FEBRUARY 12, 1929—DECEMBER 15, 2010
A Personal Appreciation
Before Peter, Paul and Mary, before the Kingston Trio, before Bud and Travis, before Ian and Sylvia, before Joe and Eddie, there was Keith and Rusty McNeil, the Southern California based folk duo who traveled the country in their specially outfitted school bus to take students to a kind of school no other bus would take them to: a thorough grounding in their nation’s folk music and history—which they taught as one subject, not two.
For Keith and Rusty—who made their first recording in 1957—one year before the Kingston Trio launched their career, folk music was a window on the past, a doorway to knowledge, a living, breathing connection to the voices who could teach us firsthand about the American Revolution, Slavery and the Civil War, the Westward Expansion, a Nation of Immigrants, union organizing of the industrial working class, the rise of women into full citizenship through the 19th Amendment, and the modern civil rights movement.
Between them they played more than thirty instruments, always choosing an accompaniment in keeping with the traditions of the music they were performing to illustrate the history of the times. If it called for a banjo, Keith played it on the banjo, just the way he learned it straight out of Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo instruction book, and if it called for a mountain dulcimer, Rusty played it on a mountain dulcimer, just the way she learned it from Jean Ritchie’s book. Keith and Rusty brought the sounds of history to life, along with the stories, characters and struggles that informed the gradual realization of democratic ideals promised in the Declaration of Independence, but often not delivered without the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary Americans fighting for their rights.
Born on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression (which they would teach through the songs of Woody Guthrie), Rusty McNeil passed away quietly in her sleep, surrounded by her loving husband, five children and grandchildren, last Wednesday, December 15, 2010, at the age of 81.
She and Keith leave behind a recording legacy that will continue to teach a nation of students for years to come—boxed sets of American folk music all unified around specific themes of historical development, upheaval and change, with elaborate and detailed liner notes giving teachers a platform to build lesson plans to keep them engaged and make them fall in love with history—which after all is the only sure way to create lifelong learners.
If you are fortunate enough to live near the Claremont Folk Music Center you can see them all on display and for sale right there, or you can visit their website and read their amazing biography as well, to see how they got together and the astonishing variety of ways they managed to earn a living before they decided to go on the road and become troubadours of American history. You will discover, as I did, that they lived the life they sang about—hardworking, hands-on labor that reflected the very kinds of song traditions they carried on with firsthand knowledge and a passionate connection to the people who created the music.
But one album you won’t find—the one I discovered at the UCLA Thrift Store a couple of months ago—mixed in with the usual assortment of Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra records. I did a double take when I picked it up, for I had never seen or heard of it before—called simply K.O. and Rusty Sing (illustrated at the top of this article), with a drawing of a man with a banjo over his shoulder, and a woman dancing in the distance.
The list of folk songs made me curious enough to turn it over, and that’s when I saw the names “K.O. and Rusty McNeil,” and the subtitle Folk Songs and Ballads, described as “The husband and wife team of K.O. and Rusty McNeil, one of 1957s most popular singing discoveries…Raised in the craggy mountains of California where traditional American folk songs have been preserved as they arrived with 19th century wagon trains and adventurers, the McNeil's combine with their heritage rare musical talent and a capacity for scholarly research. In their treatment of folk songs they dispense with modern day choral and orchestral accompaniment in favor of the lone banjo, which frames the voice but does not compete with it, and is one of the few folk instruments of purely American origin. The result is expression in the best folk tradition.”
Could “K.O.” be Keith, I wondered. Who else could it be? Wow! I grabbed it with both hands, secure in the knowledge that I had stumbled on their very first record, made before Tom Dooley would hit the airwaves the following year, and already, at the very beginning, unashamedly combining the best of both worlds—teaching and scholarship immersed in the history of the songs with a pure love of singing for its own sake.
You’d think Keith and Rusty would be proud of this record, at least as happy to have made it as I was to have found it in the classic rare record finding tradition—in the back of a used record bin at a local thrift shop.
But you won’t find any mention of it on their otherwise lovingly assembled web site, complete with the biography that states they started their musical career in 1966. Well I hate to argue with the horse’s mouth, but sometimes the horse’s mouth gets it wrong—as careful as Keith and Rusty are with the history of everyone else, going all the way back to Colonial America and the Revolution, and up through Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, they have played fast and loose with their own—perhaps to make it appear they were not as old as they were. But whatever the reason, I am here to tell you that K.O. and Rusty McNeil are none other than Keith and Rusty—and I have the record to prove it.
In journalism, that’s called burying the lead—hiding the most dramatic fact of a story so that the reader has to hunt for it and may not even get there. In this case, the lead is not even mentioned. So let me be the first to tell you: Rusty McNeil, one half of the famed folk duo Keith and Rusty McNeil, was there at the very beginning of the folk revival, without all the fanfare of the Kingston Trio perhaps, and shorn of that very “choral and orchestral accompaniment” that buried the Weavers underneath Gordon Jenkens arrangements, with just “a lone banjo” and songs like John Henry, The Great American Bum, Come Oh My Love and Black Eyed Susie.
And that, my friends, is called keeping it real—which is what Keith and Rusty McNeil have always done, at the dozens of folk festivals where I was lucky enough to hear her sing and learn more about these songs than I thought there was to know. We have been more fortunate than we knew to have them so close—in Riverside—and we will miss her warmhearted, lovely presence the next time around. Fortunately we still have her beautiful voice on their many recordings, and one more than we thought we had.
A good woman is gone; our condolences to Keith and her children: may she rest in peace.