Bluegrass and old-time music publications

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For many aficionados of bluegrass and old-time music world-wide, printed publications have been a vital source of information for over half a century. Books and magazines are now having to shift up to make room for internet resources, but I still regularly have recourse to the material on my bookshelves. I’d like to acknowledge the hard work, enthusiasm and expertise of the thousands of people who have over the years produced publications like Bluegrass Unlimited, Old Time Music, The Old-Time Herald, Banjo Newsletter, Mandolin World News, The Mandocrucian’s Digest, Mandolin Magazine and many others. I guess very few people have got rich by such ventures, and many have lost money – it is primarily a labour of love for the music.

During the last sixty years there has been a steady growth in the availability of information about our music and how to play it. I remember buying Peter Wernick’s Bluegrass Banjo manual when it was first published in 1974, and it was a quantum leap for me. This was the first clear and thorough exposition that I had seen of the right-hand rolls and patterns, both for Scruggs style and melodic playing. The clouds rolled away (no pun intended) and I could see clearly what I needed to achieve on the banjo. Ditto Jack Tottle’s mandolin instruction book in the same series, which appeared a year or so later, followed by Niles Hokkanen’s series of books and tapes which broadened my mando experience more than somewhat.

Another shot in the arm was Banjo Newsletter, which was a ‘first of its kind’ monthly magazine started by Hub Nitchie in 1973 and still going strong. I saw the advertisement for BNL in the Bluegrass Unlimited classifieds in 1975 and sent off for a sample copy. What a revelation! Tablatures of the sort of tunes I wanted to learn, a section on licks and improvisation, a Bill Keith discography, technical stuff about instruments and product reviews – all for the cover price of $1. I immediately sent off an annual subscription, bought all the back issues, recommended BNL to all my picking pals and continued subscribing for nearly thirty years.

David Grisman’s Mandolin World News provided a broad perspective on all matters mando from 1976 to 1984 and was followed by the indefatigable Niles Hokkanen’s Mandocrucian’s Digest and later by Ginny Hollon’s Mandolin Magazine. As far as I know there are currently no hard-copy mandolin publications, but there is plenty of material on line, including the superb Mandolin Cafe and MandoZine sites.

I couldn’t live without Bluegrass Unlimited magazine for keeping in touch with what is going on in the bluegrass world. Hard to pick out what is best about this monthly publication, but I do particularly value the Notes and Queries section, which is for the diehard enthusiast! So much bluegrass (and old-time) history has been recorded in BU over the years, it could really do with a comprehensive index so that articles about specific musicians or bands, both the famous and the obscure, can be located. For example, Notes and Queries in July 2010 had an informative item on the Kentucky Travelers and their song ‘I’m Living My Life In Vain’, but I’ve only rediscovered the item by chance, through selecting this copy of BU at random from my bookshelf.

Old Time Music, steered by Tony Russell, explored the highways and byways of old-time music with an infectious enjoyment. OTM was published from 1971 to 1988, and Tony Russell has gone on to produce his mammoth ‘Country Music Records – a Discography, 1921-1942’; and ‘Country Music Originals – The Legends and the Lost’, a major book on the performers of the period. The Old-Time Herald magazine has also worked in this field for the last 25 years in a similar spirit of thorough and enthusiastic enquiry.

There are now an increasing number of publications about individual musicians. I am currently enjoying the biography of Bill Clifton by Bill C. Malone, and have been particularly impressed by Ralph Stanley’s ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and Ray Allen’s book on the New Lost City Ramblers, ‘Gone To The Country’. Of course ‘The Music of Bill Monroe’ by Neil Rosenberg and Charles K. Wolfe is pretty well essential to anyone’s bluegrass library, as is Rosenberg’s ‘Bluegrass – A History’.

These titles are just examples – you will doubtless have your own favorites. The only advice I can give is to read widely and enjoy!

John Baldry
March 2017

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