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Baltimore Bluegrass Paper by Blaze Pappas (page 1)

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Baltimore Bluegrass, The First Twenty Years: From the Hills to New Grass, 1955-1975

Blaze Pappas
Dr. David Haney
AS 5030

Bluegrass often evokes certain locales in the popular consciousness: the Stanley Home Place on Smith Ridge, in south-western Virginia; Bean Blossom in rural Indiana; and, though they themselves were not a bluegrass band, the Carter Family Fold at Mace’s Spring, Virginia. More often, though, the locale might be an imagined one, even for the studied bluegrass fan: a mountain setting which may or may not be idyllic, but which is highly personal, and colored by the dreamer’s visions of home, family, security, and serenity.

Baltimore, Maryland, doesn’t have the reputation of such a place within the popular audience. This is particularly so for those who have memories of industrial-era, “pre-renewal” Baltimore. It was to precisely those sorts of urban areas, including also cities like Akron, Cleveland, Detroit, and Cincinnati - and for the exact reason that they were industrial and gritty – that the carriers of mountain musical traditions moved in search of better livelihoods. This tide of movement ebbed by the late 1960s, and eventually, some Appalachian people did return to the mountains. But the fact of Appalachian out-migration remains.[1] The roots of this pattern of migration can be traced to the Great Depression, and especially to the industrial production requirements of the Second World War. During the War waves of mountain and foothill residents from Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and even North Carolina swept into the Baltimore area to take advantage of work in munitions plants, steel-works, and motor vehicle and airplane factories. The largest employer was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, followed by Glenn L. Martin Aircraft, Bethlehem Steel, and Consolidated Engineering Construction.[2]

This war-work migration ebbed with Allied victory, to resume again in the early 1950s as the coal industry, in a repeat of the 1920s, began to again to suffer the results of overproduction and laid-off thousands of miners. Thousands of mountain people seeking work, or an alternative vocation to mining, came to Baltimore. As Dwight Billings, and David Walls, and other Appalachian scholars have asserted, Appalachian migrants relied heavily upon kinship ties to find work and housing in their movements to industrial centers outside mountain areas.[3] Neil Rosenberg’s account of Bill Monroe following his brothers to East Chicago and the Sinclair refineries there provides a similar example. [4]

Many of the migrants from Appalachia played banjo, guitar, or fiddle. Like other areas to which Appalachian migrants moved, a music scene developed in Baltimore around these Appalachian styles. The first signs of bluegrass developing in the Baltimore area appear in the 1950s, several years after it had been germinated by Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Tri-Cities, Tennessee musicians. This offset in timing would be crucial. Bluegrass as a musical form in Baltimore thus had a national scene to draw on; it was informed by both visiting musicians, long-range AM radio, and, later, bluegrass festivals. Initial local idiosyncrasies had relatively little time to develop before national trends in bluegrass took a strong hold.
An interesting observation—might need some more evidence, but I think you are right. One might argue about how truly “national” bluegrass was in the 1950s, but WWII and migration did provide a lot of north-south integration that gave bluegrass and country broader exposure.

As the genre changed and evolved, this national scene became more important to the development of bluegrass in Baltimore than either Appalachian or local connections. As the Appalachian community in Baltimore aged, and as migration from the mountains dwindled, the national bluegrass scene over-rode local exigencies, and the next generation of bluegrass musicians would be more influenced by national trends than by local, lineal forebears.

It is unlikely that in the early 1950s, however, many musicians in Baltimore playing in Appalachian styles could have foreseen that a bluegrass scene would develop in town, and if they had, probably fewer still would have thought bluegrass would ever rise to national prominence. Music was simply a pastime. With music as a strong common bond, it was natural for Appalachian migrants to organize “pickin’ parties” after work hours or on weekends, to socialize and play. Playing the songs of home was also a way to assuage homesick longing and keep culture shock at bay.
I sold my farm to take my woman where she longed to be,
We left our kin and all our friends back there in Tennessee
I bought those one-way tickets she had often begged me for,
And they took us to the streets of Baltimore.

