- Bill Clifton: America's Bluegrass Ambassador to the Worldby Bill C. Malone
Musician, promoter, and song collector of bluegrass and old-time music, Bill Clifton is worthy of a biography by Bill C. Malone. Whether documenting Clifton's recordings, live performances, promotion of country music in England, or connection to the web of influences that make up the tapestry of the history of bluegrass and old-time music, Malone's Bill Clifton: America's Bluegrass Ambassador to the Worlddelivers.
Writing a biography and documenting a person's life and work are arguably meaningless without tracing the veins of his or her influence on others and history writ large. Malone's Bill Cliftonexemplifies the rich history that a well-researched biography makes possible. Bluegrass fans will welcome Malone's accessible writing style, and scholars will appreciate his informative footnotes, which direct the reader to seminal publications on supplemental background [End Page 224]information as well as to unpublished writings, interviews, archives, and other sources that could be of use in future studies. In addition to an annotated discography, Malone's book benefits from its many photos depicting Clifton, his family, and his musical associates.
Bill Clifton "wasn't your typical 'hillbilly'" (p. 2). William Augustus Marburg was born in Riderwood, Maryland, an affluent Baltimore suburb, on April 5, 1931. In the first chapter of this chronological biography, Malone surveys Clifton's early musical influences. Clifton listened to 1940s radio broadcasts such as the Old Dominion Barn Dance, where he heard and became a lifelong fan of legendary performers like the Carter Family—Clifton would later interpret and promote the Carter Family's music. Clifton had a financially privileged upbringing. In addition to forging a "successful and influential music career," he was a stockbroker, a U.S. marine, and a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines (p. 4). After establishing a professional music career in the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s, recording for Mercury and Starday in Nashville, Tennessee (covered in Malone's second chapter), Clifton packed up his growing family and moved to England in 1963.
Malone's subtitle is "America's Bluegrass Ambassador to the World," and Clifton's role in the promotion of bluegrass and old-time music in Europe is just left of front and center in Malone's book. In chapter 3, "Taking Old-Time Music to England, 1963–1970," Malone provides a brief background of American country music in England, citing and building on unpublished essays by figures such as music historian Tony Russell and British music promoter and journalist John Atkins.
After a challenging period in the Peace Corps, Clifton moved his family back to England in 1970, expecting to continue with his career from where he left it. The folk scene had changed, however, and Clifton found it difficult to find acceptance. In his fourth and final chapter, Malone discusses how Clifton's renewed, full-time commitment to music ultimately took him to other parts of the world, including British East Africa, Holland, Hamburg, and Berlin, Germany and finally back to the United States, where he continued to perform at festivals and record until his near-complete retirement in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Malone concludes his biography by declaring, "We all are beneficiaries of [Clifton's] lifetime of devotion to the music he loved" (p. 126). Anyone interested in the history of bluegrass, old-time, and country music will benefit from Bill Malone's scholarship and will not be disappointed with his biography of Bill Clifton.