John Herald, 1939 – 2005

John Herald, one of the originators of the New York City bluegrass scene and one of the most generous and giving musicians I’ve ever met, died this week. Back in March, I wrote about a tribute to him at the Parkside Lounge a few months ago, a wonderful evening for a wonderful musician.

John Herald was a leading member of the folk scene in the Village when Bob Dylan was a scruffy kid playing open mics. He was a founder of the Greenbriar Boys, generally acknowledged as the first Northeastern bluegrass band. Every Dylan fan knows about Robert Shelton’s career-launching 1961 New York Times review of a Dylan show at Gerde’s Folk City. That wasn’t actually a Dylan show; it was a Greenbriar Boys show at which Dylan was the opening act.

Herald’s crystal clear tenor and dynamite guitar playing drove killer versions of old chestnuts like “Pal O’ Mine” as well as originals like “Alligator Man” and “Stewball.” On many a Monday night you could walk into the Parkside Lounge and find him playing to the waitress and the candles; other nights you’d see him rocking a packed room with his gentle humor and beautiful songs. He could be a challenge to play with, between his unusual guitar tunings and unique sense of timing, and his voice wasn’t as high was it was 40 years ago, but he could make you laugh, cry, and stare open-mouthed at the amount of music coming out of that one battered acoustic guitar, all in one set.

I’ve been too busy to go by the Parkside on Monday nights lately and was just telling my guitar teacher that I should try to catch one of his sets, and I wish I could hear him retuning one more time to sing that song telling his snotty girlfriend not to make fun of his old car, or getting everyone to sing along with John the Generator. And what a generator he was.

I’m going down this lonesome road road
To find my fate or victory
Our God will help us there to win
I’m coming back but I don’t know when

John Herald (center) with me and
Fran Leadon at the tribute show last March.
(Photo by Kate Giampetruzzi.)

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