The Bluegrass Revival, c. 1961

A couple of days ago, Katie and I were having an early dinner at one of our favorite “neighborhood” restaurants (Far Downers, in Crozet). The music system was playing some pretty serious bluegrass. It dawned on me that bluegrass has become a staple in the music diet around here. It wasn’t always so.

In February 1961, the University of Chicago Folklore Society staged a folk music weekend, optimistically advertised as the “First Annual University of Chicago Folk Festival.” One of the featured groups was The New Lost City Ramblers, one of the earliest of bluegrass revival groups. Mike Seeger, a nephew of Pete Seeger, was instrumental (pun intended) in starting the NLCR, to revitalize traditional mountain music, getting back to acoustic instruments and more interactive and collaborative performances.

The festival was a success and bluegrass was on its way to a growth spurt.

Studs Terkel was the festival’s Master of Ceremonies. Studs’ fame at the time was pretty much confined to the Chicago area, where he interviewed famous and not-so-famous people for radio station WFMT, the nation’s preeminent fine arts radio station. I was one of three engineers at WFMT, and spent many hours in the field, toting a heavy Magnecorder tape recorder to exotic locations, frequently accompanying Studs, to capture interviews or other cultural events for rebroadcast. I was the WFMT engineer assigned to record the folk festival.

I have two major memories of that event.

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The first half of Friday night’s recording went without a hitch: the microphones were well placed, recording levels were consistently perfect, it was as uneventful as one could hope. So when the second half began, I rechecked the microphone levels, and ensured that everything was operating correctly. Then, eager to watch the performances from the theater, I left the backstage area. I was thrilled to find an empty seat in the second row next to Mike Seeger, who was scheduled to perform on Sunday. I can’t remember what we chatted about, but I recall that the conversation flowed freely between the musical numbers.

Time flies when you’re having fun…I dashed back to my equipment as the curtain fell to discover a recording engineer’s worst nightmare. Apparently, sometime early in the recording, someone had bumped the table the recorder was sitting on and managed to stop the rotation of the take-up reel, spilling an hour’s worth of tape onto the floor. To make matters worse, when the tape ran out, someone, no doubt trying to be helpful, picked up the pile and dropped it in a jumble on my chair. At 7 ½ inches per second, an hour’s worth of tape amounts to 2250 feet, which is equal to a little more than four tenths of a mile in length. If the tape had been left alone on the floor it would have been a piece of cake to rewind it (slowly, for sure) as the loops would have fallen in an orderly pattern. But once disturbed, it became a tangled mess. And, as luck would have it, we were using acetate-based tape, which is very brittle and easily broken into pieces with irregularly shaped ends. The result was a very long, very narrow, and very thin jigsaw puzzle, with many hundreds of pieces.

I don’t remember how long it took, but I managed to match all the broken ends appropriately and splice them back together without the noticeable “pops” that sometimes result from editing magnetic tape. I don’t think anyone at the station ever knew the full story. I learned a lot about splicing tape from that experience. I also learned never to leave my equipment unattended. Some time later, when I recorded him reading his poetry, I didn’t get to watch Robert Frost from the auditorium, but WFMT got a recording without a single splice of the poet reading “Stopping by Woods” and commenting that, “Sometimes a poem is just a poem.”

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Saturday afternoon Studs was excited to have arranged an interview with a young Scottish folk singer who was attending the folk festival. The festival organizers found us an empty room for recording the interview. We were amazed to find the “room” to be a large hall with a high ceiling and stained glass windows lining both side walls. The rich yellows and oranges in the windows turned the bleak February sun into a warm, golden light. The hall was long and wide and tall, and had marvelous acoustics.

I have no memory of the topics Studs discussed. I only remember that towards the end, he asked the singer if she would sing a couple of her favorite songs, and she readily agreed. She paused briefly, I guessed to choose the song she would sing, then, without any instrumentation, filled the room with one of the most amazing voices I have ever heard. Studs, too, seemed to be awed by the purity of tone and pitch-perfect notes. After she stopped, the room reverberated with a faint echo of the song. Studs and I looked at each other, knowing that he had stumbled on a new singer with great potential.

After the evening’s festival was over, I packed up as fast as I could and rushed back to the studio, where Ray Nordstrand was broadcasting the regular Saturday night show, The Midnight Special. The Midnight Special offered a potpourri of folk music, satire, and pretty much anything else. I rushed the afternoon’s tape into the control room and cued up the song and played it for Ray, who immediately played it on the air. As far as I know, this was the first American broadcast of this spectacular musician. The singer’s name was Jean Redpath. She went on to hang out with Bob Dylan and other up and coming artists in the Village in the early 60’s, and made many, many recordings during the next 50 years.

I was saddened to learn that Jean Redpath died on August 21, just a few days before I started to write this post. (See her obituary here: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/aug/22/jean-redpath)

Her recordings are a great legacy of a truly wonderful singer, but none of them contains anything like the magic I remember of the reverberations in that hall at the University of Chicago in 1961.

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About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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