Archive for the ‘Ralph Rinzler’ Category

Ralph Rinzler

May 14, 2013
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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.  (more…)

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Ralph Rinzler, Clarence Ashley, and Doc Watson

March 26, 2012

Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson

John Herald, quoted in the notes to “Friends of Old Time Music,” Smithsonian Folkways CD SFW40160:

Ralph came down to help me paint my apartment, and he brought down all these old-timey tapes. It was my introduction to old time music. One of the people he played me was Clarence Ashley. We wanted to study the real McCoy, and we went to a place called Union Grove, which was one of the oldest and the biggest fiddlers’ contests in the South.  What they would do at Union Grove is they would assign each act to a classroom at the Union Grove High School to warm up. When we had warmed up, I said to Ralph and Bob, “I’m going to go see some of the other players.”

We were at one end of a long hallway, and I went from classroom to classroom until I finally got to the other end of the school. And I walked into this room, and there was a crowd of people watching this banjo player sitting in a chair. And I asked them who it was, and they said, “It’s Clarence Ashley.’”

Now I remembered—from Ralph helping me paint my apartment—he had told me about Clarence Ashley. I went back to Ralph and I said, “Was Clarence Ashley one of the guys that you played for me?” and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Well I think he’s down at the other end of the school.” Ralph’s jaw dropped, and he said, “Really?” and he went just tearing down to the end of the Union Grove school, and made a date with him immediately.

I guess he had carte blanche with Folkways Records to record whatever he might have wanted to, and he came back later to record Clarence, and that’s how Doc Watson was discovered in Clarence Ashley’s band. Ralph came back from that recording session, and said, “John, I found a guitar player who’s going to set the world on fire, who the world is not going to believe.”

Pete Steele, Reed Martin, Mike Seeger, and Ralph Rinzler

January 30, 2012

Pete and Lillian Steele

by Reed Martin

Paul Pell came from Hamilton, Ohio. He loved the banjo and made them in his spare time.  It seems that back in Hamilton, there was an older man (Pete Steele) who PLAYED the banjo, and also liked to drink a bit. When the money ran low at a bar, Pete Steele would offer his banjo as collateral and keep drinking. He would leave that bar and never go back, but he would let Paul know eventually that “something had happened, and he could no longer find his banjo.” So Paul would smile, make Mr. Steele another banjo and the cycle would start once again.

 

 

 
Indiana University had a college “Folksong Club” which sponsored monthly folk music concerts on campus. Paul suggested that they invite Pete &  Lillian Steele for a concert, and the Steeles could stay at the Pell household for the weekend – thereby making it less expensive on everybody – and besides, Pete was once again between banjos, and Paul needed to connect with him and hand him another banjo to play.

 

 

 
The evening concert was breathtaking. No set list as I recall – just Pete & Lillian singing whatever came to mind. When there was a need to take a vocal rest, Pete would unload another blockbuster on the banjo.  Later – some voice expert said to me, “did you notice that they don’t sing in harmony – Mrs. Steele sings an octave higher than her husband.”  What do I know about singing – it all sounded great to everyone in the audience !!!

 

 

 
They had given me their home address in Hamilton, Ohio, so six months after their concert I drove over for a visit. I arrived about noon and left before suppertime. We played, talked, and played.  I asked Pete if I could take a photograph of him holding his banjo. He thought that would be fine. I asked if I could take a picture of both he and Lillian together. He thought that would be fine, too.

I asked if I could take a photograph of just his two hands – stretched out showing his fingers – and he questioned me on that one….. Why would you want to do that? – he asked…. So I told him exactly why…..”in the years to come, when you are not playing banjo on stage anymore, young banjo players will absolutely not believe that you do not have extra fingers.  I will have photographic PROOF that you do indeed have hands mostly like everyone else’ hands..”  So he laughed, I got my photo, and it is always in my banjo case if I need it for proof that he did indeed have just regular hands….just four fingers and a thumb on each hand…. (more…)