RECENT DISSERTATION RESEARCH: Bluegrass Festivals and Beyond
Below is a summary of my current dissertation research. I am glad to share more, but wanted to offer a general overview for those who have opened their homes, campsites and festivals to me over the past few years. Please contact me if you have additional suggestions, resources, or stories you would like to share. (firstname.lastname@example.org)HOW THE PROJECT BEGAN: AN INTRODUCTION
Early in 2014, Fred Hay at Appalachian State University and Robert “Quail” White approached me with an opportunity; collecting the remains of what was once Carlton Haney’s office on the site of the Camp Springs festival site. “It would make a great dissertation topic,” Fred said. That comment lingered. It was not until after a visit to see Charles Haney (Carlton’s brother) and a collection trip with archivists from ASU that I fully embraced the legacy of Carlton Haney (as well as the histories and possibilities of bluegrass festivals) as my dissertation topic.Before visiting the Camp Springs site, my committee member Anthony Kwame Harrison suggested I enter the space as an archeologist—his suggestion could not have been more appropriate. Inside the building were layers of Muleskinner News, letters from fans, and bills. We returned quickly with the archival team hoping another year of harsh weather and pillagers wouldn’t harm the collection too severely. One day was spent filling boxes with papers and artifacts to be sanitized, preserved and house in the Eury Collection (at ASU). Since the collection the ASU library has featured a special showcase
, and has reached out to the public to identify performers
in images—this is a very important aspect of research which connects the bluegrass community and the university. A wealth of multi-media resources have been gathered by Fred Robbins and are available here: http://frobbi.org/audio/fincastle65/
By focusing on Fincastle, Virginia, in 1965—I hope to present the typically traditional genealogy of the genre. Then, it is the goal of this project, through stories, a deep analysis of archived material and performances as well as observations, to uncover the layers of the experiences and the stories of bluegrass which have not been historically told from the stage. While bluegrass is a music both of and from Appalachia, it is also a music connected to class, race, gender, and diasporic identities—diverse experiences identities not often reflected on stage or in “the Story” of Bluegrass.
WHY DOES THIS PROJECT MATTER?
This project matters to me for a number of reasons, but I hope the application beyond the bluegrass community becomes apparent as the project progresses. I present the idea that we create ourselves in these special, ritualistic spaces—individually and collectively. Since the early 1960s, alongside heightened mobility in the U.S., families have flocked to common spaces for multi-day bluegrass festivals. Carlton Haney (often known as the Barnum Bailey of Bluegrass) was the creator and director of the first bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia. The documentary Bluegrass Country Soul which filmed one of his legendary Camp Springs festivals in the early 1970s, captured him lamenting,
“When the festivals are over and my friends leave, I cry. They’re part of me and part of the festivals… when the music’s over on Sunday you never know how lonely it is… but they always come back, the musicians and the people. It’s part of their life, part of ours.”
Festivals are, to Haney and a large majority of the bluegrass music community, what bluegrass music is; a gathering and a tradition or place-making. There is an anthropological magic that happens both in the physical space and between individuals who gather together, sometimes only once a year, to celebrate their musical communities. By looking at the more nuanced, understated movements of cultural and social economies, gendered space, class performativity—and specifically the ways festivals have been documents, remembered, ritualized and recreated— much can be learned about broader covert actions taking place (largely in the South).
In trade publications, archived fan mail, and confirmed in my initial interviews, participants at Fincastle noted feelings of democratic collectivity, socio-economic mobility (within or because of the festival space), and solidarity among participants. I am interested in experiences off stage as well as on stage. Much can be learned by “shifting the camera” or researcher gaze. For example, recently interviewees’ stories have revealed the roles of women within the economic structure of the festival. I have been particularly intrigued by, the importance of “Kathleen’s Kitchen” and the ways women maintained order within the festival grounds, as well as the ways gender, class, and racial identities were performed.
I am seeking out stories and attempting to present an alternative cultural cartography or festival map—one that recognizes the many functions of power within these spaces. But first, I’ve had to get the history down. This requires an extensive mapping of stories (collected through magazines, blogs, letters and interviews) onto a timeline. As my friend, composer Nate May suggests, research at these stages is a process of sifting and distilling. Luckily, I have already begun the fieldwork and research process—the sifting comes next.
Notes on Completed Research:
A pivotal moment in my research process came through the co-ordination and re-historization of the Fincastle Festival’s 50th anniversary at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) annual gathering and festival. The bluegrass community makes this project possible and it is very important to me to interweave my research about Haney and the first festivals as well.
An opportunity to submerge myself between the bluegrass community and my academic interests in a whole new way happened at the IBMA gathering in 2015. “Fifty Years after Fincastle: Celebrating Carlton Haney and the First Multi-day Bluegrass Festival,” was an “edutainment” panel at organization’s annual gathering, “Wide Open Bluegrass.” The event, sponsored by the International Bluegrass Music Museum, recreated “the bluegrass story” as it was told by Carlton Haney at Fincastle in 1965. This project required a transcription of the 1965 story (largely done by the performer Steven Martin from Reidsville, NC). The event was created in close collaboration with Appalachian State University Archives, the International Bluegrass Music Museum, personal collections (Peter Shenkin and Phil Zimmerman’s personal photographs and recordings), and nearly 40 performers including Grammy award winners Sam Bush and Charlie Cushman and four university program bands. Various videos of the event can be found on Facebook. (If you were a performer and would like a copy of the event, please email me.)
