Bluegrass in the United Kingdom

Written by:

I have a special ghost writer for my column today, my friend John Baldry from jolly old England. Geoff Sergeant said yesterday that he grew up in the American South (as I did too) yet learned how to play bluegrass in California. Well I can testify that I learned how to play bluegrass to a large degree from a guy across the Atlantic ocean in the UK. A dozen years ago, when I was thirsty for information about how to play the mandolin I had just bought, John Baldry’s web site was the best thing out there and my go to resource.

I became very curious about how a guy from the UK could be so enamored with bluegrass music so I asked John to write a hooked on bluegrass story from his unique perspective. Here is John’s take on bluegrass in the UK (forgive me John for americanizing the spelling of a couple of words):
Interest in bluegrass music in the UK developed in the 1950s. At this time most 
Brits had never heard an American band in a live performance, but there were British 
performers in the folk clubs who had access to records and who learned the music by 
imitation. American instruments were rare. There were a few Gibson and Martin instruments 
which had been imported in earlier decades, but British made banjos from the period 
1900-1940 were particularly sought after, names which may not be particularly familiar in 
the States, like Windsor, John Grey, Barnes and Mullins, and Clifford Essex. The Clifford 
Essex Concert Grand and Paragon were top-of-the-line instruments. The UK’s best known 
banjo player in bluegrass and old time music, Pete Stanley, has played a Clifford Essex 
XX Special, an early incarnation of the Concert Grand, for most of his professional 
career. By the 1960s, when I was becoming aware of this music, the guitar which 
represented the most easily obtainable standard was the Levin Goliath series of flattops, 
a quality instrument made in Sweden. Mandolins were whatever you could find – I remember 
Italian bowl backs (taterbugs) and banjo-mandolins being used, though Gibson A models 
were beginning to get into circulation after being found in people’s attics, stashed away 
maybe thirty to fifty years previously.
At the time when I became aware of, and quickly addicted to, bluegrass and old time music 
in the mid 1960s there was not a rigid distinction between the two categories. The best 
way of hearing live performances was to go to the folk clubs, which were proliferating 
during the folk music boom of the 50s and 60s. People learned the music by observing 
local or visiting musicians in the club room, often a small room in a pub, and there were 
rarely any mikes. By the mid-1960s we were receiving visits from American musicians who 
would tour the country for a few weeks. For me the first intimation that there was 
something special in this music was an appearance by Pete Seeger on a popular national TV 
program, ‘Sunday Night At The London Palladium’ early in 1964. I had no idea who this 
guy was at the top of the bill. The Beatles had been on the program a week or two 
previously singing ‘Twist and Shout’ among other hits, and here was a man standing on his 
own on the large stage picking a banjo. I believe his first tune was ‘Old Joe Clark’ and 
he also sang ‘Little Boxes’ and (to his guitar accompaniment) ‘Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep, 
Don’t You Mourn’.
As well as being bowled over by Pete Seeger’s performance – I think he had all the 
audience singing along to ‘Oh Mary’ – I also realized, as a fledgling 18-year-old guitar 
player, that I could play the chords to these songs. A few months later a school friend, 
Martin Ellis, said, ‘I’ve been learning the five-string banjo’ and did an impromptu Pete 
Seeger style performance on a long-necked banjo made for him by the older cousin of 
another school friend, who was involved in the local folk music scene. This was wonderful 
stuff, and through these kind folks I got to know a group of people in my home town of 
Norwich (in the county of Norfolk in England) who were playing bluegrass and old time 
music around the local folk clubs.
At this time, during the mid and late 1960s, we were able to hear American artists like 
Bill Clifton and Mike Seeger in the folk clubs. I particularly remember the first time I 
heard Bill Clifton, in 1965. His impeccable singing and guitar and autoharp playing took 
us into the world of the Carter Family, the Dixon Brothers and many other old time 
performers whom I was later able to track down on records. The following year I stood a 
few feet from Mike Seeger in another folk club while he effectively gave us a history and 
demonstration of a wide range of old time music styles. In 1967 Mike was back with the 
New Lost City Ramblers, this time in a small local theatre (the Maddermarket) in Norwich. 
Mike, John Cohen and Tracy Schwartz walked on to the stage carrying about three 
instruments each, and performed each song, as I remember, with different combinations of 
voices and instruments, as a trio and also with duets and solo numbers. Didn’t we love 
In 1969 I got my first teaching job at a school in London, which gave me access to a 
couple of good London record shops, Collets and Dobells, which imported a lot of 
bluegrass and old time records from the States, and my LP collection started to expand as 
far as my salary would permit. In this large densely populated area of England, I 
gradually met a lot more musicians through the 1970s and consequently obtained greater 
confidence in playing with other people at performances in folk clubs and at social 
events. Bluegrass seemed to be the thing that everyone wanted to do and I rose to the 
challenge as well as I was able, as an amateur musician. Bluegrass and old time music, 
along with the blues, has sustained me for over 50 years and I am particularly grateful 
to the people who helped and encouraged my interest in those early years.

Read about: