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Bean Blossom and Winfield, pitching tents on the old campgrounds

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
December 20, 2011 - 12:05 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Thank you author Thomas A. Adler for your Bean Blossom book and its in-depth look at forces that changed my world.

I feel like I've stepped up to the Brown County Jamboree barn window, peered inside and discovered to my delight that Bill Monroe is playing Wheel Hoss on the mandolin along with the Bluegrass Boys. And for a moment it is 1975 again and I'm first hearing about Bean Blossom, which helped inspire my path to Winfield and joining the tribe on that musically sacred ground.

I was at a party that year at a co-worker's house and treading water before getting around to finishing my college degree. My tastes in music were continuing the turn from teenage Top 40 on AM radio toward the weekend bluegrass and folk shows on listener-supported FM stations. Vinyl LPs by Flatt and Scruggs and John Hartford had joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band albums on a corner of my record rack.

Then at the party, I was leafing through the host's LPs and I discovered a two-record set simply entitled Bean Blossom. I put the records on the turntable and out came a more raw, unabashed form of bluegrass than what I was familiar with. Monroe was featured and also music from various bands playing at his festival at the old Brown County Jamboree music park at Bean Blossom, Indiana. All was recorded live.

"I hate that hillbilly stuff," the young hostess said. "I never play that record, somebody gave it to me."

But I loved what I was hearing so I made the other party goers suffer through both sides of both LPs, twice.

Later that year, I made my first trip to the Walnut Valley Music Festival in the city of Winfield amid the Kansas farms and prairies. So began my being washed in the blood of bluegrass and the rites of all-night picking at baptismal festival campgrounds.

Bean Blossom - The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals, by Thomas A. Adler. Published by University of Illinois Press. Bean Blossom - The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals, by Thomas A. Adler. Published by University of Illinois Press.

Adler's book, published in early 2011, has filled in many historical details about what led to what I found and followed. The full title is: Bean Blossom, the Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals. Adler is a banjo player and the former executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Bean Blossom wasn't the first bluegrass festival. But it's among the earliest and most storied and will always rank among the most influential. The festival is admired from afar by many us.

I've never been there, much to my regret. But I've heard and read tidbits about it for years and felt fully the forces that put Bean Blossom on our mental maps. Many dedicated longtime hobby players around the world can say the same.

Adler traces traditions across centuries that lead to country music parks in America and eventually to Monroe owning this one. It's Monroe's ownership of this park and his promotion of music there that is most fascinating. As a side benefit, the book also offers intriguing biographical glimpses of the Father of Bluegrass Music that compliments other books and periodical accounts.

Monroe's first festival at his music park, which he had owned since the early 1950s, was in 1967. Yet, regarding festivals, I'm most struck by how human nature reacted similarly to the music in a camp setting.

"In the campgrounds, an ephemeral community forms for the festival's duration," Adler wrote. "In the campground, a hearth and sleeping place are established by everyone from single campers to large families. The precise way this is done naturally varies with each camper and depends on what kind of camping gear, vehicle, and other material culture brought to the festival grounds. In making or setting up camp, however, each camper defines and unique personal and social space, a privately invented space within the festival as a whole. The Monroe-blessed public and temporarily private spaces of the festival campground offered from the start a more comfortable physical setting into which the tradition of parking-lot picking sessions was easily transplanted."

We did the same at the Walnut Valley Music Festival at Winfield, which began in 1972. Nobody told us that was what we were supposed to do, it just happened. We parked the vehicle and set up a tent. Somebody in the next camp was playing guitar so we joined them. The next year more buddies came and someone decided a fire pit would be nice. A few years later, after riding out rains, somebody with extra cash and gumption bucked up for plastic canopy over a pipe frame as a picking parlor. After a decade or so of this, and with more electric outlets in the campgrounds, elaborately decorated camps appeared that made the festival look like a gathering of distinctive tribes. Looking at oddball camps and their signs became part of the entertainment while stretching the legs on walks to rest the picking fingers between jams.