While this re-enactment and celebration had its flaws, it was an important moment to all in attendance on a number of levels. For me, it was the power and empowerment of re-telling histories with regards to gender that were most moving. During the planning of the event, it was very intentional on my part to include women on the stage—not merely to include women but to showcase the phenomenal female performers within the genre. This was not true to the 1965 events, but is in line with a sentiment share by many, that we (activists and socially conscious scholars alike) do not wish to recite history, we hope to rewrite or “right” dominant historical narratives. The embraces of young female performers and the sheer excitement of seasoned stars was clearly articulated in response to the retelling, which was dominated by award-winning female instrumentalists—a reversal of the 1965 stage which featured only men, “Bluegrass Boys,” during the “story.” Bonnie Haney, in her closing remarks shared that this –opportunities for female performers—was her father, Carlton’s dream come true.
The event has been documented in a number of places. Bluegrass Today did coverage of the event before IBMA, Thomas Goldsmith covered the celebration in the Raleigh News and Observer, and around the 50th year anniversary, the Roanoke Times wrote a tribute to online communities devoted to Fincastle. My own preliminary academic research has been presented at the International Country Music Association’s Conference, the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference, and the Appalachian Studies Conference.
Carlton Haney’s legacy has experienced a recent resurgence of sorts lately. Not long after ASU acquired rights to the collection, a public reflection on Camp Springs was published by Art Menius on his personal site as well as in the print publication Bluegrass Unlimited. In the article, Menius discusses his own personal visit to the site. Art Menius and Becky Johnson are currently focused on reviving Haney’s second festival ground, Camp Springs, through their Camp Springs Bluegrass Foundation initiative—a project which Bluegrass Today has recently covered. (Please note: the Camp Springs location is a private property.) For many, Camp Springs has been iconized through the film Bluegrass Music, County Soul (which can be streamed here and purchased through a variety of outlets). My review of the film can be found in the special (double) edition of Appalachian Journal published in Spring 2016.
With the generous support of the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship I will be using Berea College’s archives to gather data about early (non-genre specific) traditional music festivals and the transition from conventions to festivals. I am particularly interested in the different ways old time and bluegrass communities gather—spatially, culturally, and sonically. Berea’s extensive collection is the ideal place to conduct this research. I am especially interested in listening to the “Mac Wiseman Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival Collection” and the “Celebration of Traditional Music Collection.” Both of these recording collections provide an interesting foil to my genre specific project as I unpack the “traditional” aspects of bluegrass and bluegrass festival culture. I have made one trip to Berea already and look forward to longer residencies in the upcoming weeks.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to study “my” community. Any faults or inaccuracies presented here are my own and I hope they in no way reflect poorly on the kind folks who continue to open their doors and share their stories and tunes with me. Phil Zimmerman has been monumental in both support and research—he kindly hosted me while I conducted interviews in New England and has sent me a number of resources I cherish. A report of my current research would not be complete without acknowledging the support of Fred Bartenstein and the kindness of Bonnie Haney, Carlton’s daughter. Bonnie welcomed me into her home, shared wonderful food and stories and traveled to Raleigh, NC for the 50th Anniversary event. Fred has been a travel partner, mentor, friend, and historical powerhouse throughout the process. My research is made easier and richer because of his close attention to detail and tireless efforts… dating all the way back to Muleskinner News.
I look forward to seeing you all down the road,
Cantwell, Robert. Bluegrass breakdown: The making of the old southern sound. University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Gardner, Robert Owen. “The portable community: Mobility and modernization in bluegrass festival life.” Symbolic Interaction 27.2 (2004): 155-178.
 I first encountered this term through Bhavnani and Haraway and it is their definition I evoke: “We repeatedly rehistoricize ourselves by telling a story; we relocate ourselves in the present historical moment by reconfiguring our identities relationally, … and those story telling practices themselves are ways of trying to interrogate, get at, the kinds of encounters, historical moments, the kinds of key moments of transition for us-both individually and collectively (Bhavnani and Haraway 1994).”
 A full list of performers includes: Sam Bush, Don Rigsby, Charlie Cushman, Becky Buller, Bryan McDowell, Audie Blaylock, the ETSU Pride Band with Daniel Boner, the Mountain Music Ambassadors from Morehead State University with Raymond and Ruth McLain, the Denison University Bluegrass Ensemble with Andy Carlson, Mark Schatz, Darin Aldridge, and Sierra Hull. Trevor McKenzie represented the AU archive. Josie Hoggard assisted in stage management and Fred Bartenstein served as the emcee and co-organizer.