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Bluegrass music echoes from honky tonks of ... New York?

Weekly jam sessions at the Grisly Pear, led by ‘Sheriff’ Bob Saidenberg, reveal a vibrant and egalitarian bluegrass scene in the Big Apple.

By Jennifer MillerCorrespondent / November 18, 2008

Urban country: Jennifer Miller (from left), Melissa Tong, and Emily Day play at a weekly bluegrass session at a New York nightclub.

Kristen Olson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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New York

If it hadn’t been for “Sheriff Uncle Bob,” I never would have taken my banjo out of the case. Four months ago, I was a novice player in New York City. I assumed I wasn’t good enough to play with other people. But with time off before graduate school, I decided to take a chance.

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I walked into a nightclub in Manhattan that was staging a bluegrass jam – and froze. The musicians played at fiber-optic speeds. Their fingers flashed across the strings. What was I thinking?

Then a lanky man in a cowboy hat walked over. “That your instrument?” he asked. He looked fresh off the set of a low-budget Western. His black vest was adorned with a silver star and embroidered with the words “sheriff of good times.”

“It’s mine,” I said tentatively.

“Well,” he said, “why aren’t you playing?”

This was my first pep talk from the man affectionately known as Sheriff Uncle Bob, the grandfather of New York’s bluegrass jam scene. By the end of the evening, I had unsheathed my banjo – and played in public for the first time. “You can find any kind of good live music in New York,” the sheriff told me. “But in bluegrass, the jam is a tradition. You don’t come here for the quality of the music but for the spirit.”

Many people find the existence of a thriving bluegrass scene in New York surprising. Bluegrass is considered mountain music: the antithesis of hyperactive urban life. Yet not only is the music an urban phenomenon, but the inclusiveness and diversity of the bluegrass community in New York is among the most vibrant and unique in the country.

“The acoustic purity of bluegrass makes it a marker for Southern authenticity,” says Jonathan King, an ethnomusicologist and PhD candidate at Columbia University. “But it’s more contrived than people give it credit for.”

Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, fused old-time music, Irish influences, jazz, and blues to create a new sound in the 1930s. Through his use of emerging radio technology, bluegrass became popular in Atlanta, Chicago, and cities in North Carolina. As more Americans migrated to urban areas, they latched onto bluegrass as symbol of authentic America – the “real” thing – including in New York, where it flourished during the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s.

Mr. King believes bluegrass fits well here. An intense drive and speed characterizes the three-finger banjo style that Earl Scruggs, in particular, developed in the 1940s. “It’s perfect for people who ride the subway all day,” King says.

Still, New York isn’t Nashville, Tenn. The city hasn’t supported a country music station since the 1980s and features only one bluegrass radio program, which broadcasts from Columbia University.

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The bluegrass culture that does thrive here owes at least some of its vibrancy to Robert Saidenberg, known to musicians as simply the “Sheriff.” Mr. Saidenberg has lived in the West Village for nearly 70 years. He used to work as a filmmaker and played folk music on the side. In 1991, he bought a steel guitar and went to West Virginia to study with the master of the instrument, Jerry Douglass. Saidenberg was hooked.

“Bluegrass was such a communal thing,” he says, remembering his early attraction to the music. “You could always find people in a parking lot and play.”

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