Have opinions about the Democratic National Convention, or the verdicts from the Freddie Gray cases? It's your turn to talk.
He’s a broadcasting legend and musical scholar whose personal history is intertwined with Washington’s local culture. Dick Spottswood hosted WAMU 88.5’s first-ever bluegrass music show in 1967, and began broadcasting “The Dick Spottswood Show” in 1985. Kojo talks with Spottswood about his lifelong mission to share and preserve the music he loves during a lively broadcasting career.
- Dick Spottswood musicologist; host of The Dick Spottswood Show (formerly, The Obsolete Music Hour); and author of "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years" (University Press of Mississippi)
Playlist from Today’s Show
Jelly Roll Morton – Mamie’s Blues
Jelly Roll Morton – Dead Man Blues
Bill Rogers – West Indian Weed Woman
Bill Rogers – BG Bhagee
Wade Mainer – Ramshackle Shack
Son House – Jinx Blues
Dick Spottswood on Music Collecting:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Some kids grow up collecting baseball cards or coins or comic books, but when Dick Spottswood was a child and he first heard the sounds of Jelly Roll Morton, he set off on a mission to find and collect music that came before his time, from the legendary to the obscure. It's a quest that took him to the blues to folk music to world music to bluegrass to the Library of Congress where he compiled the definitive collection of "Folk Music in America" and to a radio station in his hometown of Washington, D.C. called WAMU 88.5, where he help start a tradition of bluegrass programming that carries on today. For the past 25 years, he shared his personal collection and passion for so-called obsolete music with listeners on "The Dick Spottswood Show."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt is my pleasure to welcome to the studio to share that musical journey with us and to celebrate his long broadcasting career at WAMU 88.5 Dick Spottwood -- Dick Spottswood joins us in studio. As I mentioned earlier, he's the host of "The Dick Spottswood Show" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country, celebrating its 25th anniversary. He's also a musicologist and author. His most recent book is titled "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." Dick Spottswood, good to see you again.
MR. DICK SPOTTSWOODAnd Kojo, it's so great to be back...
NNAMDIGlad you're back.
SPOTTSWOOD...sitting in the room with you. I'm usually on the other end of the reception, but...
NNAMDIBut you'll have fun at both ends of this microphone today.
SPOTTSWOOD(laugh) All right. Absolutely. And you're wrong. I can prove that music is obsolete. (laugh)
NNAMDIYou can prove this is obsolete?
SPOTTSWOODYeah. I mean, has it come back?
NNAMDINo, it has not come back.
SPOTTSWOODNo. All right. Is it ever coming back?
NNAMDIProbably not. Except on your show. (laugh) You hosted the first ever bluegrass show in the history of this station back in 1967, but your journey as musicologist started long before that. When you were a kid, growing up in the D.C. area and you heard a different kind of music. It's my understanding that this is what that music sounded like.
NNAMDIJelly Roll Morton, "Mamie's Blues." Jelly Roll Morton claimed that he invented jazz back in the early part of the 20th century. What was it about Jelly Roll Morton that pulled you down this rabbit hole of musical discovery?
SPOTTSWOODWell, you know, when you hear something like that, even though you're a child and you're not really aware that he is singing about the perils of being a sex worker, that there's something really honest and emotional and very, very human that's coming through that song. That man wasn't singing that song to make a buck, he was singing that song because he'd been there, he'd seen it and probably -- I mean, Jelly Roll Morton was known to have been a -- I mean, can you use that four-letter word? An enabler of women.
NNAMDIYes. He was a lot of things. And he was that too.
SPOTTSWOODHe was, indeed. He was a pool shark. He was a brilliant piano player and composer. And he was someone who buying love...
NNAMDIOne of the greatest self-promoters of his time.
SPOTTSWOODWell, (laugh) absolutely. He didn't learn from all his mistakes. (laugh)
NNAMDIThis is true.
SPOTTSWOODBecause he wound up turning a lot of younger musicians off in his later years because he swore that his own model was the only reliable one. And Chick Webb and Chew Barry and some other -- Benny Goodman and -- you know, people who are moving the music forward in the '30s really thought that he was obsolete, and they were right.
NNAMDIImmortalized on Broadway in "Jelly's Last Jam." What was it about music in those days? Because in these days, music is at our fingertips. If you like something, you can go hunting online. There even applications for your iPhone that will tell you the name of a song and the artist just by hearing a few seconds of a song. Where did you have to go to find music in Washington when you were growing up?
SPOTTSWOODWell, this is in -- we're talking about the -- we're used to seeing here when there was (laugh) nothing out there but 78 rpm records. I mean, seriously. I can remember before, before there were long-play records in 45 rpm, so you were stuck with a large, expensive and fairly heavy. Each one of those old records weighed half a pound and only had six minutes worth of music on it. So you really had to be motivated (laugh) to go after that music. And I did. And D.C. as -- you've -- yeah, you've been around here long enough to remember. It was...
NNAMDIAround 40 years or so, yeah.
