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Bluegrass Festivals in the "Old" Days!

Arlen Roth
Arlen Roth

I have had some crazy experiences on and off the road when it comes to music, but those early days of me doing Bluegrass festivals in the early ‘70s really took the cake! Back in those days I was mostly based in Woodstock, NY, and that scene had some bona fide “Bluegrass” players, but they were really from what most bluegrass “purists” would consider the “fringe” of that particular style. We’d go down to these festivals in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina and see these incredibly well-rehearsed and “slick” looking bands such as The Dillards and The Earl Scruggs Review, and other legends such as Little Jimmy Dickens and Doc Watson, all of whom presented very crisp and professional shows.

Then along comes some rag-tag bunches of musicians from Woodstock; people I was playing with such as John Herald, Bill Keith, Jim Rooney and Happy and Artie Traum, and the crowds had a whole different take on us and who we were, and even as to how authentic we were! I can remember one time when I was playing with John Herald, who at the time was pretty crazy, and we were getting soundly “booed” at the end of our show…he then jumped off the stage, started combing his hair, and said “so where’s the party after the gig?” And I’m thinking, man, not only is there no “party”, but we’re in the middle of a cow pasture here, and we’re getting “booed!” On top of that Herald says, “no, you don’t understand, I am finally getting a response from a Bluegrass crowd! This was about the weirdest thing I’d ever heard, but all I could do was shake my head and think “this is awfully sad!”

Not to mention the fact that where we stayed at that festival was a shack in the hills that had not been lived in for about 40 years!! I stood there at the doorstep on the porch which gave way under my feet as everyone yelled “I call this bed, I have this bed,” etc., while I still stood there in shock, a 20 year-old kid who’d barely even been out of the Bronx, let alone West Virgina! So, I eneded up with a bed that was infested with wasps and bees (I have no memory of that night, and whether or not I actually slept!), but the next day began our shows, 3 days of them, and the “festival”, whose promoter had also been carted off to jail, had run out of food, so everyone ate watermelon for the last 2 days. In fact, they brought me up onstage afterwards saying they had a special award to present me….I was like, “really?! What for?” And then they proceeded to announce that “this guy has eaten more watermelon than anyone else here at this festival!” Quite an auspicious accomplishment….and oh yes, my prize, another watermelon!!!

Fun days, crazy days, even dangerous days, but we never seemed to have a care in the world while we did all of this, and now, and even then, it has always made for great stories!! Hope you make some of your own some day!

Arlen Roth

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