Newly Unearthed Tapes Document the First Great Bluegrass Festival

In Inside the Vault, Music Stories by Eric Dawsonleave a COMMENT

Back in April, WDVX marketing director Roger Harb and Rise and Shine host Freddy Smith brought an interesting guest to the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. Howard Friedman, who would soon be leaving East Tennessee, had a box of reel-to-reel audio tapes he wanted to donate to the archive. Friedman recorded bluegrass festivals back in the 1960s, so we figured what he had must be good. But the contents of this recent round of tapes were more amazing than even Friedman himself imagined.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Friedman attended City University of New York. While there, he became interested in folk music, frequenting clubs like the Village Gate, where he saw Woody Allen open for Pete Seeger. Friedman bought himself an 1899 Fairbanks Senator model banjo and found an instructor. “Then I heard bluegrass, and that was it,” he says.

As Friedman became obsessive about bluegrass, his career brought him closer to its region of origin. Friedman earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Tennessee in 1966 and spent his career in Oak Ridge. He retired in 2010 and is moving to Scottsdale, Ariz., to live near his son.

Knoxville was an excellent location from which to travel to bluegrass and folk festivals, which he soon began recording. The first one he attended was the 1962 gathering of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville. “It was wide open,” Friedman says. “You could walk anywhere you wanted—backstage, under the stage, on stage, wherever. So many wonderful musicians and fabulous dance groups. For a boy from the Bronx, it was magical.”

At UT, Friedman shared an apartment at Maplehurst Park with future psychology professor and Cormac McCarthy scholar Wes Morgan. One night, Red Rector called them up and told them to get over to the Andrew Johnson Hotel. There they found Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, Gloria Belle, and Doc Watson engaged in a late-night jam session. Unfortunately, Friedman didn’t have his tape recorder.

When he brought the tapes to TAMIS, Friedman hadn’t listened to them in decades; he had only a vague idea of what was on most of them. Some of the boxes Friedman brought in had writing in pencil on the back, but often conveying minimal information such as “Good group.” Boxes labeled “Stanley Brothers” and “Doc Watson” turned out to be recordings of studio albums or episodes of Paul Campbell’s Music of the Southern Mountains radio show. They’re good shows, but other people have also undoubtedly recorded them.

I thought a box labeled “Story of Bluegrass” might be another radio show. I was surprised to find that it was a live performance with an emcee narrating the history of bluegrass. The performers appeared on stage as their part in the story was told: Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Benny Martin, Mac Wiseman, and on and on. It’s a remarkable recording. After a little bit of googling, I realized just how remarkable it is: Friedman had recorded Carlton Haney’s 1965 bluegrass festival, at a horse farm in Fincastle, Va., a few miles outside of Roanoke.

It was the first multi-day festival devoted solely to bluegrass music. Friedman had made the trip with Morgan and their friend Stan Gourse after seeing an ad in Bluegrass Unlimited. Other boxes labeled “Roanoke” were obviously from the same festival; after looking at the list of performers that weekend and listening to the tapes, it became clear that most of Friedman’s recordings were of the historic festival.

Morgan remembers that Pete Seeger’s son was at the festival with a state-of-the-art Nagra recorder, and a Ralph Rinzler tape from the day is in the Smithsonian collection. A few performances have been released on Folkways albums, and a short black-and-white film clip has made its way onto YouTube. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be much readily available from the festival, making Friedman’s recordings a rare thing. Most of his tapes sound excellent—only a few seem muffled or distant. Friedman estimates there were maybe 200 or 300 people in the audience, so he was able to place his recorder close to the performers, sometimes on the stage. Roughly five to six hours, about half of Friedman’s collection, offer a unique document of the finest players in bluegrass a few years before younger musicians would change up the style and newgrass would introduce the music to a wider audience.

Inside the Vault features discoveries from the Knox County Public Library’s Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, a collection of film, video, music, and other media from around East Tennessee.

Eric Dawson is Audio-Visual Archivist with the Knox County Public Library's Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and with Inside the Vault combs the archive for nuggets of lost Knoxville music and film history to share with us. He's also a longtime local music journalist, former A&E editor of the Knoxville Voice and a board member of the nonprofit performance venue Pilot Light.

Share this Post