SPOTTSWOODOkay. Was once upon a time, you know, a fairly totally segregated place. I had to go to one part of town if I wanted to buy a Hillbilly record. I had to go to another part of town I wanted to hear Wynonie Harris or Roy Brown or Fats Domino. And the music was segment. But I, you know, I just sort of took it all in and loved it. And I knew where the R&B station was. I knew how to hear gospel. I knew where the country station was.
NNAMDIHere's how different things were in those days. How did you pay for all of this? You had a paper route.
SPOTTSWOODI had a paper route.
SPOTTSWOODI collected cash. I was allowed to put some of it aside. The rest, I had to give to the Evening Star. And what I had left over bought me some records. (laugh)
NNAMDIPaper route for the Evening Star. We're talking with Dick Spottswood. He is host of "The Dick Spottswood Show" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country which celebrating its 25th anniversary. His most recent book is titled "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." Dick Spottswood is a musicologist and author. And we're taking your calls for Dick Spottswood at 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website kojoshow.org, send us a tweet @kojoshow or an e-mail to email@example.com. You used to take the bus from Chevy Chase to downtown, transfer to the streetcars to go to the neighborhoods where you could find music.
NNAMDIYou know, we're getting streetcars back again.
SPOTTSWOODIs that going to happen?
NNAMDIYes. Streetcars are coming back.
SPOTTSWOODI knew somebody was petitioning for that but -- are they going to go up and down 14th Street to Mount Pleasant and out...
SPOTTSWOOD...to the Palisades.
NNAMDIThe first one is on H Street, Northeast. It's going across H Street, Northeast, to Benning Avenue, connecting people there so -- and then, there will be more. There will be more. So, see, the more things change -- eventually, your fascination pointed you in the direction of country bluegrass, stuff you like to call hillbilly music. What was it about those sounds that appealed to you, and how did you find them?
SPOTTSWOODWell, first, I shouldn't say that hillbilly music was for a longtime used as a term of a program, and I decided that the word really involved the best things I like about country music, the same kind of raw emotion, the devotion to home and heart and old traditional values, not all of them wonderful values, but some of them certainly were. And it was the sound of the tradition, the mountains, and it's what Wade Mainer still represents at the age of 103 years old today. I mean, that man defines authenticity just by virtue of having survived.
NNAMDIA hundred and three years. The book is called "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." Your passion for both black music and for bluegrass and country must have exposed you to a lot of different places in Washington, a lot of different experiences. What did you learn about this area from that, apart from the fact that, at that time, it was, obviously, segregated?
SPOTTSWOODWell, Kojo, you get to transcend those barriers, and you get to meet people, you know, in the -- people you come into contact with. You love the music first and maybe the politics comes a little bit later on down the road. So when I was still a kid I joined The Duke Ellington Society, which is the -- you know, we used to meet at the Omega House at Howard University for years and years and years. And they kept a little closet with a little amp and a turntable in there, and we would come down there one Saturday night every month and play our old Duke Ellington records for each other. And I was there with people who had been in Duke's band in the '20s...
SPOTTSWOOD...and '30s. And, you know, racially, we were, you know, a very mixed bunch. And the bluegrass scene, I got to go out to these hillbilly parks and places, like the New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Md. Where if it was a rainy day like today, we sat there with our feet in the mud. There were big splintery planks on top of upturned cinder blocks. That was the audience seating. The stage had one microphone and used car ads and chicken feet ads over top of it. So wherever you went, there was atmosphere. (laugh)
NNAMDIYou paint such a vivid picture. You told NaplesNews.com, "When I was high school, I had the best of both worlds. For a quarter, I could see the Budapest String Quartet at the Library. The concert would end at 10 p.m., and then, I'd go to the Pine Tavern with bullet holes in the walls and listen to the other string quartet, Buzz Busby and The Bayou Boys. That was my introduction to bluegrass."
SPOTTSWOODWhere else could you do something like that but in Washington, D.C., you know? We were...
NNAMDIThat must have been a lot of fun.
SPOTTSWOODWell, we -- I experienced my hometown as a crossroads, and it was fun, but it was also, you know, very enabling. I learned things that way that I would have never learned any other way.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you struck up a friendship with Gary Henderson, who would later be your partner at "Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine" and here at WAMU. When you called him while he was broadcasting on the air at WDNO and then invited him over to your house to share your collection with him.
SPOTTSWOODThat's an interesting night. I don't remember that but...
NNAMDIThat's what Gary told us.
SPOTTSWOOD...Gary has got a much, much better memory, so I'm glad to learn these things again myself. I remember that there came a time when he was no longer working over at WDNO because they really didn't want anybody around who had any kind of affection for old-time hillbilly music or bluegrass, and so Gary was downsized, I guess.
SPOTTSWOODAnd so I said, listen, I want to call American University -- because I knew somebody who was doing jazz programming here at the time. This is way before Rob Bamberger. And said, you know, I'd like to do a bluegrass show. And when I assured them -- this is when still when we were National Education Radio, okay? And so I assured them that this would be very much of a coat-and-tie presentation, that I would deliver these little classroom lectures with musical examples. And so I scripted these shows very carefully every week, and that's what they were. You got to hear me for the most part. And if you were lucky, there were some music, too, because I was the explainer. (laugh)
NNAMDIIf you wanted to hear a little bit about what that show sounded like and how Dick Spottswood introduced it, then give a listen.
