25 October 2015

Bill Keith, 1939-2015

Thanks to Richard Thompson for sending the sad news that William Bradford 'Bill' Keith, econd only to Earl Scruggs as most influential 5-string banjo player of the late twentieth century, died early on Friday morning (23 Oct.). John Lawless has posted an assessment on Bluegrass Today.

Bill Keith was the first Northern-born, college-educated musician from the folk revival to have a major impact on bluegrass music, at several levels. While still at college he had closely studied the playing of Scruggs, Don Reno, and other bluegrass banjo players through recordings, radio broadcasts, and (in the case of Don Stover, in Boston with the Lilly Brothers) live performances. As a result of playing with a fiddling neighbour, he devised a means of playing fiddle tunes and other melodic lines note-for-note, with consecutive notes played on different strings.

Keith's playing in this style with Jim Rooney opened the eyes and ears of banjo-players throughout the folk scene. This led to his spending some nine months (1963) as a Blue Grass Boy, playing banjo with Bill Monroe - an association that was important for both men, established the new playing style in the bluegrass world, brought other young city musicians into mainstream professional bluegrass, and incidentally launched the career of Del McCoury as a guitar player.

As well as his own innovations, Keith meticulously analysed and transcribed into tablature the playing of Earl Scruggs, laying the foundation for the book Earl Scruggs and the 5-string banjo and enabling many thousands to learn straight Scruggs style. He also devised banjo tuning pegs, engineered to a very high standard - first (1964) as an improvement on the 'Scruggs pegs' devised by Earl for key changes and string-bending, and later as regular pegs of the highest quality. These are marketed by his Beacon Banjo Company, which will be continued by his son Martin. Butch Robins (see the BIB for 14 Feb. 2015) has said that the two musical geniuses he has met in bluegrass were Bill Monroe and Bill Keith.

Bill played in Ireland numerous times, including the early Athy festivals from 1991 and the Johnny Keenan Banjo Festivals from 2002, where he gave workshops as well as performing. He was also a constant attender at the European World of Bluegrass Festival in the Netherlands. His ill health had been apparent for some time, and at the 'Banjo Summit' in his honour three months ago he was too weak to play; but there, as at his induction into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame a few weeks ago, he was in good heart and - as always - modest and unassuming. His good friend Martin Cooney, founder of the Flint Hill Boys and organiser of the first seven Athy festivals, writes:

He was a great man in all respects. We will meet him again.



At 2:29 pm, Blogger Richard Hawkins said...

While he was a Blue Grass Boy, Bill Keith was called 'Brad' (from his middle name) in the band. This is often mentioned with some such comment as 'there could only be one Bill in the band', as if this showed bossiness on the part of Bill Monroe. Bill Keith himself has said that Monroe (of whom he has constantly spoken with high regard) had no such attitude but had suggested the change to avoid any confusion arising from band members calling out to 'Bill'.


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