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Retro Redux: Outdoor Concerts – From Early Americana To Streisand

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For years, Central Park in New York has drawn a lot of attention by hosting huge concerts starring Barbra Streisand and others. But for over a century New Yorkers have enjoyed all kinds of music in the park, and other large cities have similar traditions, with many different varieties of entertainment available for citizens.

Folks in small-town and rural America liked being entertained too, but haven't always had the same opportunities to enjoy it as those who lived in urban areas. Still, rural people found ways to get the job done. Outdoor concerts were common for them too, and they might be performed in a park setting with a band shell, or at a fair or festival. They could also just as easily show up in a vacant lot or field with a temporary stage and space for audience members to spread their blankets.

It was pretty common as I was growing up, and I remember at least one time when we even watched a movie projected on the big white wall of the building next to the vacant lot. But music was usually the main attraction, and in the area where I lived that meant one of two kinds: country music ("hillbilly" as we called it) or traditional band music, which was mostly marches and light classics. It was the latter that always was my Dad's first choice and it was a preference that stayed with him his entire life, but he didn't limit himself. For him, any kind of outdoor music was a good time to be had.

Outdoor concerts of all kinds have a long history in America, in some cases as an offshoot of early political rallies and debates. That connection was deliciously illustrated in George Clooney's take on the Odyssey, a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou, which featured just that — a good, old-fashioned small-town political gathering, complete with music. Later, the festivities moved inside for the scene that helped provide a famous video, one that made a hit of "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" and created a mini-boom in the musical genre. (And no, George is not actually singing.)

But back to the outdoors. Although music was sometimes performed in vacant fields in rural areas, any self-respecting town – large or small – had a bandstand in a park, and it was well-utilized with regularly scheduled events. Brass bands and school concert groups were the most common, but every kind of music showed up at one time or another. Of course, the bands weren't exactly of John Phillips Sousa caliber, and were mostly made up of locals whose love for music was probably a little stronger than their talent level, but audiences enjoyed every moment.

The tradition has continued through the years, although it now seems that bigger events are the norm. There's no better example than the Independence Day concerts of the Boston Pops, or any of the countless others in huge outdoor facilities around the country. Unfortunately, most of those charge admission.

The Whites sing "Keep On The Sunny Side". from the soundtrack album, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

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