SPOTTSWOODGood evening, "Bluegrass Unlimited" is on the air. I'm Richard Spottswood of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine. We're a monthly nonprofit (word?)...
NNAMDIDid your voice ever sound like that?
SPOTTSWOOD...(word?) devoted to the music we will be hearing tonight. This evening once again, we have Bill Emerson in the studio with us. Bill was here for the last couple of weeks while we talked about and listened to some of the music of Jimmy Martin, one of the great bands, one of the many great bands that Bill Emerson has played with over the years.
NNAMDIYou sound like you wearing a jacket and tie.
NNAMDIWhat was most of the programming at the station, as you called it, a lot of academic programming?
SPOTTSWOODWell, they were classroom lectures, not broadcast live, but they were taped and then rebroadcast over the air. The program that preceded me was an organ recital from the Netherlands. And it came to us on a reel -- two reels, I guess, a seven-inch tape. And there was like this little syndicate in operation. We would get the tape after the last station had finished with it, and we were to use it and then forward it to the next station. And that's what constituted network radio back in those days. Well, we were educational, and we were seen as something very, very different in the world of broadcasting in those days. Those were the days when Newton Minow, who was Kennedy's -- John Kennedy's first secretary -- I got him blanking on the department name but -- FCC chairman -- and, you know, he called the world of broadcasting a wasteland. Do you remember that? (laugh)
NNAMDII remember that. A vast wasteland. (laugh)
SPOTTSWOODYeah. Exactly. And so, public radio or educational radio as it was then was supposed to be an antidote, and so I really had to muster all the dignity I could find. (laugh)
NNAMDIHow did you sell the people at the station on the idea that a bluegrass program was worthwhile?
SPOTTSWOODWell, it turned out that they weren't terribly happy with the programming they had and they were pleased to have something that would be live and local and would appeal to people in the area but still, you know, hold up something, you know, vaguely academic. And so I didn't -- I could have just come over to transom. I didn't even need an introduction. It was just -- it was the right idea at the right time because that, so far as I know -- it may not actually have been but I don't know of any other bluegrass programming on educational radio in the 1960s. And after we started doing it and then started engaging in pledge drives in the 1970s, bluegrass proved to be a very, very popular commodity, and it earned money for the station too. And they really took a liking to us then. (laugh)
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you actually quit your first show out of concern for the sanctity of your record collection. Please explain.
SPOTTSWOODWell, there was a turntable in use at the time that somebody had wrecked the stylus on and hadn't bothered to change it or tell anybody or anything. And I had one of the very first RCA 45 rpm records. It was green plastic that you could see through.
SPOTTSWOODEven in the late '60s, these things were inordinately valuable for visual reasons if nothing else. Well, I -- the record went on and the stylus proceeded to plow out the records...
NNAMDIScratch it all.
SPOTTSWOOD...and everything. And I mumbled something over the air. And I got an indignant call from -- in those days, there was only a program director and an engineer. Those were the only full-time employees at the station. Well, the lady called me and proceeded to chew my hind quarters out and everything. And I said, you know, I was getting tired of doing this show anyway. (laugh)
NNAMDII'm packing up my records and I'm leaving.
NNAMDIHey, but Dick Spottswood came back in 1985. We'll talk a little bit more about that after this short break. If you have...
SPOTTSWOODRevenge of the hillbillies. (laugh)
NNAMDI...already called, stay on the line. The number is 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Dick Spottswood, host of "The Dick Spottswood Show" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Dick is also a musicologist and author. His most recent book is titled "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." A few people would like to talk with Dick Spottswood. Let's start with Joyce in College Park, Md. Hi, Joyce.
JOYCEHi there. I wanted to reminisce. I didn't realize that he was still on the air. I'm so happy. I'm tickled to death to rediscover him. I used to commute from Rockville and I was -- I'd be commuting home and I'd be jumping in my seat and popping my fingers and I was just as happy as a clam. And all the commuters around me, solid traffic, everybody else was glum. And I was just having a great time.
SPOTTSWOODThey had heavy traffic then too? (laugh)
SPOTTSWOODThey had heavy traffic. I was just thinking we should have traded houses because I used to have to commute to Rockville.
SPOTTSWOODIt's one reason I don't live here anymore.
NNAMDIYes. Dick's down in Florida most of the time these days but we make him come up here every now and then. Joyce, thank you for your call and for your memories.
NNAMDIHere is Bob in Jefferson, Md. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBHello, Kojo. Hi, Dick.
BOBI usually don't call in to shows. I just sit back and enjoy them. But when I heard your history and your background growing up, I just had to make an exception today. I, too, had a paper route for the Long Island Daily Press seven days a week.
BOBI, too, listen to 78 rpm records. I was thrilled when LPs came out and the new stereophonic gizmos were just a treat when you didn't have to change records every three or four minutes. (laugh) And of course, you failed to mention...
SPOTTSWOODI'm new to the exercise. (laugh)
BOB...well, you failed to mention that if you drop the 78 rpm record, that was it. It's broke.
NNAMDIThat's why he packed up -- that's why Dick packed up and left when his record got scratched up.
