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Bluegrass Odyssey: An Appreciation

In her poem "Sometimes," Mary Oliver writes:


Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished. 

Tell me about it.


Twenty-three years after the publication of their book, Bluegrass Odyssey: A Documentary in Pictures and Words, 1966-1986, let us honor Carl Fleischhauer and Neil V. Rosenberg for paying attention to this music, telling about it, and for the astonishment their account still inspires. 


Fleischhauer's photographs and Rosenberg's commentary explore the culture and community surrounding the bluegrass music they discovered and fell in love with shortly after meeting as undergraduate college students in Ohio in 1960. This fascination led them to explore any place associated with music, from working-class bars to campus coffeehouses to the stage of the Ryman Auditorium. Photographs document band practices or jam sessions in garages, a TV repair shop, and in the shower room of a high school before a show in the gym. The festival experience is captured in photos of bands performing on flat-bed trailer stages, vendors selling programs, LPs, and used instruments, and in one remarkable shot, Bill Monroe, in a suit, working with another man to free a car from a muddy field. 


In the book afterward, Fleischhauer notes that his first bluegrass photographs focused on the musicians and consisted mainly of medium shots and close-ups. "A handful of wide-angle photographs appear in my 1976 coverage of a festival in Columbus, Ohio, but, looking back at my proof sheets, I see that I took more care to make wide shots the following year, at a festival at Chautauqua Park, just south of Dayton. One of my favorite pictures was shot on that occasion: Bill Monroe between sets, seated on a folding chair in front of his bus."


Most of this exploration occurs in the states near where Fleischhauer and Rosenberg worked on their undergraduate and advanced degrees: Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and West Virginia. But there were trips to other places where bluegrass was flourishing: Nashville, the D.C. area, and even the West Coast in cities such as Berkley, where young people were discovering the music.


Rosenberg is now the professor emeritus of folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the author of Bluegrass: A History, his acclaimed study of the genre. The first chapter of Bluegrass Odyssey is titled "Intensity."


"The intensity of bluegrass performance was one of the things that attracted us to the music," Rosenberg explains in his commentary. "In presenting the music on stage, bluegrass musicians use voices and acoustic instruments to project the music through microphones. It's hard work, yet they seem to be relaxed and happy. The lyrics often tell sad stories at toe-tapping or breakneck speed. The photographic narrative begins with images of musicians on stage in various venues, followed by scenes of the backstage activities before and after performances. The chapter defines the music in terms of the range of artists to play it and the diversity of places in which the music can be found."


The following chapters are titled "Destination," "Transaction," "Community," and "Family." 


"The last chapter, 'The Monroe Myth,' is a meditation on an individual--arguably the leading figure in bluegrass music-- and his family," Rosenberg writes. "No single family is more important to the bluegrass story than that of Bill Monroe. Like most people who discover bluegrass, we sought to learn more about Monroe, his family, and his home community of Rosine, Kentucky, which Carl visited and photographed on two occasions."


Fleischhauer's many images of Monroe are especially compelling. In a 1970 photo, musicians Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens help Monroe install a new pair of cufflinks at the annual Bean Blossom festival. But shots of amateur musicians, exchanges between entertainers and fans, and situations unique to the bluegrass world come alive when seen through Fleischhauer's camera.

"Offstage, I keep an eye open for the new, the unexpected, or a combination of special elements," he explained in the book. "One favorite is my 1973 shot of Clarence White in his Nudie-style bellbottoms, followed by banjo player Lamar Grier, gingerly stepping around a passed-out fan under a tree. Only in 1992 did I learn this picture's bonus value: the young man between White and Grier is Lamar's 12-year-old son David, now a recognized guitar whiz, captured at a time when his music was being shaped by Clarence's in an important way."

Fleischhauer would have a long career at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. 


In his 2023 International Bluegrass Musician Association keynote address, Matt Glaser, founder and director of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music, said, "Bluegrass is sharing the top space with every kind of music made in this country." He explored the influences, interactions, and virtuosity in a performance of "Love, Oh Careless Love" by Doyle Lawson. "This happens a thousand times a day at every bluegrass festival," Glaser marveled. "Amazing music happens in a short space of time. Always changing, always responsive to the moment. It's totally extraordinary. I hope you never lose sight. Don't take this for granted, ever. It's literally a miracle that takes place over and over again."


Twenty-three years ago, Fleischhauer and Rosenberg--in words and images--documented what they found marvelous and extraordinary in an emerging music genre that was barely 20 years old. Their account ensures we will not lose sight of an enthralling time in this music's history. It's possible to spend time with this book and imagine you smell the smoke from festival campfires, hear the fiddles and banjos from a distant jam session, and feel the power of Monroe's mandolin chop as it thunders from the Bean Blossom stage.


Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer. Bluegrass Odyssey is a publication of the University of Illinois Press.)


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