Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bluegrass - After La Roche-2

Bill Monroe LP -- of Bill Monroe in Germany -- on sale at La Roche bluegrass festival in France. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

After reading my previous post about the International Bluegrass Festival in La Roche sur Foron, France, a friend of mine suggested that I attend a bluegrass fest in Guthrie, Oklahoma to make a comparison. Actually, I've never been to a bluegrass or country music festival in the United States! The closest I've got, probably, is going to the Grand Ol' Opry, and, in my extreme youth, to the Philadelphia Folk Festival and to various "pickin'" sessions at home by various friends.

It goes without saying, therefore, that, given my iterations around the European country music and bluegrass festival scene, I would indeed love to drop in on some in the U.S.... until then, what I have for a fascinating bluegrass model is a book called Bluegrass Odyssey: A Documentary in Pictures and Words, 1966-86, (University of Illinois Press, 2001) by the photographer Carl Fleishhauer and Neil V. Rosenberg, the noted historian of bluegrass music (and both, I believe, alums, like me, of Oberlin College in Ohio).

In their preface, the two define their subject as "bluegrass music -- or, more accurately, a community bounded not by geography but by its connection to bluegrass music." (Italics mine.)

The chapters of the book, they state, "represent aspects of this community's culture: the music itself, the places where the community may be found, and the relationships among the community members, including relationships of blood and kin." The chapters are titled "Intensity," "Destination," "Transaction," "Community," "Family," and "The Monroe Myth."

New Essex Bluegrass Band, at La Roche festival, 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

This is, to a large extent, what I have been following in Europe in the country/western/bluegrass scene -- the community or "scene" as much as the music. And every time I go to a bluegrass festival in Europe, I bear this book -- and its premise and its images -- in mind. Fleischhauer and Rosenberg were traveling the high, lonesome road decades ago, in the regions where bluegrass music was born, came of age and reached maturity. They report that from one bluegrass festival in the U.S. in 1965, there were more than 700 a decade later. Yet, so many of the images and descriptions still reflect, at least superficially, what I see on the ground in Europe. Just updated a little, fashionwise, and presented in different languages....(The first bluegrass festival in Europe was held in then-Czechoslovakia in 1973; it is still being held today, as the Banjo Jamboree in Caslav, CZ... and there are scores of other festivals in various countries throughout the summer.)

There is a look to the performers, venues and audience that is eerily similar, no matter whether the pictures were taken in Stumptown, West Virginia, or in La Roche, France, or Caslav CZ..."personal interaction," Carl and Neil reported, "[is] at the center of bluegrass music making." Or maybe it's the posture, or expressions on faces.

Jam session at La Roche (in picture are Dutch, American, Hungarian and, in the background, Czech musicians). Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Rosenberg's text is at times a bit academic for my taste, but he records an amazing wealth of details such as the "ritualized nature of performances at festivals," the construction of stages, the look of the crowd, the parking lot jam sessions, even how conversations were carried out.... "Style preferences," he reported, "could be seen in food and drink, dress, camping accommodations and, of course, musical favorites." These, too, are generally reflected in what I've seen in Europe.

Jambalaya at La Roche 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Camping at the Zahrada folk and bluegrass festival, CZ, 2004. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Family bands were another important component of the bluegrass scene as reported in Bluegrass Odyssey... At La Roche, there were various examples of this, too. The British group Toy Hearts, for example, includes Stewart Johnson and his daughters Sophia and Hannah. Also, the Dutch Schut family -- father Dennis and sons Ralph and Chris -- are leading figures in the European scene, veterans of a family band called Spruce Pine who now live in various countries, including France and CZ, and play in various formations. (The American family group 3 Fox Drive performed at La Roche last year, and one of the American groups that performed this year, Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain, has a pair of twin brothers in the band.)

Dennis Schut holding son Patrick, with son Ralph and Angelika Torrie of the European Bluegrass Music Association. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wrote Neil and Carl: "Family music scenes typically mix levels of skill, taste, ability, and dedication; and as with the families themselves, they're constantly evolving and subdividing. So the family band is often a stage in the lives of family members, a kind of rite of passage. As children grow to adulthood in family bands, some go farther than others in the business."

The Toy Hearts, from the UK, at La Roche. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

(To be continued.)

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