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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Discussion With Author And Music Historian Bill C. Malone On "Music From The True Vine: Mike Seeger's Life and Musical Journey"

Bill C. Malone is an American music historian, author, teacher, radio host, guitarist, and celebrant of traditional American country music. His groundbreaking 1968 work, Country Music U.S.A., is still very much regarded as the definitive academic work exploring the history of country music, and the volume is currently available in its third revised edition.

In addition to Country Music U.S.A., Mr. Malone has written some of the best works exploring traditional music out there, including Southern Music/ American Music, Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music, Don't Get Above Your Raisin: Country Music and the Southern Working Class, and Stars of Country Music: Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Rodriguez.

Mr. Malone is a passionate scholar who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984, and in 2008, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of American Music. He was also the recipient of the 2010 Charlie Poole Lifetime Achievement Award, the winner of a Certificate of Merit for the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), and he received an Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research in 2009 for Working Girl Blues: the Life and Music of Hazel Dickens (which was written with Hazel Dickens). 

Hot on the heels of producing 2008's Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens (composed with Ms. Dickens herself), Mr. Malone has returned with another wonderful work, this year's Music From The True Vine: Mike Seeger's The Life and Musical Journey.

I recently had the honor of interviewing Mr. Malone regarding his personal lifelong journey and studies of traditional music, leading up to, and including, his Mike Seeger biography. We retraced his earliest musical experiences, how his love of traditional music blossomed into various lifelong pursuits, and where his academic studies, teaching, and playing of traditional music all intersect and enrich his own life.

I'd like to start by introducing you to new readers, as well as providing some insights of your own personal history with followers and fans of your published work, as well as your radio show. Let's start at the very beginning of your musical experiences:

You grew up in a cotton-farming community, about 20 miles west of Tyler, Texas. Can you discuss your earliest experiences with music as you were growing up, and how your enjoyment of music blossomed into a passion?

Bill C. Malone:
My earliest experience in hearing country music came from my mother--in the form of gospel songs and old sentimental pieces (like "The Little Rosewood Casket," "The Two Little Orphans," and "The Baggage Coach Ahead"). She was Pentecostal by faith, and her singing captured the strength and emotionalism of that church. Hearing her sing around the house was a defining and enduring experience for me.

The next big influence was the Philco Battery Radio that Daddy bought in 1939. It opened up a wide, wonderful world of experiences for us, including the hillbilly radio shows that came out of Dallas, Fort Worth, Tulsa, and Shreveport. The Grand Ole Opry began broadcasting for thirty minutes on NBC that year, and we also heard it over WSM in Nashville, which came in sporadically on Saturday evenings.

I heard people like Uncle Dave Macon, DeFord Bailey, Sam and Kirk McGee, Roy Acuff, the Shelton Brothers, the Callahan Brothers, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, and people like that. I was hooked for life. Perhaps the most seminal radio experience that I had was hearing the Carter Family over the broadcasts of XERF from Villa Acuna, Mexico on the Mexican border.

When did you first begin learning and playing music yourself?

Bill C. Malone: I have sung all my life, around home, and after I enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin in 1954. I didn't take up the guitar until I was in graduate school, and generally sang to the accompaniment of friends such as Tom Crouch and Willie Benson (You'll notice that I dedicated the Seeger book to Willie). The guitar is the only instrument that I play. T

Which artists and/ or albums were especially inspiring to you?

Bill C. Malone: The first album that had a strong influence on me was the reissue of Jimmie Rodgers' material in about 1949. It was a true "album," that is, it was composed of a group of 78 rpm records placed in sleeves of an album. I played it to death.

The next influential set of recordings was the Harry Smith Collection (Anthology of American Folk Music by Smithsonian Folkways) that I came across in the Austin Public Library sometime in the mid-fifties. It was a major thrill to find there some recordings by Uncle Dave Macon and the Carter Family. That seemed to validate the music that I'd been listening to all my life.

When and how did you decide you decide to study music and the history of music? Can you describe how that led you to higher education and your pursuit to become a music historian?

Bill C. Malone: After I enrolled at the University of Texas in 1954, I began singing at parties and anywhere else that people would listen to me. In the late fifties and early sixties a few of my friends and I started playing each week at Threadgill's, a bar in North Austin. After I finished all of my graduate course work in history, and had passed the Ph.D qualifying exams, I had no idea about what I would concentrate on in my dissertation. It never occurred to me that someone could work on something that they truly loved (in my case, hillbilly music).