SPOTTSWOODWell, it’s true...
BOBThere you go.
SPOTTSWOOD...if you drop a lot of things...
NNAMDIThat will indeed. Did you also use your paper route money to buy music, Bob?
NNAMDIDid you also use the money you made on your paper route to buy music?
BOBAbsolutely. I grew up with a rather musical family. They didn’t play instruments but they encouraged us to play. I played drums in a band, in high school and in college. That's part of how I paid my way. And we got encouraged to enjoy all genres, from classical to rock, to just about everything. And as you...
NNAMDIWell, you -- go ahead, please.
BOBAs you pointed out, it's so easy today to just get online and buy music for 99 cents or whatever and download your favorites.
SPOTTSWOODAnd newspapers are starting to sunset too. What are little boys and girls in the future going to do when they wanna buy music and they can't deliver newspapers or be golf caddies or -- all the little occupations for kids are going, aren't they?
NNAMDIThey'll create websites and do something with them that makes money.
SPOTTSWOODYeah, yeah. That...
NNAMDIWell, Bob, thank you very much for sharing that memory with us.
NNAMDIAnd here is one of the reasons why Dick Spottswood is an all-genre guy. You were coming at your unaired job from an academic background. You started your career in the Montgomery County library system. How did that shape your approach to your first days on the air?
SPOTTSWOODWell, it just made my life all the happier. I was happy being down here. I ran a fleet of book mobiles out of Rockville, you know, going way up to places. I mean, these places have all become, you know, new towns now, but at the time they'd be way out in the sticks. We'd take the book mobile up and park next to a light pole. They'd have installed this Pepco or BG&E, whatever, installed a special plug on the pole so that we could plug the book mobile in and get 220 v current. So I was bringing, you know, print to people during the week and music to people on Sundays, and I didn't see how life could get much better than that.
NNAMDIIt is our understanding that you and Gary Henderson started a bluegrass magazine after a listener called in to Gary's show once to let him know that the Stanley brothers have played at some dive in Bladensburg and that none of you knew about it. So you decided to start a new newsletter so that people would be aware of who is where.
SPOTTSWOODWell, this is in the days before the Internet, before much of anything, and Gary was in on that, Diane Sims and Pete Kuykendall and George McCeney, several of us. We just decided that there should be, if nothing else, a newsletter that would go out to people on a mailing list that would say who's going to do what, where and when. And then they decided that the newsletter needed an editor, so I got to do that for four years. (laugh) I was working for the libraries at the same time. And so, you know, we -- things sort of grow of their own and so we started including articles and record reviews, and Bluegrass Unlimited is now 44 years old.
NNAMDIYou mentioned something else that we have to get back to now because the --your hunt for history behind music and bluegrass is something that's still near and dear to your heart. You just recently published a book that we mentioned early about Wade Mainer, one of the godfathers of banjo and bluegrass. What drew you to Wade Mainer's story?
SPOTTSWOODWell, it was a wonderful story. I've known Wade and Julia informally for a number of years. I mean, I was attracted to them because of the important history that they made. Wade, up until quite -- he's 103 years old. But up until quite recently, he could still sing "Maple on the Hill" in the same key he recorded it in 1935. He also created a melody for that song, turned it into a standard. The old melody was displaced because of Wade's recording, and he has been making recordings on and off since that time. He has a wonderful career of broadcasting. He -- can I tell the story about what happened to him and Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House?
NNAMDIPlease do. That’s why you're here.
SPOTTSWOODWell, all right. I -- well, you're in charge, Kojo. I got to ask permission.
NNAMDINo, I could sit and listen to you for hours.
SPOTTSWOODWell, thank you. He was -- Alan Lomax, the folklorist, and Archibald McLeish, who was at that time the librarian of Congress, the guy nominally in charge of the library, decided that they would create an evening of folk music at the White House. Josh White was there, the original Golden Gate Quartet, Wade Mainer and Burl Ives, I think, were the stars of that evening. It was not a public event. There was -- they actually printed up an invitation that I have in the book that says, you are not invited to an evening at the White House, (laugh) and it listed what was going to go on. Wade saved a copy of the program. Well, they played music and Wade said that FDR came up and said, well, are the people in North Carolina -- that's where he was from -- happy with the administration so far? And Wade said, oh, yes, Mr. Roosevelt. They like you very much. They appreciate your foreign policies and so and so. Everybody heard what they needed to hear and it was a very happy time. But they were standing -- he was talking to Eleanor Roosevelt and they were standing near a pair of swinging doors. You know what they have in the old western movies...
SPOTTSWOOD...the doors to the bar is always swinging in and out.
NNAMDIAt the saloons, yes.
SPOTTSWOODWell, in this case, the doors to the kitchen in the White House were swinging in and out. Eleanor was standing with her back to one of these doors and the door came out, slammed her in the back. They both had a dish of ice cream, and Wade's ice cream went all over Eleanor's dress. And he said, I took out my -- they were wearing overalls as a part of their uniform. I reached out and took out this big red handkerchief from my own. I started to wipe her down.
