We will be reading and discussing a short story, a feature article and a final piece—not sure how to classify it. All of these pieces were written and published in 1961, when Hunter was at work on The Rum Diary.
If you cannot get to all of them today or tomorrow morning (which is not surprising considering I am posting them so late in the day), please read them in the order in which they appear here. Our first question will be on “Burial at Sea”, the 2nd on “Big Sur”.
This short story was published in the December 1961 issue of Rogue magazine. According to The Great Thompson Hunt website, this issue also featured the breasts of the woman on the cover and the editorial calls this story its "lead fiction". Hunter references it in The Proud Highway, pg. 302:
TO FRANK ROBINSON, ROGUE:
Thompson pitched both a short story and an article on bluegrass music to Rogue, which turned down both. At the time Thompson was plotting to move in early spring to either London or Rio de Janeiro.
Code: Select all
December 22, 1961
2437 Ransdell Ave.
Louisville 4, Kentucky
Dear Mr. Robinson:
Here’s another story you might like. I do. It’s a much better (technically) story than the one you bought, different tone, not quite as dramatic—and a lot shorter.
Length seems to be a pretty salient point in this league. You people did a pretty fair job on that “Burial at Sea” business, but I can’t quite figure your idea in ignoring all my letters. Doesn’t make much difference, actually, but henceforth I’ll be careful to send you my shorter stuff so I won’t have to worry about having them trimmed down.
This one, I think, is pretty trim as it stands. Anyway, here it is.
One more thing—I’m doing a feature for the New York Herald Trib on a place called Renfro Valley, a sort of unpublicized Grand ole Opry down in eastern Kentucky. I went down there to see what they thought about the current boom in Fold and Bluegrass music and got the word that I’d have a fight on my hands if I kept on using the term Bluegrass Music. Renfro Valley is very much in the Bluegrass region.
Seems it might be an interesting article—music in the Bluegrass, as opposed to Bluegrass Music, Manhattan-style. The only real link seemed to be Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, who once worked at Renfro, along with some people called the Coon Creek Sisters, from Pinch ‘Em Tight Holler. Lot of interesting photos to be had down there, a good many novel ideas, decent home whiskey, and probably a worthy short article, mostly photos. Let me know what you think about t it. I plan to bug off for New York in about then days, so if you want something in that line, send a quick word.
That’s about it for now.
Hunter S. Thompson
(LIZ NOTE: The above mentioned bluegrass story is our third featured HST selection—see below)
Click here to read "Burial at Sea"
During the summer of 1961 HST placed a feature article in Rogue, which paid him $350. It was considered a controversial exposé on the real Big Sur. Below is our 2nd selection, as presented in The Proud Highway:
“Big Sur: the Garden of Agony”
If half the stories about Big Sur were true this place would long since have toppled into the sea, drowning enough madmen and degenerates to make a pontoon bridge of bodies all the way to Honolulu. The vibration of all the orgies would have collapsed the entire Santa Lucia mountain range, making the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah seem like the work of a piker. The western edge of this nation simply could not support the weight of all the sex fiends and criminals reputed to be living here. The very earth itself would heave and retch in disgust—and down these long, rocky slopes would come a virtual cascade of nudists, queers, junkies, rapists, artists, fugitives, vagrants, thieves, lunatics, sadists, hermits and human chancres of every description.
They would all perish, one and all—and, if justice were done a whole army of tourists and curiosity-seekers would perish with them. All the people who come here “for a few kicks” would share the fate of the doomed residents, and anyone surviving the Great Slide would be done in by Killer Whales, the casualty list would be a terrifying document. In addition to the locals it would include voyeurs of all types, hundreds of free-lance pederasts, every sort of predatory jade, and a legion of would-be orgy-masters.
None of this is likely to happen, however, because almost everything you hear about Big Sur is rumor, legend or an outright lie. This place is a myth-maker’s paradise, so vast and so varied that the imagination is tempted to run wild at the sight of it.