What happened at Bean Blossom recurred naturally at other enduring festivals that became hallowed ground for pickers.

Adler has done us all a great service by showing us a wellspring that influenced all festivals. If you are a veteran Bean Blossom attendee, he's created the equivalent of a high school yearbook for some of the best times of your life.

However, all the great festivals are different, too. Bill Monroe, brother Birch Monroe and their loyal supporters tried to keep straight-ahead bluegrass on stage at Bean Blossom. Newgrass musicians did appear there in the early 1970s, but it was notable because newgrass music managed to appear at such a traditional setting. Adler's photo in the book of the early, long-haired Newgrass Revival backing up Birch Monroe on fiddle is the coolest.

The Newgrass Revival at The Brown County Jamboree

The Newgrass Revival at The Brown County Jamboree, August 6, 1972. L-R: Courtney Johnson, Sam Bush, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch. Photo credit: Thomas A. Adler.

New Grass Revival at Bean Blossom

At Winfield, though, newgrass music and flatpicking guitar was at the top of the bill from the start. Guitarist Dan Crary was a major influence. There was a famous, passion-building set on the festival's first Saturday night with Crary, Doc Watson and Norman Blake playing together. I remember in the mid-70s seeing John Hartford and members of the New Grass Revival standing together at a barn talking. They were just hanging out with other festival goers, except, they had a confident and joyous air about them that went with being on the cutting edge of a musical wave. That festival's evolvement into hosting all types of acoustic music today on the stages and in the campground is a continuation of an eclectic start embraced by the Walnut Valley Festival's early crowds.

Bean Blossom was an early meeting place where hard-boiled and conservative traditionalists encountered counter culture. The festival has a traditional "Hippie Hill." Adler includes Monroe's wonderful quote from a magazine article in those early days that his hippie fans know when the bluegrass music is played right. Monroe could be disapproving but also tolerant.

On the back cover of Adler's book is a photo of an early 1950s pickup truck autographed by famous bluegrass stars. Here's a side story about Monroe's patience as told to this writer for an earlier Mandolin Cafe column.

Bosco Land, who played Bean Blossom often in the early years with the Stone Mountain Boys, used to drive performers from the front barn to the backstage area in that old pickup. He also ran errands in it for Monroe and generally helped out around the grounds.

Land says one time he and Monroe were walking the grounds and looking at camps in the woods when a cloudburst thunderstorm erupted. A totally-drenching downpour was falling. They ducked into a station wagon to get out of the rain. In the back, a long-haired man rose up from his sleeping bag and said "hey man, you can't get in my car, get out of here." He didn't realize he was talking to the Father and festival founder.

Monroe and Land got back out in the rain. "Let's run him off the grounds," Land said. "No," Monroe replied, "he's paid for his ticket so he can stay."

Walnut Valley Festival 40th Anniversary poster from 2011. Walnut Valley Festival 40th Anniversary poster from 2011.

Winfield has held that same tolerance, albeit somewhat in reverse. Middle class college students and pickers partying hard plus hippies dominated in numbers over conservative attendees in early and middle years. That's evened out and all sides of the social spectrum are thoroughly represented there today. But the Pecan Grove road on the Cowley County Fairgrounds south end remains the wildest jam session place in the world after midnight, while over in the Walnut Grove and at other niches, campers often are asleep by then.

On the edge of the Pecan Grove, I remember seeing a conservative political sign stuck in the ground by a big RV in a past presidential election year. I figured a majority of the campers in that area would be tempted to pee on it or kick it over. But people left it alone, and it was the only such sign in the campground. That was a major show of tolerance.

The music and fellowship is more important than anything else.

I've always said that Winfield is everything that the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 intended to be, only it is acoustic music based and has lasted 40 years rather than one year. But the brotherhood and sisterhood aspects were certainly influenced at first by Woodstock. Many of us saw the movie as teenagers and it looked like fun. We found in bluegrass and folk fests a version that fit our raising.