SPOTTSWOODShe said, we don’t need to do that. And he said -- what was amazing was five minutes later, she was back with a brand-new dress on and it was like nothing had ever happened. (laugh)
NNAMDIHe said I proceeded to wipe her down.
NNAMDIWell, since we're talking about Wade Mainer, let's give a listen to a little bit of Wade Mainer.
SPOTTSWOODThis is not a choice I would have made.
SPOTTSWOODIt's got that little child -- an irritating little child voice on it. (laugh) This is what they've found online. I should've...
NNAMDIYou should have brought your own...
SPOTTSWOODWell, I did bring my own, but they had already made...
NNAMDIWe should mention that Dick Spottswood's book about Wade Mainer is called "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." Wade Mainer is now 103 years old.
SPOTTSWOODCan I plug a public appearance?
SPOTTSWOODOkay. I'll be over with the book and with Wade Mainer's actual banjo that recently was sold for $120,000 -- that banjo is starting to look awful sexy...
SPOTTSWOOD...at the House of Musical Traditions over in Takoma Park on Saturday. They're hosting a party for Stephen Wade, who has been a guest on this program before, wrote a chapter in this book about how Wade actually plays the banjo, what his style was and a lot of analytic pros. Stephen is going to be there with me and Pete Kuykendall is going to bring Wade's banjo. And I get to talk about the book and people are gonna come over and play Wade Mainer's songs. House of Musical Traditions, one o'clock in Takoma Park, and the check is in the mail. (laugh)
NNAMDIIf you'd like to talk to Dick Spottswood right now, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Here is Sue, who's on 270 in Maryland. Sue, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUEOkay. Good morning, gentlemen.
NNAMDIGood afternoon, Sue.
SPOTTSWOODGood afternoon, Sue.
SUEGood afternoon. I have a few questions. And I'm actually no longer Sue from 270. I'm Sue from Route 70 East.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Well, drive carefully.
SUEOkay. Anyway, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions, Dick. Number one is do you play any instrument yourself?
SPOTTSWOODNo, thank heavens.
SPOTTSWOODThe world has been spared that calamity.
NNAMDINext? Sue, are you there?
SPOTTSWOOD70 East doesn't have coverage.
NNAMDIExactly right. (laugh) We've seemed to have lost Sue. Sue, you can call us back again at 800-433-8850, or anybody else who'd like to join this conversation with Dick Spottswood. But you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. What do you think we can learn about our cultural fabric by studying music and other pieces of folklife? Or how did you go about discovering new music when you were young? Who are -- what turns you on to the music you love now? Call us at 800-433-8850. Dick, when you came back to WAMU in 1985, you started the "The Dick Spottswood Show," which is subtitled "The Obsolete Music Hour." What pieces of your personal collection and what kinds of music were you most eager to share when you adapted a mission than went beyond bluegrass?
SPOTTSWOODIt seemed at the time, because bluegrass music was such a popular commodity here -- I mean, you know, next to Diane Rehm, it was really what was floating WAMU's boat at that time. Well, I guess I should add "Morning Edition" and all, too, because NPR was -- NPR's programming was really taking some qualitative leaps by the mid-1980s. I said if you'll ever have some time, I'd like to do a program that shows the bluegrass people where they music came from, the black roots, the white roots, some of the foreign language music that informed us because this is America. This is the 20th century. And even as long ago as the days of early bluegrass, the tributaries were flowing in from all kinds of sources. And bluegrass is a sophisticated and complicated music much more so than it seems on the surface. I'd like to talk about some of that other music and play it. And Craig Oliver, the program director at the time, said, oh, okay, you know, let's...
NNAMDIGo ahead and do it. At a certain point, you developed that passion for music from other parts of the globe, music in other languages too. How did that come about?
SPOTTSWOODWell, I discovered that there's country music in just about every country. I like the music with the rural -- and maybe country music is the wrong, because an awful lot of these music actually comes from small to medium size towns. Washington created immense amounts of bluegrass in the 1950s and '60s, much as, you know, we had a strong R&B scene and gospel scene, all -- and it was a center for great classical music. You mentioned the Budapest String Quartet. All of those things came together and I was listening to all of that music. And I was interested in all the places where that music came together because they were more points of convergence than you can possibly imagine. And being in D.C. then in the 1950s and 1960s was where you experienced all of that, if you were open to it on a daily or even hourly basis. (laugh)
NNAMDISpeaking of all those place where that music came together, it's my understanding that you brought a piece of music with that you want me to hear. Surprise me.
SPOTTSWOODNow, you have to sing along.
NNAMDI(laugh) I will in a second. I'll tell you the part I remember. (singing) man piabba, woman piabba, tan-tan, fowl back and lemon grass, mumu root, gully root, granny backbone. That, ladies and...
NNAMDIThat, ladies and gentlemen, is the sound of Bill Rogers, the roots...
SPOTTSWOODThe roots of Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDI...and folklores from my native country, Guyana, South America. When I first came to work in 1998, Dick Spottswood called me up and said, I know some music from your country, this guy named Bill Rogers. And I said, Bill Rogers? My father used to stand up, talking to Bill Rogers outside my house many days, and I knew Bill Rogers as a singer and an impresario. He used to bring concerts, et cetera, to Guyana. I was not aware of how much history Bill Rogers had until you turned me on to an article that was written by a schoolmate of mine, Gordon Willard (sp?) ...