In reality, Big Sur is very like Valhalla—a place that a lot of people have heard of, and that very few can tell you anything about. In New York you might hear it’s an art colony, in San Francisco they’ll tell you it’s a nudist colony, and when you finally roll into Big Sur with your eyes peeled for naked artists you are likely to be very disappointed. Every weekend Dick Hartford, owner of the local village store, is plagued by people looking for “sex orgies,” “wild drinking brawls,” or “the road to Henry Miller’s house”—as if once they found Miller everything else would be taken care of. Some of them will stay as long as a week, just wandering around, asking questions, forever popping up where you least expect them—and finally they wander off, back to wherever they came from, often complaining bitterly that Big Sur is “nothing but a damn wilderness.”
Well, most of it is, and the geographical boundaries of Big Sur are so vague that Lillian B. Ross, one of the first writers to live here, once described it as “not a place at all, but a state of mind.” If that sounds a bit mystic, consider that the Big Sur country—which is what you mean when you say Big Sur—is roughly eighty miles long and twenty wide, with a population of some three hundred souls spread out across the hills and along the coast. The “town” itself is nothing but a post office, village store, gas station, garage and restaurant, located a hundred and fifty miles south of San Francisco on Highway One.
Prior to World War Two this place was as lonely and isolated a spot as any in America. But no longer. Inevitably, Big Sur has been “discovered.” Life magazine called it a “Rugged, Romantic World Apart,” and presented nine pages of pictures to prove it. After that there was no hope. Not that Henry Luce has anything against solitude—he just wants to tell his five million readers about it. And on some weekends it seems like all five million of them are right here, bubbling over with questions:
“Where’s the art colony, man? I’ve come all the way form Tennessee to join it.”
“Say, fella, where do I find this nudist colony?”
“Hello there. My wife and I want to rent a cheap ten-room house for weekends. Could you tell me where to look?”
“How’re ya doin’, ace? Where’s this marijuana farm I been hearin’ about?”
“Good morning, old sport. Hope I’m not disturbing you. I …ah…well, you see I understand you people have some jim-dandy parties down here and I was wondering if a few bottles of booze would get me an invitation.”
Or the one that drove Miller half-crazy: “Ah ha! So you’re Henry Miller! Well, my name is Claude Fink and I’ve come to join the cult of sex and anarchy.”
Most of the people who’ve heard of Big Sur know nothing about it except that Miller lives here—and, for most of them, that’s enough. There is no doubt in their minds that any place Miller lives is bound to be some sort of sexual mecca. The mere suspicion brought dozens of people to Big Sur, but when somebody wrote an article about the Cult of Sex and Anarchy he was organizing here, they came from all over the world to join it. That was close to ten years ago, and they’ve been coming ever since.
Ironically enough, Miller came here looking for peace and solitude. When he arrived in 1946 he was a relative unknown. His major works (Tropics of Cancer & Capricorn, The Rosy Crucifixion, Black Spring, etc.) were banned in this country (and still are). In Europe, where he had lived since the early Thirties, he had a reputation as one of the few honest and uncompromising American writers. But when the Nazis over-ran Paris his income was cut off at the source and he was forced back to the United States.
His contempt for this country was manifest in everything he wrote, and his vision of America’s future was a hairy thing, at best. In The World of Sex, a banned and little-known book he wrote in 1940, he put it like this:
What will happen when this world of neuters who make up the great bulk of the population collapses is this—they will discover sex. In the period of darkness which will ensue they will line up in the dark like snakes or toads and chew each other alive during the endless fornication carnival. They will bury themselves in the earth and go at it hammer and tong. They will f**k anything within reach, from a keyhole to a mangy corpse. Anything can happen on this continent. From the very beginning it has been the seat of cruel practices, of blood-letting, of horrible tortures, of enslavement, of fratricide, of sacrificial orgies, of stoicism, of witchcraft, of lynching, of pillage and plunder, of greed, of prejudice and bigotry, and so on….We have seen everything here but the eruption of sexuality. This will be the last outburst, the flood which will carry the robots off. The enormous and elaborate machine which is America will go haywire. It will be the aurora borealis which will usher in the long night. They say a higher type of man will develop here one day. It may be possible, but if it happens it will be from new shoots. The present stock may make wonderful manure, but it will not yield new men.