But one day on a trip to Houston (to attend the Bluebonnet Bowl, along with my supervising professor, Joe B. Frantz, and a few other graduate colleagues, Dr. Frantz said: "Since you love country music so much, why don't you do a history of Nashville publishing"? Frantz was a business historian, and knew that country music was becoming a big business (this was about 1960). As you would expect, I was delighted to have the opportunity to write on country music, and once I got into the subject I expanded it way beyond what Frantz had intended.

Can you tell the tale of how your dissertation ultimately become Country Music, U.S.A.?

Bill C. Malone: I was teaching at Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University) in San Marcos, which is only thirty miles from Austin. One day I drove up to Austin with a good friend, Bill Pool, who was also a historian and a friend of the editor, Frank Wardlaw, at the UT Press. The Press at that time was also publishing the Journal of American Folklore.

The editor of the JAF was John Greenway, a folklorist who liked and saw the value of country music. So, it was the proximity of the Press, and the fact that the country was going through the folk music revival, that enabled my dissertation to be noticed and eventually published. This must have been around 1964.

You have passionately written a number of works focusing on country music. Before we begin discussing your new Mike Seeger biography, can you briefly discuss some of your most memorable works and/ or most rewarding experiences writing about music?

Bill C. Malone:
Country Music, U.S.A. was the first academic history of country music ever written. Getting to know such musicians as Floyd Tillman and Ted Daffan were thrilling experiences. The single most thrilling experience, though, was getting to be in a studio at WSM in Nashville where Flatt and Scruggs were taping their early morning radio shows. Southern Music, American Music, which has been revised with the assistance of David Stricklin, was the first full-scale survey of Southern music. I think that I may have contributed to the idea of the existence of "southern music."

I've written other books, but I think that the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music should also be mentioned. I organized the collection, chose the records, and wrote an accompanying history of the subject. The collection was widely circulated and reviewed.

Your previous book before the Mike Seeger was Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens.  Can you briefly describe what was most memorable, rewarding, and or challenging composing that biography?

Bill C. Malone: The most memorable and rewarding consequence of writing the lengthy biography that's included in the book, along with helping Hazel write her song commentaries, was getting to know her. She was a remarkable woman: strong, compassionate, courageous.

Did your experiences writing that book inspire you at all to look closer at the work of Mr. Seeger? 

Bill C. Malone: I'm not sure, but it did enlighten me about the long relationship that the two of them had.

Let's move onto your newest book, Music From The Vine: Mike Seeger's Life and Musical Journey. When and how did you first have the notion of writing a biography on Mike Seeger?

Bill C. Malone: I had always been impressed with his musicianship, and with the contributions that he made to the popularization and understanding of bluegrass and old-time country music. I honestly didn't really think about a biography of him until I began talking to him in London during a Carter Family Conference sponsored by the American Studies Department at the University of London. I saw him again the following year in London at a reunion of the New Lost City Ramblers. We began talking about a biography, and he began providing me with a list of contacts.

How did this initial idea develop into such an expansive project?

Bill C. Malone:
I followed up on the contacts he provided, which included interviews with Pete and Peggy Seeger and other relevant people. Mike was extraordinarily helpful, and he spent much time dictating reminiscences that he sent on to me. For a publisher, I decided on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because Mike's collections and other materials are housed there in the Southern Collection.

What did Mr. Seeger's work (his own recorded work, as well as his role as an archivist, and celebrant of old-time country music) mean to you BEFORE writing the biography?

Bill C. Malone:
I have always been impressed with his eclecticism, the fact that he could do so many things well. He did a lot to introduce bluegrass music to the urban North through Mountain Music, Bluegrass Style and American Banjo Scruggs Style. He and the New Lost City Ramblers encouraged the rediscovery of old-time hillbilly music and inspired young people to try their hands at playing it.

His contributions were profoundly democratic, because he introduced us to the people who had made the music in the first place. If we value their music, then we should value them too. He told me that his proudest moments came when he was able to reintroduce Dock Boggs to old-time/folk audiences, and when he was able to accompany Libba Cotten out on the concert trail.

As you began working on the biography, what did you discover about Mr. Seeger that was most unexpected and / or surprising?