NNAMDI...saying that Bill Rogers as early as the 1920s came to this country, recorded all that music and had it copyrighted, which was unknown in that part of the world in those days. But since you played "Weed Woman" by Bill Rogers, I'll see your "West Indian Weed Woman" and I'll raise you a "B.G. Bhaji" by the same man, Bill Rogers.
NNAMDI(singing) I hope you realize, this is times to economize. (laugh)
SPOTTSWOODHere comes the entire menu.
NNAMDIYou take all the ingredients.
SPOTTSWOODI'm getting hungry, Kojo.
NNAMDI(laugh) Here's (unintelligible). Bill Rogers' "B.G. Bhaji." And with that, we're gonna take another short break, and when we come back we'll continue this conversation with Dick Spottswood and with you. If you've already called us down the line, we will get to your call, but you can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I am Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Dick Spottswood. He is the host of "The Dick Spottswood Show" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. He's also a musicologist and author. His latest book titled "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." Sue, who dropped off, is back with us. She's left the no-phone zone. Sue, you're back on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUEYes. Thank you. I'm back on the air. Now I'm Sue from Wal-Mart parking lot. Anyway...
SPOTTSWOODWell, that's good. You're not in motion any longer than...
SUEYou know, Dick, I wanted to tell you that you are absolutely the one who turned me on to all the funky, ethnic, pokey stuff that you never get to hear anywhere except for maybe at your house on your 78s.
SPOTTSWOODWell, I apologize.
SUEAnd you're not recognizing my voice, are you?
SPOTTSWOODI did but I wasn't sure.
NNAMDIOh, you know who this is?
SPOTTSWOODI mean, you -- it sounds to me like you're aging quite gracefully.
SUEWell, you know, it's -- you and my father worked together to translate some Greek stuff. And I think you did a song called (speaks foreign language) on one of your albums.
SPOTTSWOODPretty good Greek.
NNAMDISo Dick knew your dad, huh?
SUEOh, yes. Absolutely. You recognize it now, eh?
SPOTTSWOODAnd Sue is still a babe, I want you to know that.
SPOTTSWOODShe is potent.
SUESue, thank you very much for your call. We got this e-mail from Kimla (sp?) who said, "My son and daughter, now 21 and 17, started listening to bluegrass courtesy of WAMU and Dick Spottswood when we first moved to D.C. in 2000. They had no choice at first. I was driving, so the radio choice was mine. But now, they both appreciate the introduction and have grown to love bluegrass music. Mr. Spottswood is truly a musical treasure in our town."
SPOTTSWOODAnd if you can't beat them, join them. (laugh)
NNAMDIHear, hear, we join. Here is Rick in Woodbridge, Va. Hi, Rick.
RICKHi, Kojo. Listen, first off, thank you. I really enjoy your show. This is the first time that I have ever called. Just two quick comments. One of them was Dick mentioned something about AMU being one of the first stations, public radio stations to do bluegrass. And I wanna tell you that when I was a student at the University of Dayton, and I wish I could remember the call letters now, but the radio station in Dayton actually started playing -- was playing bluegrass. And being a boy from Cleveland, Ohio, didn't have much introduction to bluegrass, and that was my first introduction. And I have moved...
SPOTTSWOODWell, you had a lot of polkas in Cleveland. That was a nice place too.
RICKIt was a nice place, but bluegrass was not one of the things that we listened much to. More...
RICK...soul music. But anyhow, when I moved to Washington in '79, I thought, well, I'm not gonna get an opportunity to listen and watch bluegrass. And sure enough -- I'm a big public radio person and I listen to AMU and Saturday night and all the "Stained Glass Bluegrass" and your show. And it's just -- I'm not a bluegrass expert but I love the music and I just wanted to at least comment that at least there was one other public radio that was playing bluegrass.
NNAMDII'm glad you said you're not an expert because Dick Spottswood probably will tell you that the expertise isn't just loving the music.
SPOTTSWOODHow did you know I was going to say that?
NNAMDII read your mind.
SPOTTSWOODThe expertise is the experience.
NNAMDIExactly right. Rick, thank you for your call. On now to Scott in Annapolis, Md. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCOTTHow are you doing today?
SCOTTI just wanted to thank both of you for being on the air and let you know that bluegrass has really changed my life in a positive way. You know, I love songs that have a story to them and make you feel good about life, and bluegrass has really done that for me.
NNAMDIWell, you know, that was the thing about Dick Spottswood when he was growing up. He liked songs that talked about alienation, songs that talked about people who had lost love and people who are alienated from society, even religion.
SPOTTSWOODOh, the best bluegrass songs are really depressing. (laugh) I mean, we never -- we're never too far from the graveyard.
SCOTTWell, misery loves company, you know.