These are the words that came back to haunt him when he moved to Big Sur. No sooner had he settled here, hoping to separate himself from what he called “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” that thousands of people sought him out to shake his hand, to ask his advice, and to bombard him with their own visions and predictions. Day after day, year after year, when all Miller wanted was a little privacy, they struggled up the steep dirt road to his house on Partington Ridge; if there was a fornication carnival going on up there, they were damn well going to be in on it. At times it seemed like half the population of Greenwich Village was camping on his lawn. Girls wearing nothing but raincoats showed up at his door in the dead of night, wild turks hitchhiked out from New York with duffel-bags full of everything they owned, drifters arrived from every corner of the nation with sacks of food and whiskey, and destitute Frenchmen came all the way from Paris.
Miller did his best to stem the tide, but it was no use. As his fame spread, his volume of visitors mounted steadily. Many of them had not even read his books. They weren’t interested in literature, they wanted orgies. And they were shocked to find him a quiet, fastidious and very moral man—instead of this raving sexual beast they’d heard stories about. When no orgies materialized, the disappointed cultists drifted on to Los Angeles or San Francisco, or stayed in Big Sur, trying to drum up orgies of their own. Som of the lived in hollow trees, others found abandoned shacks, and a few simply roamed the hills with sleeping bags, living on nuts, berries and wild mustard greens. The ones who didn’t stay went off to spread the word, and with each retelling the stories got wilder and wilder. More people arrived, driving Miller to the brink of despair. He posted a large, insulting sign at the head of his driveway, cultivated a rude manner to make visitors ill at ease, and devised elaborate schemes to keep them from discovering where he lived. But nothing worked. They finally overwhelmed him, and in the process they put Big Sur squarely on the map of national curiosities. Today they are still coming, even though Miller has packed his bags and fled to Europe for what may be a permanent vacation.
The special irony of all of this is that Miller has written more about Big Sur—and praised it more—than any other writer in the world. In 1946 he wrote an essay called “This is My Answer,” which eventually appeared in his book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, published in 1958, long after the first invasion.
“Peace and solitude!” he says. “I have had a taste of it even in America. Mornings on Partington Ridge I would often go to the cabin door on rising, look out over the rolling velvety hills, filled with such contentment, such gratitude, that instinctively my hand went up in a benediction….That is how I like to begin the day….And by God, that is why I came to Big Sur and settled down. I want every day to begin thus…here there is peace and serenity, here there is just a handful of good neighbors and the rest is wild animals, noble trees, buzzards, eagles, and the sea and the sky and the hills and the mountains unending….”
Needless to say the day would come when Miller could look out his front door and see a lot more than trees, wild animals and a handful of good neighbors. On some mornings he would forego the benediction in order to shake his fist at the horde of geeks who had gathered in his yard. But his was a special case; he was a marked man. The rest of Big Sur has put up a stern resistance, and , although the battle was lost from the very beginning, the steamroller of progress has made slow headway here. In some spots, in fact, it has bogged down altogether.
There are people here without the vaguest idea of what is happening in the rest of the world. They haven’t read a newspaper in years, don’t listen to the radio, and see a television set perhaps once a month when they go into town.
To read a New York Times in Big Sur can be a traumatic experience. After living here a few months you find it increasingly difficult to take that mass of threatening, complicated information very seriously. Sitting here on a cliff above a rocky beach, on the edge of a vast and empty ocean, with the hills stacked up behind you like a great wall against the chaos of war and politics, the world of the The New York Times seems unread and altogether foreign, so completely opposed to the silence and the beauty of this coast that you sometimes wonder how the people who live in that world can hold on to their sanity. Not all of them do, of course. People are losing their grip every day. Thousands have cracked up from reading too many newspapers, and countless others have gone under for no apparent reason at all.
Not so in Big Sur. Here they didn’t even have electricity until 1947, or telephones until 1958. In New York, where you’re forever hearing stories about the West Coast “population explosion,” it is hard to believe that a place like this still exists, compared to the rest of California, Big Sur seems brutally primitive. No sub-divisions mar these rugged hills, no supermarkets, no billboards, no crowded commercial wharf jutting into the sea. In the entire eighty-mile stretch of coastline there are only five gas stations and only two grocery stores. A fifty-mile stretch is still without electricity. The people who live there—and some of them own whole mountains of virgin land—are still using gas lanterns and Coleman stoves.
