Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Blue-Grass Festivals

Article excerpt

AMERICAN ROOTS Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Blue - grass Festivals. By Thomas A. Adler. (Music in American Life.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. [xxii, 239 p. ISBN 9780252036156 (hardcover), $75; ISBN 9780252078101 (paperback), $24.95.] Bibliography, index.

Every June since 1967, bluegrass musicians and fans have descended on the small Indiana town of Bean Blossom, a crossroads town located between Indianapolis and Bloomington, to participate in one of the most important rituals of the bluegrass community, the Bill Monroe Memorial Bluegrass Festival, known to most simply as "Bean Blossom." Bean Blossom was not the first bluegrass music festival (previous festivals had been held in Berryville, Virginia in 1960; Luray, Virginia in 1961; and near Fincastle, Virginia in 1965), nor is it the best-attended (the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival regularly sell more tickets). Yet the festival holds a central place in the folklore and collective memory of participants in the widely-dispersed inter - national bluegrass scene, embodying the cordial and cooperative spirit of the ubiquitous parking lot jam session, representing a rural idyll in which traditional acoustic music can thrive, and, perhaps most importantly, standing as a physical reminder of the "father of bluegrass," Bill Monroe, who purchased the festival grounds in 1951 and, until his death in 1996, could be found onstage, trading licks with amateur pickers, or performing emergency maintenance on the property. But, while Bean Blossom may best be known for its central place in the bluegrass scene, the site has a much deeper and broader significance to the history of country music and to the development of Brown County, Indiana, a place often treated as a hillbilly foil to the sophistication of Indianapolis. In his meticulously researched monograph on Bean Blossom and its predecessor, the Brown County Jamboree, folklorist Thomas Adler draws upon his own long history with Bill Monroe's festivals, detailed archival study, and oral history to document the important place that this Indiana community has played in the bluegrass community. Further more, Adler adds to such recent work as the Chad Berry-edited collection The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance (University of Illinois Press, 2008) and director Stephen Perry's 2011 documentary film of the same name to offer an alternative narrative of country music's early history that more fully accounts for the genre's long history in the Midwest.

Adler frames his discussion of the Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bean Blossom Festival within the context of "rural music parks," venues that can trace their roots variously to the "trolley parks" that emerged in such cities as Chicago and Philadelphia and the Chautauqua movement that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rural country music parks thrived from the 1930s until the middle of the 1960s across the South - east and Midwest, providing valuable training grounds and employment for local musicians and venues for barnstorming groups and touring radio acts while promoting the consumption of country music as an attractive entertainment for the entire family. Moreover, as the narrative that Adler traces suggests, country music parks also offered opportunities for rural communities to develop economies based upon cultural tourism, creating "place[s] where the worlds of music-as-work and music-as-play intersected" (p. xxii).

Such was certainly the case in Brown County, Indiana, which, despite its location between the state capital and its land-grant university, was isolated from much economic development until the late 1920s. Although an artist colony formed in Brown County in the first decades of the twentieth century, the area was perhaps best known as a rural backwater that was home to the Ku Klux Klan and the fictional Abe Martin, a rube character developed by Indianapolis News journalist and political cartoonist Frank McKinney "Kin" Hubbard in 1905 and syndicated to more than two hundred newspapers nationwide (pp. …