SPOTTSWOOD(laugh) Exactly. You hit the nail on the head. No, it's true. I mean, there's the -- the happy aspect of it is the dance tunes, the banjo and the fiddle tunes and the songs about love discovered in everything. But the ones that trumped them were about dysfunctional love and death and mother and Jesus. Those are the topics that really inspired the greatest songs. And when people get up there and sing about things that really hurt them, and they're singing in three-part harmony, that's a -- that's when I'm in hillbilly heaven. (laugh)
NNAMDIScott, thank you for your call. Around the time of the bicentennial, Dick, you helped the Library of Congress to put together a 15-record collection of folk music in America. When you're tasked with deciding what represents who we are and what doesn't, what measuring stick do you use for what belongs in that kind of collection?
SPOTTSWOODWell, I asked myself that question, too, and I decided that if I was really going to try to be totally accurately inclusive and representative and everything, I would probably get it wrong. And so I decided -- when I -- because I was faced with assembling about 350 different pieces of music, studying it, annotating it, documenting it and so on, you know, giving it a full LC treatment there, that I would, first of all, look for things that sounded good, and then, second, as Rick emphasized, it would -- it had to be music that told a story, if not a literal narrative. Something in its thought, in its essence, had to communicate some information that we didn't know about people that we didn't know. And so with that kind of license, I was able to go all over the map and use hillbilly music and gospel and blues and country, hard country, with, you know, the steel guitars and electric instruments. I was able to go to different kinds of foreign language music, and I was able to use unaccompanied songs, as well as things with high production values. And, you know, they really just let me play in the sandbox and construct whatever I wanted. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnd do what Dick Spottswood does. Here is Donnie in Greenbelt, Md. Donnie, your turn.
DONNIEHi. I was just wondering if Dick was familiar with these bluegrass festivals that they have around -- especially in North Carolina, there's a big one called MerleFest.
DONNIEAnd then there's one up in Cumberland called DelFest. I was wondering if he was familiar with some of the bands that play up there now. You know, there's...
NNAMDINot only is he familiar with the bands, the bands are familiar with him. But go ahead, please, Donnie. (laugh)
SPOTTSWOOD(laugh) Well, thank you for giving me an excuse to plug Bluegrass Unlimited because that, as Kojo stressed earlier, was one of the reasons that that magazine came into existence, was to put down calendars and schedules of music appearances everywhere throughout the world. Wherever it's reported to us, we print it. And as often as not, we have people that are going there, who come back -- take pictures and come back to report. So if you're not familiar with Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, it really is the touchstone for all aspects of that activity.
DONNIEWell, I was just gonna say that I grew up listening to bluegrass because my father listened to bluegrass a lot. He was a good, old country boy, and people have a tendency to listen today to what their parents used to listen to as well.
SPOTTSWOODWe're captive audiences, aren't we? (laugh)
DONNIEWell, I appreciate you all the time.
SPOTTSWOODAppreciate your call. Thank you.
NNAMDIDonnie, thank you for your call. We move on to Bill in Washington, D.C. Bill, your turn. Go ahead, please.
MR. BILL DUGGANWell, again, I'm Bill from Madam's Organ, and I just wanted to...
DUGGAN...let everybody know that, you know, for the last 15 years, we've had bluegrass with Bob Perilla every Wednesday.
DUGGANAnd although we have Bob, we have -- there's so many people that fit in with 10 minutes. It's actually a who's who of Washington bluegrass, pretty much every Wednesday when they get up there and play.
NNAMDIMadam's Organ is, of course, in Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C. Bill is the proprietor.
SPOTTSWOODI thought that sounded like an anagram. My goodness, that's pretty clever. (laugh)
NNAMDI(laugh) Bill, good to hear from you again. Thanks for your call.
DUGGANBring them on in.
SPOTTSWOODI'm sure that's...
NNAMDIMadam's Organ, Wednesday night. (laugh)
SPOTTSWOODThere's no meaning beyond that, does it? (laugh)
NNAMDI(laugh) Bill, again, good to talk to you. Now we move on to Dudley in Silver Spring, Md. Hi, Dudley. Go ahead, please.
MR. DUDLEY CONNELLHello, Kojo. Hello, Dick. How are you fellows today?
SPOTTSWOODI think I know Dudley's last name. (laugh) Listen...
CONNELLI just wanted to make a comment. A couple of months back, Ralph Stanley had Diane Rehm singing "Amazing Grace", and now Dick Spottswood has Kojo Nnamdi singing live on air. What is WAMU coming to?
NNAMDI(laugh) I don't know.
SPOTTSWOODThe millennium has finally arrived. (laugh)
NNAMDII think we just lost all our listeners when I started singing. (laugh)
CONNELLNo, not at all. I did also wanna chime in and thank Dick and Gary Henderson for basically allowing me a career in music. I mean, I cut my cheese and learned half my material listening to their shows over the years. And it's really -- you guys have really made a difference, and a lot of people really appreciate you, me being one.
SPOTTSWOODLet me introduce this caller. It's Dudley Connell, once of the very, very famous Johnson Mountain Boys who redefined retro music for the Washington area for a decade and a half and maybe more than that. Dudley is now a featured artist with two bands with Longview and the equally -- no, the even more long-standing Seldom Scene. Dudley is one of the true rainmakers of music in this area. I'm very flattered you called.
NNAMDIAnd, Dudley, our listeners may not know this but, Dick, it's reading from nothing when he said that, which is what makes it so (laugh) absolutely great. He's got it all in his head right there.