Despite the inroads of progress it is still possible to roam these hills for days at a time without seeing anything but deer, wolves, mountain lions and wild boar. Parts of Big Sur remain as wild and lonely as they were when Jack London used to come down on horseback from San Francisco. The house he stayed in is still here, high on a ridge a few miles south of the post office.
With a little luck a man can still come here and live entirely by himself, but most of the people who come don’t have that in mind. These are the transients—the “orphans” and the “weekend ramblers.” The orphans are the spiritually homeless, the disinherited souls of a complex and nerve-wracked society. They can be lawyers, laborers, beatniks or wealthy dilettantes, but they are all looking for a place where they can settle and “feel at home.” Some of them stay here, finding in Big Sur the freedom and relaxation they couldn’t find anywhere else. But most of them move on, finding it “too dull” or “too lonely” for their tastes.
The weekend rambler is a very different animal. He may be an account executive, a Hollywood fag, or an English major at Stanford—but whatever he is he has heard the Big Sur stories and he is here to get his kicks. His female number is the part-time model from L.A., or the bored little rich girl from San Francisco. They arrive singly and in packs, on Friday and Saturday, quivering with curiosity and ready for anything that comes they way. These are the ones who start orgies—the gin-filled Straight Arrows and the secret humpers who come out of the city to let off steam. They will start at Nepenthe, summer headquarters for the local drinking class, and finish in the big Roman tubs at Hot Springs Lodge, ten miles down the coast. Girls will come into Nepenthe on a Saturday afternoon, freeze the whole bar with a haughty stare—and by midnight they’ll be romping in and out of the crowded tubs at Hot Springs, stark naked and shouting for more gin. The bath-house is an open concrete shed, looking out on the sea, and tubs are full of hot sulphur water and big enough to hold as many as ten people. During the day most people observe the partition that separates the men’s side from the women’s, but once the sun goes down the baths are as coeducational as a cathouse New Year’s Eve party, and often twice as wild.
This is the glamorous side of Big Sur, the side that occasionally matches the myth—and none of it is hidden away in the hills, as a lot of people seem to think.
The highway alone is enough to give a man pause. It climbs and twists along these cliffs like a huge asphalt roller-coaster, and in some spots you can drop eight hundred feet straight down to the booming surf. The coast from Carmel to San Simeon, with the green slopes of the Santa Lucia mountains plunging down to the sea, is nothing short of awesome. Nepenthe, open from April to November, is one of the most beautiful restaurants anywhere in America; and Chaco, the lecherous old Tsarist writer who, in his words, “hustles liquor” on the Nepenthe terrace, is as colorful a character as a man could hope to meet.
There are plenty of artists here, and most of them exhibit at the coast Gallery, about halfway between Nepenthe and Hot Springs. Like artists everywhere, many do odd jobs to keep eating and pay the rent. Others, like Bennett Bradbury, drive new Cadillac convertibles and live in “fashionable” spots like Coastlands or Partington Ridge.
On any given day you might walk into the Village Store and find three Frenchmen and two bearded Greeks arguing about the fine points of Dada poetry—and on the day after that you’ll find nobody there but a local rancher, muttering to himself about the ever-present danger of hoof-and-mouth disease.
The local poets outnumber the wild boar, but Eric Barker is the only “name,” and he looks too much like a farmer to cause any stir among the tourists. For that matter almost everyone in Big Sur looks like either a farmer or a woodsy poet. People are always taking Emil White, publisher of the Big Sur Guide, for a hermit or a sex fiend; and Helmut Deetjan, owner of the Big Sur Inn, looks more like a junkie than a lot of hopheads who’ve been on the stuff for years. If you saw Nicholas Roosevelt, of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts, walking along the highway, you might expect him to flag you down, wipe your windshield with an old handkerchief, and ask for a quarter. Some of the local fags are easy to spot, abut almost anyone could be a nudist or a lunatic—and some of them probably are.
To see Big Sur is one thing, and to live here is quite another. Anyone can perch on the glamorous surface for a few days, idling, drinking and looking for orgies—but beneath that surface is a way of life not many people can tolerate.
