I always enjoyed bluegrass, but rarely loved it — the precise and phenomenally fast banjo solos and impeccably close harmonies tend to sound too clean and mechanical for my taste, and it made perfect sense that so many of the bluegrass musicians I met seemed to be expert mechanics or technological wizards of non-musical kinds… But I loved the Greenbriar Boys’ Ragged But Right album. It was partly John Herald’s voice, and the way Ralph Rinzler and Bob Yellin played mandolin and banjo, and partly the exceptionally varied repertoire — bluegrass, and old-time country, but also ragtime and old-time pop tunes — but mostly it was the energy and humor. They were fine musicians, but also sounded like they were having a terrific time and weren’t worrying about getting everything perfect — the title summed it up, as well as being a great song that I later used as my regular opening number when I was playing bar gigs.
Along with the upbeat, ragtimey tracks that first caught my ear, that album had one of the loveliest mountain ballad-blues-type songs I’ve ever heard, called “Roll On, John.” It hadn’t been recorded anywhere else, as far as any of us knew, and although they credited it on the record, a lot of us paid minimal attention and remembered it as possibly original to them. But Ralph Rinzler, along with playing fine mandolin (and, in other situations, banjo and guitar), was a prolific folklorist and researcher — as scout for the Newport Folk Festival, he was instrumental in getting Doc Watson into the folk scene and reviving Bill Monroe’s career, a story told in an excellent interview/bio by Richard Gagné — and he had found this while burrowing in the archives.
It was recorded in 1946 by a singer and guitarist named Palmer Crisp, and seems to be the only song he ever recorded (though he also appears on a half-dozen recordings accompanying a fiddler named Sam Leslie). Even this one was captured more or less by accident, in a long series of sessions Margot Mayo (founder of the American Square Dance Group in New York, and hence of the whole idea of urban square dancing) conducted with his father, Rufus Crisp. A selection of these recordings was finally released by Folkways in 1972, including Palmer’s lone solo venture (mis-credited to Rufus on the Smithsonian/Folkways website), and is still available and well worth hearing. I wish I’d heard it back when I was learning this song, though I’ve got to say the Greenbriar Boys did a fine job.
Interestingly, in her liner notes Mayo points out exactly the thing that seemed strangest to me while singing this song, the way the melody lingers on words like “and,” “to,” and “that.” She writes, “In his singing Palmer holds certain words which are not ordinarily held or stressed in song or poetry. This is typical of genuine mountain folk singing.” Although I’ve been singing old-time music since I was a kid, this felt strange enough that I experimented with other ways to sing the lines — I’ve been on a personal mission to try to stop singing in a southern accent and to rephrase lyrics to fit my own speech, but in this case I decided I should leave it the way it was, and now I’m glad I did.