Thus wrote Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard in their eponymous song, “The Streets of Baltimore,” covered by such various artists as Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Statler Brothers, and Hazel Dickens, among others. Perhaps one reason so many artists have covered this song, is because it describes a common experience to not only the Southern, working-class communities from which the ranks of country, bluegrass, and old-time music have been drawn, but also to the middle-class, generally Northern and Western “bohemian” youth who drew upon those rural, Southern sources, in their quest for a “real America.” In so doing, these later musicians began from the 1940s onward to create their own distinct contribution to American popular music.

Baltimore was not only one of several cities (Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Detroit) that were destinations for Appalachian migrants seeking new futures in the 1940s and early 1950s. The city was also on the southern fringe of the folk revival. Centered on New York, the folk revival had what could be termed an “archival annex” in Washington, D.C., due to the location of the National Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In 1952, Harry Smith’s multi-volume Anthology of American Folk Music had given the revival movement a shot in the arm: the compendium, sometimes in contravention to copyright law
Even in 1970 the early Rounder recordings were not properly licensed.
, showcased the recordings of many then-obscure blues, Cajun, and “old-time” musicians from the early days of recorded music.[5] Folk musicians were interested in the “raw” and “genuine” roots music of the Americas, particularly the rural United States, and they had antecedents in the ballad-collecting activities of Cecil J. Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell amongst the “Southern highlanders” during the 1910s. To Baltimore, Appalachian migrants had brought, by means of what scholars would call relocation diffusion, types of songs, singing and playing that folk music enthusiasts viewed as the “real thing.”[6] Of course, Appalachian music had been in a state of flux since at least the courtship of the fiddle and the banjo, in the two decades prior to the Civil War, and other music styles (like gospel, Tin-Pan Alley, ragtime, big-band jazz, and blues) had contributed heavily to both recorded “old-time” and newer bluegrass. Such a notion of a pure mountain or even country music also slighted the more recent contributions of “honky-tonk” music like Hank Williams to bluegrass itself.[7] Unbeknownst to many Baltimoreans, their city was becoming a breeding ground for a new generation of musical experience.[8] In this incubator two musicians met, each one representing a different approach to American acoustic music.

Nineteen year-old Hazel Dickens arrived in Baltimore for the second time in 1954, having already moved to the city temporarily three years earlier. From coal-mining Mercer County, West Virginia, she was not simply or randomly aiming for a destination which she thought might give her a new start in life. She was also following her older brothers Robert and Arnold to a terminus for Southern mountaineers seeking work with large, urban industrial employers. Finding a factory job, she later recalled the alienation of life in a big city where signs reading “No Dogs or Hillbillies” were posted in some businesses: "Coming to Baltimore wasn't easy, but if I hadn't come, I wouldn't have met so many different kinds of people. And if I hadn't had people in Baltimore to drag me along, I never would have become a professional musician.”[9]

Mike Seeger, though born in New York in 1933, had grown up in Washington, D.C. since the age of two. His parents were musicologists involved in New Deal folk-music projects and collaborations with the Lomaxes. Mike’s childhood immersion in Library of Congress recordings were impressive – and an almost polar approach to learning music for Dickens’, who breathed some of those traditions growing up, and did not think of them as something to be studied.[10] Hazel’s singing emerged from the a cappella Primitive Baptist singing traditions of her father and other church elders. Her guitar playing is reflective of the impact the technology of the time had on Appalachian families: initially, her biggest influence on guitar was Mabel Carter, whose playing she heard on the radio.[11] In contrast, partly “book-learned,” Seeger would never really shake the impression, particularly among Appalachian migrants, that he was a Northerner.

Another “oddity” about Seeger, in contrast with most young Appalachian men, is that he was a conscientious objector to the draft. The war in Korea had just ended in 1953, and Seeger, as a “C.O.”, had been assigned to community service in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Baltimore. Making no secret of the fact that he played music (Mike indeed played several instruments by that point), Seeger soon met Robert Dickens, who lay abed there.[12] The two young men eventually began to play music together with brother Arnold and sister Hazel. What they actually played was the Appalachian string-band music that had been evolving for decades – a form that Seeger had listened to and studied extensively, but which he had as yet no experience playing with working-class mountain musicians. Their playing was cross-fertilized, again, by the radio. At Hazel’s insistence, their “pickin’ sessions” incorporated material that was found on the country radio stations of the day, which included such musicians as Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers, as well as honky-tonk. The four played “living-room parties,” but also began to busk in the corners of Baltimore honky-tonks.[13]

