Best of the Vanguard Years – The Greenbriar Blues
Vanguard Records 206/07-2
In 1958, two college students with reverence for bluegrass, John Herald and
Bob Yellin, met in the bustling folk world of New York's Union Square, by
coincidence or – as some romanticists might argue – fate. Both had their own
respective bands, but as record deals came and went for various Greenwich
Village bands, so did the talent pool of personnel to perform alongside. The
constant revolving door resulted in Yellin and Herald joining forces and
subsequently searching for a mandolinist to round out their group.
Eventually and as luck would have it, they convinced an aspiring folklorist,
Ralph Rinzler, to join the group. The trio then aptly titled the band after
the Carter Family classic "Girl from the Greenbriar Shore," with the eponym
the Greenbriar Boys.
Rinzler's inclusion served more purposes than a conspicuous need. For
several years, Rinzler's folklorist aspirations had led him, much like a
poorman's Alan Lomax, through the musical styles of Appalachia. Rinzler more
than any other player Herald and Yellin could find, knew the music on
several important levels. He had a knowledgeable song base. While in his
quest to record great players, he had acquired the Appalachian styles which
predicate speed and blues tones over fancy fret work.
With the lineup solidified, they had one maxim they planned to adhere to,
"to bring the music of Union Grove to Union Square". Certainly, the band
served an educational purpose for the Village crowd. Rinzler's knowledge
alone paved the way for multiple players, including David Grisman and Andy
Statman. The 1970s bluegrass revival has often been credited to the
Greenbriar Boys ability to expose the vitality of bluegrass to a young,
collegiate audience, sowing the seeds for future generations of aficionados
and performers. However, embodied in the statement, of bringing a bucolic
sound to a metropolitan hub was the possibility for transformation: change
bluegrass the boys did.
After all, while Rinzler, Yellin and Herald had a high bluegrass acumen,
they were still children from affluent backgrounds where various Western
musical principles were strongly in place. Yellin and Herald had both grown
up in strong musical families, with opera and classical music dominating the
household. Rinzler, while aware of the subtleties of bluegrass, his
musciological stance resulted in an analytical appreciation of the music
beyond the Appalachian mountains. He desired to show bluegrass quality in
relation to long-heralded music forms, a clear sign he had a strong
knowledge of a variety of other musical forms which could permeate his
opinions and pepper his playing.
Performances of bluegrass standards, like "Rawhide" and "Banks of the Ohio"
(with Joan Baez) on their two CD compilation Best of the Vanguard
Years, lack the elements which make Appalachian music a uniquely
acquired taste. The soothing qualities of Western classical music and modern
folk music become an essential part of their melodic concepts. In
eliminating the often annoying whining of the "high and lonesome sound," the
music became far more palatable. For the uninitiated in bluegrass, those
hanging around the Village, their version of "Katy Hill" had a Bob Dylan
effectiveness which Bill Monroe's would have lacked by comparison.
In the group's "pop infused bliss" they were actually achieving the goal
first stated by Rinzler, possibly to greater effect than mere replication of
antique recordings would have achieved. Their style of playing brought
people to bluegrass, where these respective listeners could follow the roots
of "Rawhide," "Down the Road," and "The Girl from the Greenbriar Shore," and
then subsequently realize the treasure chest of Appalachian music. The
Greenbriar Boys offered a brief, friendly course in the genre, pulling their
audience by baby steps first through their mollified versions then Rinzler
often playing from his personal recordings the original versions.
By the time the group disbanded in 1967, the folk-rock movement of
electrified jugband music had made the Greenbriar Boys attempts appear
somewhat useless, though their transformation of bluegrass had already had a
far-reaching effect. Who would deny that certain rock bands – the Stone
Poneys being a patent example with their note for note rendition of the
Greenbriar Boys' "Different Drum" – didn't collect some ideas from this
little bluegrass band? Or that David Grisman gathered some sophisticated
jazz concepts for dawg music with their East meets West concepts on "Russian