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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Movie Review: Earl Scruggs *The Bluegrass Legend*

Earl Scruggs:
The Blue Grass Legend
Family and Friends: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Byrds

  One of the main issues with Netflix streaming is "what should I watch?"  I think philosophers, scientists and high school drop outs probably all agree that too much choice, whether it be in movies or soda pop, can be confusing and lead to wasted time and frustration.

  Earl Scruggs: The Bluegrass Legend, was one of the first television documentary specials- it aired in 1972.  It was released on video in 2006, and it is currently streaming on Netflix- it also looks like it is available on Google Video.

   This movie captures Earl Scruggs- legend of the banjo as he cavorts with 60s folk revivalists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Byrds.  In fact, one of the main points I gathered from this, the only feature documentary on Earl Scruggs, is how ridiculously huge the 60s-70s folk revival was.  I think, perhaps because I grew up in it (Bay Area early 80s) that I just simply refuse to acknowledge that the artists of the 60s folk revival had huge, monster hits.  The 60s Folk Revival is also interesting because it was a third wave revival:  The initial interest was in 19th century Germany and England, followed by a revival in the early 20th century thanks to radio and records, followed by the world wide revival of folk music in the 1960s.

   So this movie is clearly an example of participants in the 60s folk revival going out and attempting to connect their folk music to the earlier/contemporary folk music of hillybilly culture (here called "bluegrass" in good 60s fashion.)  What struck me was the ability of this 70s film crew, either by luck or design, to capture both the authenticity of folk/bluegrass music as well as the spectacle of the 60s folk revival within the same film.  Perhaps I'm just ignorant, but other then a live performance at the Grand Ole Opry (a big deal to be sure) Nashville and the country music industry seem curiously absent.

   Scruggs is pictured trying to adapt to the "new world": embracing the Anti-Vietnam war movement and mooning over Joan Baez (born in Staten Island, New York, seen here in her Kentucky/West Virginia hidey-hole at the top of her game.  That Scruggs is featured protesting the Vietnam war was no surprise to me.  One of the statements intellectuals like to make about white/european folk music is that it espouses conservative values, but that is simply wrong.  Furthermore, much of folk music is musically innovative.  Certainly the portion of folk music which has received attention during the three waves of intellectual activity has either been actively shaped to this end or conversely, been frozen in amber as an example of an archetype.

  What I'm saying is that you can't talk about folk music without understanding the perspective bringing brought to bear on writing about folk music.  Inevitably, any writing, speech or music involving folk music idioms, artists or specific works, is going to bear some mark by one or more of the three waves of folk music interest in western europe and america.  This movie represents a good example of that, and the music is amazing.  Scruggs picking bears the clear stamp of improvisation and technical virtuosity attributed to jazz musicians.

   Also, unlike jazz musicians, Scruggs plays within familiar songs- always a plus when audience reaction is taken into account.  Learning how to mediate technical virtuosity with song writing principles is one of the sine qua nons of artistic production within the culture industry.  Scruggs, like many jazz artists, is interesting because he evolved his personal technique in the absence of culture industry institutions or mass media.  Earl Scruggs recorded output doesn't really get chugging until the 1970s.

   Scruggs was born in 1924, so he would have come of age during the period when hillbilly music was popular on radio and allowed for regional touring, but before Hillbilly music was "discovered" by the recording industry.  During the time when Scruggs was perfecting his craft, hillbilly was played on the radio.  Scruggs was a sensation as a banjo stylists, but he was hardly a force on the pop charts.  On Allmusic, you can't even pull up a list of "singles."  In his list of recordings on Wikipedia- he has no number one hits.  So there you go, a group of musicians with a TON of number one hits making a movie about a musician who precedes them in time but has no similar hits.

   Asking yourself the question "Why did it take so long for popular culture to 'discover' Early Scruggs?"  The answer is: No hits.

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