The Biography of Ralph Rinzler (in progress)
Without question, Ralph Charles Rinzler ((July 20, 1934 – July 2, 1994) — musician, field researcher, scholar and festival organizer — was one of the greatest figures of the folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s and the blossoming of bluegrass festivals in the 1970’s and ’80s. His influence on American folk life, music and cultural studies continued well into the ’90s — and is still powerful today.
(Rinzler during a reunion of his bluegrass band, the Greenbriar Boys, at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, 1990; photo by the author © Richard D. Smith)
Endlessly enthusiastic, with boundless interests, Ralph’s work as a co-founder of the Friends of Old-Time Music in New York City and later as a field worker/board member of the seminal Newport Folk Festival helped bring about the renaissances of blues, cajun, old-timey and other American roots musics.
Later, as director of the annual Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, he melded arts & crafts, dance demonstrations and story telling with musical performances for cultural immersions that continue to entertain and educate multitudes. (His papers now form the core of the Smithsonian’s extensive Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections: https://folklife.si.edu/ralph-rinzler-folklife-archives-and-collections/smithsonian)
He revived the career of Bill Monroe, “The Father of Bluegrass,” discovered virtuoso singer-guitarist Doc Watson and directly helped launch the now-worldwide bluegrass festival movement.
Folk/popular music icons Joan Baez and Bob Dylan are only two of the major figures with whom Ralph worked or whose early careers he encouraged.
Yet, Ralph Rinzler has not been the subject of a major biography.
Check back for updates about this exciting — and, I think, hugely important — project.
Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass
(Michael Shannon and Richard D. Smith)
“It is factually reliable, musically knowledgeable … and I cannot imagine its being bettered for a long time to come.”
— Terry Teachout, Sunday New York Times book section
Bill Monroe is probably the only person to create a distinctive American music genre — bluegrass, the name hearkening to Bill’s origins in the “bluegrass state” of Kentucky. And the breadth of his influence on American popular music overall is proven by his inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor, and the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of fame (as one of its “roots influencers”).
With me in the photo above, holding a copy of Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, is accomplished stage, film and television actor Michael Shannon, attached to portray Monroe in the book’s movie adaptation (currently in development).
ARCADIA PICTORIAL HISTORIES
Arcadia Publishing has produced a multitude of popular histories of local towns, forts, cultural enclaves, historically significant companies and beloved sports teams. These affordable but lovingly printed paperbacks feature archival images with information-rich captions and chapter introductions.
I’ve enjoyed assembling a quartet of Arcadia books about Princeton, N.J. (Three have been done in partnership with the Historical Society of Princeton, which benefits from an equal share of the royalties.)
Legendary Locals of Princeton
“[When] the history of a town is written and committed to perfect binding, it usually looks like the Chamber of Commerce membership roster … Not so, however, with the new book titled `Legendary Locals of Princeton,’ by Richard D. Smith … Perhaps his own eclectic background is what made Smith so appreciative of characters of all kinds.”
— Richard K. Rein, U.S. 1: Princeton’s Business & Entertainment Journal
Starting with the Leni Lenape native Americans, and encompassing such such world-famous figures as Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson and best selling authors like Peter Benchley and John McPhee, respected local leaders like Barbara Boggs Sigmund, and beloved shop owners and eccentrics (with even some murderers and a Mafioso in between!), this book proves why Princeton’s people make it as special as its deep history.
Then & Now: Princeton
This 128-page time machine features engaging archival images of Princeton past, juxtaposed with contemporary photos taken from the exact same location. The contrasts between “Then” and “Now” are by turns enlightening, amusing and amazing, because of how much has changed — or how little.
The history of one of the world’s greatest — and visually most beautiful — places of research and higher education, from its humble colonial-era origins as the College of New Jersey to its role as a setting for the book and movie A Beautiful Mind.
Images of America: Princeton
A one-volume introduction to Princeton town and gown which, I think, is as entertaining as it is factually informative.
Bluegrass: An Informal Guide
(Chris Thile and Richard D. Smith; Photo by Kim Liauw)
” … once you’ve read and absorbed Smith on bluegrass, you’ll know what it is and what it is not — and every bone-deep bluegrass fan will thank you for it.”
— Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)
My first book was a mini-history of bluegrass, America’s home-grown and now internationally popular folk-country music, with recommended listening at the end of each chapter.
In the mandolin section, I confidently predicted that then-14 year old Chris Thile promised “to be the next superstar” of that instrument. And so it has turned out.
It was great fun to meet with Chris after a concert at Princeton University and read him that passage. As can you plainly see by the above picture, he was pleased, too.
The copy of Bluegrass: An Informal Guide I’m holding is very special: Down through the years, I’ve had it autographed by as many of the featured musicians as possible, including Bill Monroe, “The Father of Bluegrass” himself, and the tremendously influential 5-string banjo picker Earl Scruggs — two true giants of American popular music and, sadly, both no longer with us.
Of course, I had Thile sign in the margin next to my bold statement. And I thanked him — not only for his beautiful and often astonishing music, but also for proving me right.