Though Bill Monroe had begun to develop bluegrass the late 1930s, and several years had passed since Flatt and Scruggs were member of the Blue Grass Boys between 1944 and 1948, the term “bluegrass” was by no means in universal, or perhaps even in wide usage, in the early 1950s.[14] The term “hillbilly” was still widely used to refer to this music, which was then seen simply as a variant of country. At this point in time, musicians from outside Baltimore playing “hillbilly,” “bluegrass,” and “old-time” country music began to come to the city, first playing the same small “living-room” or house parties that Appalachian migrants like the Dickens siblings and their peers had been playing.[15] Local banjo player Lamar Grier remembers talking and drinking with Bill Monroe, Clarence White, and Doc Watson at some of these gatherings, which were attended by both mountain migrants and “townies”. Danny Curtis (later of Walter Hensley’s Dukes of Bluegrass), and Russ Hooper state that Mac Wiseman came to Baltimore as early as 1952, where for a time he played a show on local station WBMD, broadcast from Johnny’s Used Cars on at 900 E. Fayette Street.[16]

Russ Hooper, a pioneer of the resonator guitar in Baltimore, had just moved to Baltimore in 1952 at the age of 15, to help care for his grandparents. Hooper did not have to travel far to reach “Clipper City,” having like Mike Seeger previously lived in Washington, D.C. He recalls that Johnny Willbanks, proprietor of Johnny’s Used Cars, had come originally from Georgia; it was through the insurance settlement from the horrible loss of his legs in falling from a railroad car that he opened his dealership. He would later move this dealership to Harford Road, in northeast Baltimore near an area known as Parkville. Willbanks, according to Hooper, was a huge bluegrass fan, and he had become friends with WBMD (and later, WAMU) disc-jockey Ray Davis.[17]

For Hooper as for Dickens earlier, radio was still critically important in learning how to play the songs of recorded “hillbilly” musicians. In addition to WBMD, WWVA in Wheeling, and WRVA in Richmond (which carried the Old Dominion Barn Dance), one could also dial-in Cincinnati’s WCKY “on a clear, cold night.” Hooper especially remembers waking early and tuning-in to WSM every morning from 5:45 until 6:00 to catch Cohen E. Williams’ Martha White-sponsored show. [18]

The only venues for bluegrass shows remotely in the Baltimore environs before the mid-1950s, were Ola Belle and Alex Reed’s New River Ranch in Rising Sun, just south of the Mason-Dixon line, and at Sunset Park, in West Grove, Pennsylvania, just north of the same fabled “cultural divide”. Both venues were country music parks, the latter dating from 1940.[19] Russ Hooper commenced playing there in 1952, when he performed with the Browns; he began playing there together with Bob Baker in 1955.[20] Hooper cites these parks north of the city as having been of great importance for young bluegrass musicians in learning elements of playing style from nationally-acclaimed bluegrass and country musicians, such as Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scrugs, and Reno & Smiley.[21] Singer/guitarist Carroll Swam (now of southern Pennsylvania-based Bluestone), and acclaimed banjo player Mike Munford (formerly of germinal Baltimore band Windy Ridge, now also playing professionally from southern Pennsylvania) additionally concur.[22] Hazel Dickens first met Ola Belle Reed at the New River Ranch; Ola Belle’s stark, powerful voice made a strong impression on her.[23]

By the mid 1950s, local bluegrass musicians had begun to make the move from playing at living-room parties to playing at clubs in town. These included the Cozy Inn on West Baltimore Street, the 79 Club at the junction of St. Charles Street and Cross Street, and the Blue Jay in Fells Point. Walter Hensley described the 79 Club as “a typical South Baltimore bar in an old rowhouse. The stage was built into one wall, the bar was on the other wall… Even though it was in a rough neighborhood, it was a safe place to go. And we'd attract not just mountain people and beatniks, but also doctors and lawyers.”[24] These downtown bars became landmarks in the evolution of bluegrass and “hillbilly” music in Baltimore. Bands of several levels played in these small clubs: established stars like Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, rising acts like Pike County Boys, headed by Bob Baker, and nascent
Odd use of this word
groups like Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys.[25]

