- Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festivals by Thomas A. Adler
Since the mid-1960s, the phenomenon of the multiday bluegrass festival has held a special place in the history and culture of the genre. Occurring throughout the United States and in parts of Europe and Asia, these events offer bluegrass enthusiasts opportunities to see, hear, and interact with the music’s top performers, who in turn rely on the festival circuit as a mainstay of their livelihood. Equally important, bluegrass festivals serve as social gatherings centered around camping and informal music making kept up, oftentimes, around the clock. Of the many well-known festivals that have thrived over the decades, none has a more storied past than that held each June in the town of Bean Blossom, in Brown County, Indiana. The Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival marked its forty-sixth anniversary in 2013, and although it was not the first bluegrass festival, it is billed on its official website as the “oldest continuously running bluegrass festival in the world.” The place and the musical celebrations held there maintain a particular mystique for devotees of bluegrass—performers and fans alike—partly because of Bean Blossom’s close ties to the historical development of the genre itself, and partly because of its decades-long association with Bill Monroe (1911–96), widely regarded as the founding father of bluegrass music.
Thus the appearance of Thomas Adler’s broad history of the Bean Blossom festivals makes a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on the history of bluegrass. The former director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky, Adler first came to Bean Blossom in 1968 as a graduate student in folklore at nearby Indiana University and attended the festival annually from 1969 to 1979. In his study, which combines impressive documentary research, extensive interviews, and an insider’s direct experience, Adler seeks “to describe what happened at Bean Blossom from the pre–World War II inception of musical events there through a sequence of owners and events to the present” and “to explain what this musical site has meant to those who were involved” (x).
Following a helpful introduction on rural country music parks and an opening chapter on the history of Brown County, all but one of the ten remaining chapters move chronologically through the history of the Bean Blossom festivals. As the book’s subtitle indicates, the bluegrass festivals at Bean Blossom were preceded historically by the Brown County Jamboree, one of many rural country music [End Page 364] parks that proliferated in the eastern and midwestern United States during the 1940s and 1950s. Building on the work of bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg and Monroe biographer Richard Smith, Adler makes an important contribution to this underinvestigated area of country music studies in chapters 2 and 3 by painting a clear picture of the Brown County Jamboree, from its beginnings in 1939 as a makeshift roadside event featuring local musicians to its flourishing with national hillbilly performers under the ownership of the Rund family.1 Bill Monroe first came with his Blue Grass Boys to perform at the Jamboree in October of 1951, arranging to purchase the park shortly thereafter. Adler examines the motivations for Monroe’s “watershed” decision carefully, building on the accepted explanations (the Jamboree’s record of financial success, Monroe’s desire to compete with Roy Acuff’s Dunbar Cave music park, and Brown County’s topographical similarity to Monroe’s native region of western Kentucky) to make a compelling case for Monroe’s attraction to the area’s tradition of fox hunting.
Subsequent chapters describe the Jamboree under the ownership of Bill Monroe and his brother Birch, the increasing emphasis on bluegrass (as the genre was just starting to be known) beginning in the late 1950s, and the founding of Monroe’s bluegrass festival in 1967. Beyond the detailed accounts of these events, Adler...