CONNELLThat's very kind of you, Dick. Thank you...
SPOTTSWOODWe're all obsessed, aren't we?
CONNELLThank you, Kojo. (laugh)
NNAMDIDudley, thank you very much for your call.
SPOTTSWOODThank you, Dudley.
NNAMDIYou know, Dick Spottswood, some people have said that certain early recordings of black music in the 20th century weren't as pure as field music, that the recorded music was corrupted somewhat by the recording process and by efforts to make the music more palatable to white audiences. How do you feel about that notion?
SPOTTSWOODWell, it's curious. That's true and it's not true. In North America, getting anything approaching black music that we think of as authentic, it was pretty much of a desert. But the record companies, nonetheless, where down in places like Cuba by 1905 and in South America by the end of the -- of that decade, and they were recording music in Puerto Rico and even Trinidad. And in those countries, black musicians were par for the course. The -- I'm sure there were segregation patterns, but they didn't operate along with the same lines as they did in North America.
SPOTTSWOODAnd as a consequence, we've got tons of great black music that was recorded before 1920. But it was not until Mamie Smith sang a blues into, not a microphone, an old acoustic horn that we first got a taste of the blues sung by a black performer in this country, and then instrumental music followed. And it wasn't until three years later that we got the first hillbilly record. So it was really the blues that paved the way for hillbilly music on records and radio and everything instead of, as you might assume, the other way around. But by the mid-'20s, we had a full display of minority music from all over this country on records and things were a whole lot better then than they had been before.
SPOTTSWOODWe did have Bert Williams on the end of the...
SPOTTSWOOD...20th -- the 19th century onward. And I don't know if you've heard Bert Williams or not...
SPOTTSWOOD...but he is, today, he still sounds inspired.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned Puerto Rico also because we got an e-mail from Jose who said, "Can you ask Dick if he has heard of Puerto Rican jibaro music by Ramito?"
SPOTTSWOODIt's Puerto Rican bluegrass. (laugh)
SPOTTSWOODThat's the hillbillies.
SPOTTSWOODThat's -- that is a wonderful music.
NNAMDIAnd here now we go to Gary in Washington, D.C. Gary, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. GARY HENDERSONHello, Kojo. Congratulations, Professor Spottswood.
SPOTTSWOODI think I know his last name too. (laugh)
SPOTTSWOODThis is Gary Henderson, who we've been talking about the whole hour.
SPOTTSWOODOh. Thanks for calling in, Gary Henderson. I sure do miss you.
HENDERSONWell believe me that goes both ways. It seems like 1967 was just last week. (laugh)
SPOTTSWOODGary is still very much a presence on WAMU as well too. And there's nobody playing more listenable music than Gary Henderson. His taste were really forged in the early days when things -- where things were wonderful.
HENDERSONWell, thank you, Dick.
NNAMDIGary, did Dick literally call while you were on the air (unintelligible) ?
SPOTTSWOODYeah, did I do that?
HENDERSONNo, no. (laugh) Actually, I mean -- but, Dick, that is a true story. You invited me over to your home in Takoma Park and shared some of your vast record collection of Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper records, which I didn't have, so I can play on WDOM before I was fired. (laugh)
SPOTTSWOODWell, I -- well, of course I knew you before you were fired. But once you were fired, it was a golden opportunity for me to ask you to come on board because, you know, where my knowledge left off -- my limited knowledge left off, your very extensive knowledge begin. You brought knowledge of the music and of the technology to bear. And I -- you know, those old shows still sound pretty good, I think, you know?
NNAMDIWell, you are both founts of knowledge, Gary.
HENDERSONThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDII'm just gonna...
HENDERSONI'll tell you, back in those days, the station was very poor and we were using recycled tape, as Dick alluded to earlier. (laugh) And some of the tape was in pretty bad shape when we recorded our four half-hour shows on a Sunday afternoon.
NNAMDIIt turned out so well that I'm gonna check to make sure that Dick is not the one who got your fired from WDOM.
SPOTTSWOODOh, no. When Gary got fired...
SPOTTSWOOD...the lights went out. That was the day the music died. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnd, Gary, we're out of time, but we're so glad you called. Thank you very much, Gary Henderson, for calling. This quick e-mail from Arn (sp?) who said, "I grew up in Silver Hill just outside of D.C. in the late '40s and early '50s. Near us on Branch Avenue was a restaurant called Streaks at the fork of Branch and Naylor Road."
NNAMDI"In the very early '50s, I would ride my bike down in the evening and sit under the open windows to the dining room and listen to the country music or early bluegrass bands. Can't remember the names after all these years, but I'm sure they were the names we all honor now."
SPOTTSWOODThat's just about the size of it. Streaks is before on my time too, and that's got to be old. But it was one of the many watering holes in D.C. and nearby Maryland and out into Virginia that this music was labeled a pop-up any place from Bladensburg to New York Avenue in those days.
NNAMDIDick Spottswood is the host of "The Dick Spottswood Show" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. He's also a musicologist and author. His most recent book is titled "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." Dick, always a pleasure.
SPOTTSWOODKojo, thank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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