Monday, September 26, 2011

Bob Dylan, Ralph Rinzler, and Folkways: A Vision Shared

Ralph Rinzler, Bob Dylan, John Herald

Fifty years ago tonight, Bob Dylan played his second major booking in New York City, opening for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerdes Folk City. At that time the Greenbriar Boys were led by singer-guitarist John Herald, with Bob Yellin on banjo and Ralph Rinzler on mandolin.

There are video clips of the Greenbriar Boys floating around, but so far as I can tell, all of them were recorded after Rinzler left the group in 1963. Rinzler was no slouch of a musician, but he was more influential as a folklorist. 

Rinzler published a piece in Sing Out! in 1963 which was a keystone in establishing Bill Monroe's role in the development of bluegrass music, served as Monroe's manager at a key point in Monroe's critical and popular resurgence, and even played as a Blue Grass Boy for a while. (Rinzler has also been credited, on occasion, as the first writer to use the term "bluegrass" in print, though that is likely an exaggeration.) He also brought Doc Watson to the national stage and identified and recruited scores of traditional musicians for the Newport Folk Festival.

In late 1966, Rinzler began working with the Smithsonian Institution, where he would spend the rest of his professional life. Initially recruited simply as a consultant for its planned folk music festival, he successfully pressed to expand its focus to folklife and folk arts generally. By 1976, he organized the Smithsonian's 3-month-long bicentennial folklife festival, then became director of its Office of Folklife Programs. His professional biography is rich in achievement.

In the mid-1980's, Rinzler became determined to acquire the Folkways Records archives from its founder, Mo Asch, and reissue its recordings as part of its successful music program. But the Smithsonian's newly installed chief executive refused to support the plan, forcing Rinzler to try to find business and corporate donations.

On July 5, 1986, accompanied by his son Jesse, Bob Dylan turned up at the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival, looking for Rinzler. He introduced Jesse to him, telling his son "This is the guy whose band I played opening act for on my first club date." Their conversation turned to Rinzler's projects, and his setback on the Folkways deal. The next day, Rinzler met with Dylan and his management team to develop the Folkways: A Vision Shared album project. With artists like Bruce Springsteen and U2 enlisted, donating their royalties, the $400,000 guarantee for the benefit disc, half the cost of the acquisition, making the purchase feasible. An unidentified private donor contributed another $200,000, allowing the deal, which also included Woody Guthrie's papers and personal archive, to close in 1987. (The balance was apparently funded by later artist-donated royalties, an HBO TV special and home video, and earnings from the revitalized label.)

After an extended illness, Ralph Rinzler died July 2, 1994. The Washington Post described him as "The man who brought America to the National Mall." The New York Times, citing his efforts to expand the Smithsonian's folklife programs beyond their traditional focus on Anglo-American culture, curiously and incorrectly described him as African-American. The Smithsonian renames a section of its archives in his honor.

Somehow I expect Rinzler would have appreciated what's said and shown here more. The video also includes a much better account of Rinzler's life than I've written here. It also includes a short clip of Rinzler performing (a song Dylan played once with the Dead, coincidentally), comments from the other two Greenbriar Boys who played that night 50 years ago, and various other folks you'll recognize.

Songs for Ralph

Curiously enough, you can't buy the Vision Shared album through Folkways Records (it's on Columbia). But you can buy Folkways: The Original Vision, the Guthrie and Lead Belly recordings of the same songs, from them, and Rinzler might have been more pleased if you bought that, too.

1 comment:

Live_manimal said...

That's Great! Preserving culture is such a selfless deed