Bluegrass footprints

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The Internet has become a wonderful source of bluegrass and old-time music history. I have spent many fascinating hours on YouTube watching and listening to musical performances captured on film and audio recordings over the best part of a century. One of the things that has interested me is how people may have come across our type of music unexpectedly and perhaps for the first time. In the 1970s a friend of mine discovered the Blue Sky Boys by hearing their recording of “Down On The Banks of The Ohio” on the sound track of the film ‘Paper Moon’. I first heard Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies while watching a documentary film about skateboarding which was being shown in UK cinemas in 1978 on the same programme as ‘Grease’. Kids were zooming around a skateboard park while the soundtrack played ‘Black and White Rag’, and I remember scanning the credits at the end to find out who was playing it. This quickly led to the acquisition of a couple of LPs of Western Swing music, and in due course to a CD set of the complete recordings of Milton Brown.

More recently a search on YouTube enabled me to identify and listen to a song about flying saucers which I had heard used as background music on a BBC Television item about UFOs. The performers were a duo who sounded rather like the Louvin Brothers, with harmony vocals and mandolin breaks. This was enough to identify the Buchanan Brothers’ 1947 record “When You See Those Flying Saucers”. You can hear it for yourself at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrIcZjIvQM0 The brothers used the professional names of Chester and Lester Buchanan, though I guess they were actually Frank and Ray Buchanan. Frank Buchanan later played with Bill Monroe from 1960 to 1962 and was one of his most highly regarded lead singers.

Videos are a great way to watch the technique of expert musicians. You can learn as much from live performances as from tailor-made instruction videos. One of my most prized discoveries on YouTube is the appearance of the Dillards on the Judy Garland show, which must have been back in the 1960s. They play a wonderfully spirited version of “The Buckin’ Mule” and in the process you get a front-row view of their instrumental technique. Dean Webb’s unusual right hand position and pick grip (pencil-style grip with thumb and two fingers) on the mandolin is remarkable, and I noticed that Doug Dillard had a sizeable right hand, with long fingers and a wide gap between his thumb and index finger. They could certainly play sh** fast! The video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0l-ywr8DW8 and you can also pick up many of the Dillards’ performances as the Darling boys on the Andy Griffith Show. Additionally YouTube yields up appearances of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on the Beverley Hillbillies from around the same time. These 60s television performances must have turned a lot of people on to bluegrass music, as did the inclusion of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in the sound track of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and a few years later the use of “Dueling Banjos” in the film ‘Deliverance’. While all this may have given bluegrass something of a hillbilly image, it did expose millions of people to the music. Some of them would have wanted to find out more about it and take up playing and singing for themselves.

These occasional moments of bluegrass and old-time music on national and international media are like little acorns which in fertile ground can grow into mighty oaks. I guess many of us can look back and remember those occasions of a sparking of interest which has grown into a lifetime of enthusiasm for the music we love.

John Baldry
August 2017

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