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DVD Review: Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass

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History, including musical history, has so much power to enhance our present. Often, people imagine what it would be like to have a time machine and be able to travel back to certain times or events and experience them. We do not have time machines, but we are blessed to be able to experience history through audio, film and photographs, even if sometimes that history is in black and white.

Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass gives music lovers and those interested in musical history a wonderful opportunity to travel back in time to 1961, to the home of famed folk song collector Alan Lomax for a party with great blues, bluegrass and folk musicians. Even though the film is only 25 minutes long, it is packed with important performers, great music,and interesting bits of conversation. The bonus feature about the making of the film provides even more fascinating information from producer John Cohen (of the Lost City Ramblers) and cinematographer George Pickow, in interviews from 2010.

In the film, we are treated to beautiful black and white images and surprisingly fine sound quality. Performers include Clarence Ashley accompanied by Doc Watson, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Jean Ritchie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Ernie Marrs, Roscoe Holcombe, and Peter LaFarge. What a wide range of musical styles!

Jean Ritchie sings in a pure, clear voice that reflects the Celtic heritage of Kentucky mountain music. Roscoe Holcombe performs in the classic high, lonesome bluegrass style. Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim provide authentic blues. Peter LaFarge tears at the heart with his song “Ira Hayes,” which opened my eyes to Native American issues as a child when I heard Johnny Cash perform it. All of the other performers reflect the burgeoning folk music boom and the genuine diversity of the folk music movement.

According to John Cohen in his interview on the DVD, this is probably the only film of Peter LaFarge performing. Other interesting tidbits from the interviews include the explanation of why Memphis Slim was playing organ and not piano. Alan Lomax did not own a piano but he did have a pump organ. Memphis Slim could not play and pump, so they hooked up a vacuum cleaner to the organ to pump while he performed!

Cohen and Pickow also disagree as to whether Bob Dylan was at this party. Cohen says he does not think so, but Pickow says he was but they were forbidden by Dylan’s manager to show him in the film. Dylan had just recently come to New York and was making a name for himself in the Village at that time.

Woody Guthrie was in the hospital in 1961, unable to perform but still alive, and Cohen talks about how the musicians would go to see him, and how Ramblin’ Jack Elliott seemed to just step into Woody’s persona, singing his songs and keeping his spirit alive.

This DVD, while short, packs an incredible amount of musical history into one small package. Any blues, bluegrass, or folk music lover should have this in their collection.

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.