There is no glamour in the little man who comes down from the city to “get away from it all”—and runs amok on wine two weeks later because there is nobody to talk to and the silence is driving him crazy. There is nothing exciting about loneliness, and Big Sur is full of it. If you can’t stand isolation this place can spook you right out of your mind. I’ve had people curse me bitterly for not staying “just a while longer” to keep them company, and I’ve had people in my house who wouldn’t go home because they couldn’t stand the idea of going back their own place to be alone again.
Today the population of Big Sur is smaller than it was in 1900, and just about the same as it was in 1945. Hundreds of people have tried to settle here since the end of the war, and hundreds have failed. Those who come from the cities, hoping to join a merry band of hard-drinking exiles from an over-organized society, are soon disappointed. The exiles are hard to locate, and even harder to drink with. Soon the silence becomes ominous; the pounding sea is too hostile and the nights are full of strange sounds. On some days the only thing to do, besides eat and sleep, is walk up to your mailbox and meet the postman, who drives down from Monterey six days a week in a Volkswagen bus, bringing mail, newspapers, groceries and even beer.
Big Sur is no phony colony, no tourist attraction full of souvenirs and arty knick-knacks. You don’t just float in, throw up your problems, and begin the goat-dance. It takes a tremendous capacity for remaining self-sufficient and a hell of a lot of hard work. If you come here looking for something to join or to lean on for support, you are in for a bad time.
In his book on Big Sur, Miller describes the people he found here when he came. Some of them, depressed by the influx of tourists, have left for other, more isolated spots—Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, or the Greek Islands, But many are still here, living the same way they were ten years ago:
These young men, usually in their late twenties or early thirties…are not concerned with undermining a vicious system, but with leading their own lives—on the fringe of society. It is only natural to find them gravitating toward such places as Big Sur. They all arrived here by different paths, each with his own purpose, and one as different from the other as marbles from dice. But all “naturals.” All somewhat “peculiar” in the eyes of the ordinary run. All of them, to my mind, men of service, men of good will, men of strong integrity. Each and every one of them fed up with the scheme of things, determined to free themselves of the treadmill, lead their own lives. None of them demanding anything more fantastic of life than the right to live after his own fashion. None of them adhering to any party, doctrine, cult or ism, but all imbued with very strong, very definite ideas as to how life can be lived in these evil times. Never crusading for their ideas, but doing their utmost to put them into practice. Putting above everything—human dignity. Difficult sometimes, especially where “trifles” are concerned, yet always available in genuine emergencies. Stone deaf when asked to toe the line.
These are the expatriates, the ones who have come from all over the world to make a stab at the good Life. But there are others, too. Some are ranchers whose families have lived here for generations. Others are out-and-out bastards, who live in isolation because they can’t live anywhere else. A few are genuine deviates, who live here because nobody cares what they do as long as they keep to themselves. And there are people here of no integrity, no good will, no service and no apparent worth at all.
In some respects Big Sur is closer to new York and Paris than to Monterey and San Francisco. To the writers and photographers who live here just a few months of the year, New York is the axis of the earth—where the publishers are, where the assignments originate and where all the checks are signed. And once the checks are cashed, Paris is the next stop after that. It’s keep moving until the money runs out, then back to Big Sur. In their minds, San Francisco is a bar, Monterey is a grocery store, and L.A. is a circus a few hundred miles down the road.
Others, primarily the painters and sculptors, look north to Carmel, with its many art galleries, craft-centers and wallet-heavy tourists.
Visitors to Big Sur—those who are actually invited—are more likely to be artists, foreign journalists or world-travelers than ordinary vacationers. There are no hotels here, the motels are small and devoid of entertainment, and the only nightlife revolves around Nepenthe, which is closed five months of the year. Most of the people who live here are jealous of their privacy, and nothing annoys them more than a curious intruder. A man sitting on the rocks with a can of beer, watching the sunset or the whales passing out to sea, is not as a rule very happy to explain his way of life to a traveling salesman who stops to “talk to one of the natives.”
