Earl Scruggs, 1924-2012

Musician Earl Scruggs has died. Scruggs was fortunate to see the musical style he helped create return to its rightful place in our culture not once but twice in his lifetime. Bluegrass had been overtaken by rock ‘n’ roll by the late 1950s when young, white kids began listening to the music of the 1920s and 1930s in suburban ranch houses and college dormitories across the United States. Thus the Folk-Blues Revival was born. Those country, folk, and blues musicians fortunate enough to be alive to see the renaissance suddenly found an audience they never previously enjoyed, or at least had not enjoyed for decades. When George Wein produced the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 he made certain Scruggs and his band were on the bill.

The beatniks listening in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village, and their younger siblings still at home playing Leadbelly records on their hi fi’s, were going by a false premise. Mistakenly, the coming-of-age baby boomers believed they were returning to more pure and authentic musical styles. In reality, the songs of the Depression and the Roaring Twenties had been written, recorded, and marketed to the public with a great deal of thought and sophistication. The middle-aged bluesmen and folk singers were probably a little bemused by the whole thing, but there is something to be said for letting people believe what the want to believe.

The Second Coming came in 2000 after the release of the Coen Brothers’s O Brother, Where Art Though? The critically and commercially successful film brought bluegrass to yet another generation. Suddenly, Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and others were again in the public eye. In part, it is what we have to thank for the popularity of such acts as Gillian Welch. That duo is itself a testament to the institutionalization of the music. David Rawlings is a New Englander from Rhode Island, and Welch herself grew up in California where her parents were staff writers on the Carol Burnett Show. The two met when studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Though its antecedents go back further, bluegrass itself dates to the mid-twentieth century. The term itself comes from the name for Bill Monroe’s ensemble, the Blue Grass Boys. Scruggs was one of the hundreds of musicians who passed through the temperamental, occasionally violent, and often angry Monroe’s band over the decades, and he was easily one of the most influential. He and Monroe alumnus Lester Flatt left the band in 1948 and founded the Foggy Mountain Boys. Scruggs did not create the famous three-finger style of banjo playing, but he did perfect it. Bluegrass is an astonishingly versatile music that is doing well today in the twenty-first century in large part thanks to Earl Scruggs and his colleagues. Thankfully, he lived to see it.

The Civil War in Georgia

The Civil War Monitor is a new, quarterly magazine that began publication in the fall of 2011. I became an early subscriber and cannot recommend the periodical highly enough. CWM also has a vibrant web presence, and recently Book Review Editor Matthew C. Hulbert gave me the privilege of reviewing The Civil War in Georgia, edited by John C. Inscoe. Enjoy.

A museum weekend

Hey everybody, wherever you happen to be this weekend I hope the weather is as fine as here in the Big Apple. By accident more than design, I am having a museum weekend.

Today a friend and I went to the Grolier Club for  “Torn in Two: the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.” The exhibit is on loan from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center of the Boston Public Library. The show did an excellent job of explaining the role of cartography in the war. A faulty map was often the case between victory or defeat on the battlefield. (See: Ball’s Bluff.)

Especially poignant were the maps in the section the exhibit’s creators called The Living Room War. A century before Vietnam brought another war into American homes via television, Americans in large numbers purchased maps printed specially for the purpose of following the movements of loved ones on far away battlefields. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt did the same thing during World War 2, encouraging citizens to purchase maps so they could follow along during his fireside chats.) Keep in mind that the mid-nineteenth century was a time when many Americans, North and South, had never traveled more than fifty miles from their homes. One map from 1861 had a portrait of Elmer Ellsworth in the upper left hand corner and Benjamin Butler in the upper right. I was greatly moved by one front page article, accompanied with a simple sketch of Sharpsburg and the Antietam battlefield, published in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune just days after the battle.

Also on display was “Panorama of the Seat of War.” Looking at it, one understands the geographical advantages enjoyed by the Confederacy in the Eastern theater. The mountains and waterways intersecting the entire area created formidable challenges for the Army of the Potomac. As a ranger friend at Antietam National Battlefield points out to visitors during his orientations, soldiers at the time had no GPS devices in 1862. Oddly, this is something people today often have difficulty imagining.

Panorama of the Seat of War, John Bachmann, 1861

Also on display were these famous lithographs. It is always special to see the originals. Again, note the map motif.

General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan

Pro-McClellan 1864 political cartoon

Not everything in the show was from the Civil War era. On display was a detail from “Freedom’s Tracks: A Map of the Underground Railroad,” a map produced by the McElfresh Map Company in 2005 showing the routes runaways slaves used to escape bondage. Alas, I have no picture to show. In order to see it you will have to travel to the Upper East Side yourself. “Torn in Two” will be open to the public through April 28, 2012.

A while ago I got a last minute call from another friend asking if I would like to venture to Queens tomorrow to visit the Noguchi Museum. The outdoor sculptures should be especially beautiful with the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

It is so good getting out of the house after the winter, even the mild winter, we had. Enjoy your weekend.

(images/Library of Congress)

A new freedom trail?

People are often unaware of the rich history of New York City. Part of this is due to the nature of life here, which for centuries has been to tear down the old and build anew. (A friend visiting from out of town last week was mortified when we entered the current Penn Station for a train ride to Long Island; she was expecting something akin to the original.) Nowhere is this truer than in Lower Manhattan, which is the part of the city settled the longest by European inhabitants. Every day millions of people arrive from New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York itself, taking mass transit to the steel and glass office towers and hurrying home at 5:00 pm. About the only major tourist activity in the area is the site where the World Trade Center once stood. The Harlem Historical Society is hoping to change this by creating a Freedom Trail similar to the one in Boston. The trail would focus on abolitionist and nineteenth century civil rights activity in New York City. When people think of New York and African Americans the first thing that jumps to mind is the Great Migration that brought people to Harlem in the twentieth century. The story is deeper than that. Hopefully the Freedom Trail will become a reality in the near future and more people will be aware of this history. The local community board has signed off. Funding from disparate sources will hopefully come next.

Above: Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York State in 1797 and lived in Lower Manhattan in the late 1820s and early 1830s.

(image/Wright’s New York Gallery (MI), Cowan’s Auctions)