians had for him.

    Reed Martin
    reedbanjo@verizon.net

  2. Joe Says:

    Reed,

    Thanks for the great story. I would love to see that photo you mention. I’m familiar with this photo. I didn’t realize you were a paid banjoist companion. That sounds like a dream job to me!

    http://www.fieldrecorder.com/docs/notes/boggs_martin.htm

    Joe, Austin, TX

  3. Pete Peterson Says:

    Good article– I am grateful to Rinzler both for playing in the Greenbriar Boys (who I got to see back in the 1960s) and for discovering Doc W and others. He didn’t write “Coot from Tennessee”, though; he altered a couple words in the Charlie Poole song. (This is also the song that gave the Highwoods String Band its name; they heard Poole sing “I’m gonna live in the highwoods till I die.”

  4. Reed Martin Says:

    Ralph Rinzler saw the decline of handcrafting in the rural south. One of his observations was that folks who wove baskets seemed to be getting interested in easier ways to make money. The difficulty for these folks was finding logs for the raw materials, a market for their product, and how to get the money back in their own pockets.
    In the case of the baskets and things made from southern trees, Ralph would find southern baskets weavers, and he would also find fellows who could cut trees and conveniently leave the logs within sight alongside southern rural roads. He would pay tree cutters to fell the trees, and leave just the logs alongside rural roads. He would wait a month and then send his contacts to drive along those rural roads and see what baskets and crafts objects of wood had suddenly appeared for sale on southern porches. He would stockpile them in large spaces up here in Washington, D.C., and keep them safe so he could sell them at the annual Folklife Festival on The Mall. Northern folks would fall in love with these homemade things and many buyers themselves would head south to meet the craftsfolk whom Ralph knew.
    I was one of those young kids whom Mr. Rinzler took under his wing and whose life was helped thru his guidance. I was between jobs, so he hired Jeremy Seeger and I to take a huge van, a huge trailer, and drive a huge southern loop – as I recall it was about 2500 miles in one week – picking up finished crafts products for the coming Folklife Festival on The Mall. One of us would drive while the other slept. We would find a rural home, load up stuff, and then drive on to the next place. This was in the years BEFORE the GPS was invented……so we got lost A LOT – but for two young dudes it was a life changing week. Thousands of miles of driving, and all the while one of us slept while the other drove. Down to northern Alabama, out to Ohio, up thru Pennsylvania, and back down to Washington, D.C. – All in one week, and hauling a huge 4-wheel trailer behind our van.
    Thanks Ralph…..I feel you looking down and laughing as I type. It was a pleasure to know you and watch you in action. Many of us were much younger and learned thru watching how you put pieces of puzzles together so everyone came out for the better. I remember being with you when Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller finally arrived at the Mall for the Folklife Festival. He had driven from California, brought all his own food for the duration of the Festival, and would only sleep in his car / parked at the Festival by his stage.
    I remember the men who came from some far away rural island and saw their first pingpong game while staying at some local college dorm during the festival. These men did everything with their feet……so they had incredibly developed feet. They used their arms and hands to hold securely the traditional tribal robes they wore – and held their pingpong paddles between the big toe and second toe of their foot. They were able to play fierce games of ping pong only using their feet for holding the paddles !!!

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