Bill C. Malone:
My biggest surprise came in learning that old-time music had been part of his life since he was a child. It was not something that he discovered after he became an adult. While I was listening to the radio back in 1939, Mike was listening to Library of Congress records and to the few hillbilly records that his family owned.

For newcomers to Mr. Seeger's work, what recordings would you suggest as essential works, and/ or good places to start to learn more about his work?

Bill C. Malone: New listeners should first listen to the recordings of the New Lost City Ramblers, and then to the solo recordings that Mike made for Folkways and Vanguard in the early sixties. Then, just about any of the CDs that he made in later years.

Along the same lines, what are some other recordings you personally enjoy that you would suggest for fans who may be looking to dig deeper beyond Seeger?

Bill C. Malone: I would suggest that readers begin listening to Dock Boggs, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole, and other old-time string bands.

How do you believe Mr. Seeger's work continues to inspire artists, fans, and historians?

Bill C. Malone: To put it simply, the whole string band movement today owes much of its existence to Mike's music and to his encouragement.

Now that your biography or Mr. Seeger is finished,  has your understanding, admiration, and/ or interpretation of his music been enriched as you listen to his work today?

Bill C. Malone: I was always impressed by what he could do. I became increasingly impressed by the depth of his understanding of musical styles, and by his ability to demonstrate these styles. His work on the five-string banjo particularly demonstrates both the depth and latitude of his understanding.

The greatest change in my thinking came in reference to him as a person. As I acknowledge in the book, I had once considered him to be aloof or perhaps, even arrogant. But once I got to know him, I considered him to be kind, gracious, and thoughtful.

What was the most memorable and/ or rewarding aspect of writing the biography?

Bill C. Malone: Mainly, getting to know Mike and his wife, Alexia. I really value their friendship.

What would you say the biography adds to your overall literary body of work, and / or your own sense of personal musical history?

Bill C. Malone: Writing a biography of Mike Seeger permits me to acknowledge the influence that he exerted on my own scholarship. He and the other Ramblers helped me to deepen my knowledge of the old-time world that modern country music came out of. The biography also helps me to round out my work, and to acknowledge the influence that the folk revival had on the shaping and popularization of country music.

What's next for you? Do you have another project in mind,  or already in development?

Bill C. Malone: I think that I will gather my previously published essays to see if anyone wants to reissue them in an Anthology. Henry Sapoznik and I are also exploring the possibility of writing a history of the string band revival.

Who are some contemporary artists that you have you been enjoying lately?

Bill C. Malone: I really like the music of Dale Watson, Tim O'Brien, Iris DeMent, Gillian Welch, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Jim Watson, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Norman Blake (just to name a few who come to mind)

Can you describe how and when you began your radio show Back To The Country on WORT-FM?

Bill C. Malone: When I moved to Madison about sixteen years ago, the Wednesday morning slot at WORT-fm was just about to become vacant. The man who hosted the show, The Last Roundup, had decided to move to New Orleans. It was like two ships passing in the night, because I was moving from New Orleans, after teaching there for twenty-five years. My wife, Bobbie, had just taken a position in the Office of School Services at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

After the folks at WORT found out that I was a country music historian, they took me on as a disk jockey. I renamed the show, Back to the Country, and began playing the old material that was being forgotten on other radio stations. I usually organize my shows around themes: railroads, prison, cheating, drinking, rambling, home, and so on. I think that I've covered every theme under the sun.

When can readers tune-in to Back To The Country?

Bill C. Malone: The show runs from 9 to noon, Central Standard Time, on Wednesday mornings.

You also play guitar with your wife Bobbie. Can you talk about your own history and passion for playing and performing music?

Bill C. Malone: My wife plays mandolin, and I play guitar. We do shows alone, but also as part of a group called the Back to the Country Revue: a two-hour show that stresses both history and entertainment. There are six of us altogether in the Revue. Singing has been a passion my entire life. Country music is the one thing that I embraced as a child that is still very much a part of my life today.

How would you say studying music, writing, teaching, performing, and hosting your radio show all coalesce and influence and enrich your body of work, as well as your personal life?

Bill C. Malone: Listening to music, writing about it, talking about it, playing it, are all indispensable and defining parts of my life. They are pat of me, although, ironically, if I had to choose between a music concert and a Wisconsin Badgers' basketball game, I would probably choose the latter. And, GO PACKERS!


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