Before Farm Aid, Telluride, or even Woodstock, there was the Newport Folk Festival. Begun in the late ’50s, this yearly gathering molded and defined a generation’s tastes in music. It was the all-star event of roots music. Vanguard’s just-released pair of three-CD sets, one for blues and one for bluegrass, let us hear what some of the greats sounded like when they were on top of their game.
The bluegrass box features Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, The Stanley Brothers with the Clinch Mountain Boys, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys, Don Stover, The Lilly Brothers with Don Stover and Tex Logan, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, and the father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. The Bluegrass Boys who performed behind Bill for this 1965 set included Peter Rowan on guitar and lead vocals, Tex Logan on fiddle, Don Lineberger on banjo, and James Monroe on string bass.
While some of this material has been previously released, there are 16 tracks that have never seen the light of day. Since bluegrass is primarily ensemble music that makes extensive use of improvisation, studio albums (especially from the mid 60s) rarely capture the true spirit of the music. These Newport performances offer us a priceless glimpse of what these bluegrass pioneers could do when playing live before an appreciative audience.
The blues box has three CDs, each with a different title. Delta Blues contains performances by Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Muddy Waters doing his solo act. Country Blues features Robert Pete Williams, Mance Lipsomb, Jesse Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and Sleepy John Estes. Urban Blues serves up Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters with Otis Spann, the Chambers Brothers (pre-”Time Has Come Today”), and Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band with Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar. Twelve previously unreleased tracks are peppered throughout these CDs.
Since so few of these original “first-generation” blues players are still with us today, the only way to find out what they sounded like is through recordings. What is most remarkable is not how “primitive” or “funky” they are, but how sophisticated their guitar work is. Listen to John Hurt on “Stagolee” or Mance Lipscomb doing “God Moves on the Water.” These guys were nothing short of amazing.
Tom Vickers, who produced the blues CD, and Fred Jasper, who handled the bluegrass CD, are to be commended not only for the overall packages, but the fine attention to detail throughout. The liner notes are entertaining and informative. Two different mastering engineers – David Glasser for the bluegrass and Jeff Zaraya for the blues – managed to preserve all the fidelity available from the original analog tapes. I especially liked the fact that they retained all the low-frequency information such as footfalls and stomps that helps to make the music vibrant.
If you’re a serious fan of bluegrass or blues, you can’t consider your collection anywhere near complete without these CDs. They are as essential as air or water.
Newport Folk Festival
Best of Bluegrass 1959 – 1966
Newport Folk Festival
Best of the Blues 1959 – 1968
This review originally appeared in VG‘s July ’01 issue.