Jerry Gorsline, who spent the first eighteen years of his life in New York and now lives on an abandoned mining claim twenty-five miles south of Hot Springs, is happy enough to have no visitors at all. Once or twice a week he will drive up the coast to borrow some books, put in a day’s work for a man who is building a new wing on his house, or pass a few beery hours in the hot sulphur baths. He grows most of his own food, makes his own wine, cooks on a wood-stove, and keeps in touch with his friends in Europe, where he lived for two years before coming to Big Sur.
Lionel Olay, a writer, lives far back in the hills with a girl and two dogs. He spends a few days of every month in Hollywood, picking up assignments, but he does his writing in Big Sur. When he gets money he moves off at a high rate of speed—Mexico, Cuba, Spain, and finally back to Big Sur.
King Hutchinson, on the other hand, has been here for three years and has no intention of leaving. He is one of many who live “the seven-five split” seven months working at Nepenthe and five on unemployment insurance.
Don Bloom is a painter. He lives on what he earns and pays $25 a month for one of the finest houses on the coast. He gets along without electricity, has one of the best gardens in Big Sur, and spends a good part of the day on his porch, staring at the sea.
This is the way life goes in Big Sur: waiting for the mail, watching the sea-lions in the surf on the freighters on the horizon, sitting in the tubs at Hot Springs, once in a while a bit of drink—and, most of the time, working at whatever it is that you came here to work on, whether it be painting, writing, gardening or the simple art of living your own life.
What—and whom—you find here depends largely on where you look. Partington Ridge, for instance, is Big Sur’s answer to Park Avenue. Nicholas Roosevelt lives there; so does Sam Hopkins, of the Top O’ the Mark (Hopkins Hotel) clan. Visiting luminaries—Dylan Thomas, Arthur Krock, Clare Boothe Luce, to name a few—are usually quartered on Partington, and when they sit down to eat they are not likely to be served wild mustard greens.
A little further down the coast, however, is the Murphy property, including Hot Springs, where the combined rental on nine dwellings is $176 a month. This place is a real menagerie, flavored with everything from bestiality to touch football. The barn rents for $15, the farmhouse for $40, and a shack in the canyon goes for $5. Emil White lives here, and if you could call him a publisher, the list of tenants would read something like this: one photographer, one bartender, one carpenter, one publisher, one writer, one fugitive, one metal-sculptor, one Zen Buddhist, one lawyer, and three people who simply defy description—sexually, socially or any other way. There are only two legitimate wives on the property; the other females are either mistresses, “companions,” or hopeless losers. Until recently the shining light of this community was Dennis Murphy, the novelist, whose grandmother owns the whole shebang. When his book, The Sergeant, became a bestseller, he was hounded night and day, by people who would drive 100s of miles to jabber at him and drink his liquor. After a few months of this, he moved up the coast to Monterey.
Old Mrs. Murphy lives across the mountains inn Salinas, and, luckily, gets to Big Sur only two or three times a year. Her husband, the late Dr. Murphy, conceived this place as a great health spa, a virtual bastion of decency and clean living. But something went wrong. During World War Two it became a haven for draft dodgers, and over the years it has evolved into a lonely campground for the morally deformed, a pandora’s box of human oddities, and a popular sinkhole of idle decadence.
The whole of Big Sur will probably stop somewhere short of this. Miller, in one of his rosier moods, said this coast would one day be the Riviera of America. Maybe so, but it will take quite a while. And in the meantime it will be as good an imitation of Valhalla as this country can offer, and one of the finest places in the world to sit naked in the sun and read The New York Times.
Our 3rd selection (as presented in The Proud Highway):
“New York Bluegrass”
NEW YORK CITY—The scene is Greenwich Village, a long dimly lit bar called Folk City, just east of Washington Square Park. The customers are the usual mixture; students in sneakers and button-down shirts, over-dressed tourists in for the weekend, “nine-to-five types” with dark suits and chic dates, and a scattering of sullen looking “beatniks.”
A normal Saturday night in The Village: two parts boredom, one part local color, and one part anticipation.
This is the way it was at ten-thirty. The only noise was the hum of conversation and the sporadic clang of the cash register.
Most people approach The Village with the feeling that “things are happening here.” If you hit a dead spot, you move on as quickly as you can. Because things are happening—somewhere. Maybe just around the corner.
