Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass (#2)

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"Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass,"
directed by Alan Lomax (Cultural Equity, 2012)

reviewed by Michael Scott Cain (www.rambles.net):


In 1961, the Friends of Old Time Music threw a series of concerts in New York City, featuring the likes of Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashey and Doc Watson, as well as blues giants Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon. Folklorist Alan Lomax brought them all back to his Greenwich Village apartment for a party, where he directed this 35-minute documentary.

In the film, we see these established musicians perform, as well as next-generation folk artists such as Ernie Marrs, Peter LaFarge, the Greenbriar Boys, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and the New Lost City Ramblers.

As the film unfolds, we see these artists perform in an informal setting, singing for each other and the small group of attendees that included the likes of Maria Muldair. (Bob Dylan was rumored to be in attendance but in the film about the making of the film, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers and one of the founders of the Friends of Old Time Music say flatly that Dylan wasn’t there. The cinematographer George Picklow, however, says Dylan was indeed on the premises, lurking in the background, but Picklow wasn’t allowed to film him.)

Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass is both a fine movie and a very much needed piece of history. It’s the only film of Peter LaFarge, a singer who wrings all of the drama out of his song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” and it also contains a rare appearance by Roscoe Holcomb singing a couple of old Appalachian tunes, including a hard-driving bluegrass version of “Old Smoky” that makes the song we all knew as kids sound as hokey and inauthentic as we always suspected it was.

When Holcomb does “The Cuckoo” we see a very young and unknown Doc Watson accompanying him. Holcomb is a treasure, and this opportunity to see him makes this film essential.

But Holcomb isn’t the only treasure here. Ernie Marrs, a man who lived his principles by working as a migrant fruit and vegetable picker, turns “Pop Goes theWeasel” into a protest song, an attack on the nuclear age called “Pop Goes the Missile,” while Ramblin’ Jack Elliot contributes his classic versions of “Candyman” and “San Francisco Bay Blues.” He then pays tribute to Woody Guthrie before he sneaks out of the party with a beautiful young woman on his arm and a lecherous grin on his face.

If there’s a flaw to the movie it is Lomax himself. His goal here was to sell the film to British television as the pilot for a series, so he conducts little mini-interviews with the talent, asking them self-evident questions designed to make academic points. These interviews are totally unnecessary, serving only to break the natural flow of the film.

This DVD is the first release of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass in any form. You’ve got to see it.

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