Guitarist Bob Baker came to Baltimore from the Blacksburg, Virginia area by 1954. Little has been written about him, yet Baker was a central figure to the early bluegrass scene in Baltimore as he created one part of a nucleus around which the fledgling regional scene would develop. Baker formed the Pike County Boys in 1954; the earliest line-up featured Bob on guitar, Dickie Rittler on banjo, Mike Seeger on fiddle, Hazel Dickens on bass, and Bob Shanklin on mandolin. The Pike County Boys began to play the Cozy Inn on a regular basis. Russ Hooper would join this band a year later, beginning a five-year working relationship with Bob Baker.[26]

Earl Taylor was another Virginia mountain transplant to Baltimore. A mandolinist, Taylor had come to Baltimore a few years before, prior to leaving for Detroit where he played with Jimmy Martin, while Martin was playing to bluegrass-starved mountaineers in the Motor City. Different sources give a somewhat varying timing to both Taylor’s formation of the Stoney Mountain Boys, and his manner of selecting fellow Virginian Walter Hensley as banjo player for the new band. Taylor returned to Baltimore from Detroit in either 1957 or 1958. Fifty-odd years later, with many miles accrued to the memories of all concerned, two basic versions exist as to what happened next. By one account, Hensley’s reputation for skill on the banjo preceded him to such extent that Taylor traveled to Grundy, Virginia - where Hensley, the son of miner, had been born - and convinced him to relocate to Baltimore[27]. Other sources state that Hensley was already in Baltimore, possibly by 1956, playing guitar in a rockabilly band called The Black Mountain Boys, at the Cozy Inn.[28] Hensley himself states that he arrived in town in 1957, having first left Grundy for Columbus, Ohio, and returning home after failing to find a day job. He then found work at Monarch Rubber on Pulaski Highway in Baltimore, where his mother was then living.[29] He also records that he initially made more money as a rock and roll musician, but that he “jumped at” the chance to play bluegrass because that music “was my roots; that was the music I loved.”[30]

By 1958 then, at the latest, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys formed. This first line-up included, in addition to Earl on mandolin and Walter on banjo, Vernon "Boatwhistle" McIntyre in the dual role of bassist and comedian, and guitarist Charlie Waller. Within that year, Waller would co-found the Country Gentlemen in Washington, D.C., and Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys would record two songs for the infant Rebel Records label, out of Mount Ranier, Maryland: "The Children Are Cryin'" and "Stoney Mountain Twist" (composed by Hensley).[31]

Of these formative years in the Baltimore bluegrass scene, Russ Hooper opined that in, “in those days, there were only two groups: Bob Baker and the Pike County Boys, and Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys.”[32] While allowing for the presence of smaller acts, Hooper’s statement underscores the dominance of these two bands, which most Baltimore-area bluegrass musicians did some time in, between 1956 and 1961. By 1959, Bob Baker and the Pike County Boys were at full-throttle, performing regularly on Baltimore station WBMD, and playing seven nights a week at the 79 Club.
An important phenomenon about some of these 1950s bar bands (like the Lilly Brothers in Boston) was that you could actually make a living as a “local” band due to this steady work, though as you point out below that was not the case for Hensley.
The band’s line-up then included Dickie Rittler on banjo, and Bob’s brother Billy Ray playing bass.

Despite the largely local focus of bluegrass bands in Baltimore at this time, camaraderie existed with the bluegrass scene in nearby D.C., which included the Country Gentlemen, the Stoneman Family, and Buzz Busby.[33] Del McCoury was also active in the area at the time. Hazel Dickens, as well as Mike Seeger, continued to be part of the Baltimore scene even as they maintained an extra-regional profile due to affiliations with the folk movement. In 1959, Seeger, along with John Cohen and Tom Paley, had just founded The New Lost City Ramblers, a “contemporary” old-time string band, in New York.[34] The Ramblers, of course, were yet to become the massively-influential beacon for others anxious to preserve and re-interpret the “old-timey” mountain and Southern string-band sound of the 1920s and 1930s. Nor had Paley yet coined the term “the high lonesome sound” to
I think it was John Cohen, another NLCR member, not Tom Paley, who came up with the term for his 1963 movie, unless you have discovered that he got the idea form Paley.
describe bluegrass. They were just another relatively obscure musical collective like the Stoney Mountain Boys, to whom they were considerably junior in terms of unit experience. What they lacked in mileage, though, they made up for by their affiliations with key figures in the folk revival and American “roots music” scene. Through Seeger’s connection with Alan Lomax, a potential break-out from the local scene occurred for The Stoney Mountain Boys at just this time.