Adler notes that at Bean Blossom strong friendships were made from annual encounters at the festival. The hard core campers held mental maps in their heads of certain campsites that appeared in the same spot annually, some with nicknames, and they especially knew where certain hot jams occurred.

Well it is ditto at Winfield. Although, both festivals have been running so long, many camps that were once landmarks are gone and replaced by others. As more electrical hookups were installed, a rustic nature gave way to conveniences to serve RVs and aging baby boomers.

Most importantly, many people we have known fondly have done gone on to festivals in the great beyond.

Kenny Cornell, who's been to every Winfield gathering over 40 years, was featured this year in the New Song Showcase with a tune called Missing Faces. Those who knew people in the song, such as the sorely missed Don Shorock, festival historian and photographer, understood.

Monroe died in 1996. Dwight Dillman, a former Bluegrass Boy, eventually purchased his festival and grounds at Bean Blossom and it's now called the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and Campground. Dillman made major improvements to camping and stage areas. But the festival grounds are for sale and have been since 2007. A nonprofit group called Brown County Bean Blossom Jamboree Preservation Foundation intends to purchase the festival but has thus far been unable to raise the funds.

But things roll on, and the 46th event is planned according to the website for "The oldest, continuous running bluegrass festival in the world."

At Winfield, Bob Redford, principal founder and owner, has in the past talked of selling his festival but wound up holding onto it. He loves it and wants a clear future for it if he ever lets go. Loyal festival goers swear that they'll show up at the Cowley County Fairgrounds in Winfield on the third weekend in September whether there's an organized festival or not. Lightning storms and tornado watches barely slowed the 40th Walnut Valley Festival this fall.

The campground mantra is "40 more years."

A subdivision was once proposed for the Bean Blossom site, so sacrilegious. Nothing is guaranteed for the Walnut Valley Festival's future beyond Bob Redford's ownership.

But shared music, laughter, camp and temporary freedom from everyday cares, those traditions will continue at these festival sites or elsewhere. Kindred spirits love company.

I'd bet 150-year celebrations are ahead. How beautiful it is, though, to have been there in the beginning, or to have detailed accounts like Adler's as a powerful substitute.

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Reader Comments

Bryan KS
December 20, 2011 02:15 PM
First of all great article, I truly enjoyed reading it. This was my first year attending Winfield and you pretty much captured exactly how I remember it and I know for a fact that I will be attending this festival for the rest of my life. It was walking around the campgrounds and listening to people jamming that inspired me to start learning the mandolin so maybe next year I can be involved in the jams and not just listening.
goose 2
December 21, 2011 12:15 AM
Great article. I have been a Winfield faithful for over a decade. The campground picking is what makes this the most unique and captivating festival in the world. I have attended most of the really well known bluegrass festivals but there is only one Winfield.
Through the years our camp has evolved and has become quite elaborate and we add members to our camp family every year. Every year seems to surpass the year prior. Some of the best musicians in the world that you have never heard of can be found throughout the campground. Friends of mine that I challenged "Come to Winfield once and you will come every year the rest of your life" have all found that true. It is nearly impossible to describe and an event that every acoustic music lover and picker should experience. When you do, stop by Coyote Camp and pick a few. You are welcome!
December 23, 2011 08:12 PM
~o)Great article, I actual camp on Hippie Hill every June and September. Bean Blossom is a tradition handed down to me from my Dad who has been going to the festival since "67" and before that would go to the old barn on Sundays. I always say that I wish life was like a never ending bluegrass festival. Ditto to the author about the tent and RV city that appears during the fest. I have certain camp sites that I visit every year, same place same people, good picks.
Cheers, and if anyone wants to stop by and say hi I camp on Hippie Hill in front of the small artist stage.
Cheers, Brian.
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