Hooked on Bluegrass
Though my identity will forever be linked to the study of the behavior of higher primates, since the mid 1960’s I’ve been driven by a second passion…a passion for bluegrass music. That I was eventually able, after decades of unceasing effort, to merge my two loves is, without question, the pinnacle of my career and of my life.
Born in London in the years before the Second World War, I was about as likely to be exposed to, let along become hooked on, bluegrass and American mountain music as the chimpanzees I would eventually study and live with along the shore of Lake Tanganyika in the Gombe Stream Reserve. It was after returning from my second trip to Africa that I spent a summer in America lecturing at several eastern universities. My lecture tour was June through August, 1966, which, I was to learn, coincided exactly with the height of the American Folk Revival; it seemed like every institution I visited was promoting an Americana concert of one kind or another…Dylan, Baez, and, yes, Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers. It was the latter, Ralph and Carter, who provided me with my first taste of what they called ‘mountain music’ one Saturday night in Syracuse. My transformation didn’t require the matinee and evening shows, or even a set. Not even a single song. I went happily, blissfully to the other side with a single line: ‘Over yonder stands Little Maggie’. That was all. When I headed back to the highlands of Tanzania one entire wooden crate was crammed full of bluegrass LP’s, a brand new Gibson Mastertone and a copy of Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo. In the decades that followed, that book and Louis Leakey’s Unveiling Man's Origins would be my guide through a lifetime of discovery.
It seems but the flickering of a candle that my fifty years as an animal behaviorist have blinked by. In the beginning there were so very many absolutes that separated man from the other higher primates: social structure, the possession of secondary emotions, (pride, jealousy, shame, etc.), communication, the use of tools, awareness of self. One by one these differences between human and chimp have been disproved, their remnants now nothing but the ashes of misguided, bad science. And finally, with the performance of the simple Bile Them Cabbage Down by the eighteen-year-old Nandi in the Tanzanian capitol of Dar es Salaam, one of the last firewalls separating us and them crumbled in 1998. Now, a decade later, the Gombe Ramblers, Nandi and her siblings, Crystal, Cocoa and Hector, (guitar, banjo and base respectively), are standard fare on the festival circuit throughout the U.S. east and south. Oh, for the Leakey’s, Louis and Mary, to have caught just one set of those chimps at Rocky Grass last year.
[Note: This is one of several “hooked” stories from creative CBA’ers who have imagined how an historical figure might have become engaged with bluegrass, if they had had that opportunity.]
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