Lomax needed a bluegrass band to fill a slot at Folksong ’59, an April 1959 Carnegie Hall event, mainly oriented toward the folk-revival crowd. Included in the evening’s line up were blues musicians Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim, as well as folk artists Jimmy Driftwood, and Mike and Pete Seeger. Mike Seeger and his half-brother, Pete, had mentioned to Alan that they knew of a very good bluegrass band in Baltimore who were more than earning their wings gigging up to seven nights a week locally. Lomax traveled to the 79 Club and offered the slot to The Stoney Mountain Boys; Hensley later recounted that he had assumed Carnegie Hall would be no bigger than a large dance-hall. Although, after arrival at the massive venue, Hensley was immediately seized with dread about how the New York folk crowd would receive the band, the show proved to be a great success. It lead, in fact, to the inclusion of The Stoney Mountain Boys’ set on a recording of the concert released later that year by United Artists (Folksong Festival at Carnegie Hall - UAL 3049), and a one-off LP with UA released in 1960, The Stoney Mountain Boy’s Folk Songs From the Blue Grass. Hensley’s banjo picking contributed to the band’s “hard-driving, Baltimore-style bluegrass” which electrified the Carnegie crowd, and with the United Artists records, Hensley began to be known as “The Banjo Baron of Baltimore.” [35]

Returning to play at the 79 Club the next night, Hensley joked with the crowd, “We were in Carnegie Hall last night, and tonight we're back in Baltimore playing the same old dump again.” Playing the same familiar scene was to remain a reality for a while. Take-home from the kitty was another matter: performing actively on a local level has never been likely to enable a musician to quit his or her day job. Walter Hensley and Russ Hooper both refer to the nightly wage at downtown bars like the Cozy Inn and the 79 Club as having been small, Hooper stating with a chuckle that “five dollars a night is what you made,” and Hensley concurring: “You were lucky to make five dollars a night or thirty-five dollars a week. You talk about the good ol’ days, but those weren’t the good old days!”[36]

Good or bad, the days were “a-changin’”. Bob Baker left Baltimore early in 1961 when daytime employment ran out, to return home to the New River region of Virginia.[37] Thus, after Dickens and Seeger had largely become bigger fish in a bigger pond, the mountain musician who had founded the first bluegrass band in Baltimore departed, and the band itself folded. In its wake, Russ Hooper and banjoist Marvin Howell agreed to form a new bluegrass quintet. The Franklin County Boys’ early line-up consisted additionally of Joe Hales and Leroy Coles and a fiddle player named Kimball Blair. Coles was drafted after 2 months. None other than Frank Wakefield also held down the role of mandolinist for a short time, until replaced by Dan Curtis in July of 1961. Frank Joyner would later take over duties on guitar and lead vocal. At this time, the groups’ vocal sound “clicked”: the Osborne Brothers’ unique sound was a huge influence on the Franklin County Boys’ harmonies.[38]

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Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
Free Bluegrass Backup Tracks for Practice October 12, 2015 11:11 AM former member
BBMG Store July 23, 2012 1:11 AM Tony
Jim Cox - Part 2 February 10, 2011 9:09 PM Arnold D.
Jim Cox - Part 1 February 6, 2011 8:03 PM Tony
Russ Hooper - Part 4 November 15, 2010 10:12 PM Tony
Russ Hooper - Part 3 November 15, 2010 10:04 PM Tony
Russ Hooper - Part 2 December 17, 2010 12:44 PM Tony
Russ Hooper - Part 1 December 2, 2010 12:29 AM Tony
Baltimore Bluegrass Paper by Blaze Pappas (page 2) September 14, 2010 12:01 AM Tony
Baltimore Bluegrass Paper by Blaze Pappas (page 1) September 14, 2010 12:02 AM Tony
Mike Munford - Part 4 November 11, 2010 12:58 PM Tony
Mike Munford - Part 3 November 11, 2010 12:58 PM Tony

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