I’ve been here often enough to know better, but Folk City was so dead that even a change of scenery would have been exciting. So I was just about ready to move on when things began happening. What appeared on the tiny bandstand at that moment was one of the strangest sights I’ve ever witnessed in The Village.
Three men in farmer’s garb, grinning, tuning their instruments, while a suave MC introduced them as “the Greenbriar Boys, straight from the Grand Ole Opry.”
Gad, I thought. What a hideous joke!
It was strange then, but moments later it was downright eerie. These three grinning men, this weird, country-looking trio, stood square in the heartland of the “avant garde” and burst into a nasal, twanging rendition of, “We need a whole lot more of Jesus, and a lot less rock-n-roll.”
I was dumbfounded, and could hardly believe my ears when the crowd cheered mightily, and the Greenbriar Boys responded with an Earl Scruggs arrangement of “Home Sweet Home.” The tourists smiled happily, the “bohemian” element—uniformly decked out in sunglasses, long striped shirts and Levi’s—kept time by thumping on the tables, and a man next to me grabbed my arm and shouted: “What the hell’s going on here? I thought this was an Irish bar!”
I muttered a confused reply, but my voice was lost in the uproar of the next song—a howling version of “Good Ole Mountain Dew” that brought a thunderous ovation.
Here in New York they call it “Bluegrass Music,” but the link—if any—to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky is vague indeed. Anybody from the south will recognize the same old hoot-n-holler, country jamboree product that put Roy Acuff in the 90-percent bracket. A little slicker, perhaps; a more sophisticated choice of songs; but in essence, nothing more or less than “good old-fashioned” hillbilly music.
The performance was neither a joke nor a spoof. Not a conscious one, anyway—although there may be some irony in the fact that a large segment of the Greenwich Village population is made up of people who have “liberated themselves” from rural towns in the South and Midwest, where hillbilly music is as common as meat and potatoes.
As it turned out, the Greenbriar Boys hadn’t exactly come “straight from the Grand Ole Opry.” As a matter of fact, they came straight from Queens and New Jersey, where small bands of country music connoisseurs have apparently been thriving for years. Although there have been several country music concerts in New York, this is the first time a group of hillbilly singers have been booked into a recognized night club.
Later in the evening, the Greenbriar Boys were joined by a fiddler named Irv Weissberg. The addition of a fiddle gave the music a sound that was almost authentic, and it would have taken a real aficionado to turn up his nose and speak nostalgically of Hank Williams. With the fiddle taking the lead, the fraudulent farmers set off on “Orange Blossom Special,” then changed the pace with “Sweet Cocaine”—dedicated, said one, “to any junkies in the audience.”
It was this sort of thing—hip talk with a molasses accent—that gave the Greenbriar Boys a distinctly un-hillbilly flavor. And when they did a sick little ditty called, “Happy Landings, Amelia Earhart,” there was a distinct odor of Lenny Bruce in the room.
In light of the current renaissance in Folk Music, the appearance of the Greenbriar Boys in Greenwich Village is not really a surprise. The “avant garde” is hard-pressed these days to keep ahaead of the popular taste. They had Brubeck and Kenton a long time ago, but dropped that when the campus crowd took it up. The squares adopted Flamenco in a hurry, and Folk Music went the same way. Now, apparently out of desperation, the avant garde is digging hillbilly.
The Village is dedicated to “new sounds,” and today’s experiment is very often tomorrow’s big name. One of the best examples is Harry Belafonte, who sold hamburgers in a little place near Sheridan Square until he got a chance to sing at the Village Vanguard.
Belafonte, however, was a genuine “new sound.” If you wanted to hear him, there was only one place to go. And if you weren’t there, you simply missed the boat.
With the Greenbriar Boys, it’s not exactly the same. I thought about this as I watched them. Here I was, at a “night spot” in one of the world’s most cultured cities, paying close to a dollar for each beer, surrounded by apparently intelligent people who seemed enthralled by each thump and twang of the banjo string—and we were all watching a performance that I could almost certainly see in any roadhouse in rural Kentucky on any given Saturday night.
As Pogo once said—back in the days when mossback editors were dropping Walt Kelly like a hot, pink potato—“it gives a man paws.”