Ralph Rinzler was a performer, musician, festival administrator, scholar, writer and tireless advocate for grassroots music in the United States. As director of the Field Research Programs at the Newport Folk Foundation 1963 – 1967, and later at the Smithsonian he spent many hours documenting, preserving and presenting traditional arts of North America not only to the United States but to the world.
Born in 1934, Rinzler grew up in Passaic, NJ, and attended Swarthmore College where he began performing as a mandolin player with various folk groups eventually becoming a part of the Greenbriar Boys. The band was one of the main events at Greenwich Village’s Gerde’s Folk City with Bob Dylan as the warm-up or opening act. Performing up and down the east coast and recording several records, the Greenbriar Boys gained a wide audience. Rinzler also played with others including Joan Baez and Clarence Ashley. Among his many successes, he won a Grammy for producing.
At the same time, Rinzler was traveling with the Greenbriar Boys his interest in exploring rural America was ignited. While at the Union Grove Fiddlers Contest in North Carolina with the band, Rinzler heard about and met Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. He became Watson’s first agent and is also credited with helping performers such as Bill Monroe and Hazel Scott. In fact, he worked closely with Bill Monroe in 1962 and 1963 serving as manager and documenting his role as the founder of bluegrass music. Due to Rinzler inviting Dewey Balfa to the Newport Folk Festival, a revival in Cajun music and culture developed which continues to this day.
By 1967, Rinzler was involved with the Smithsonian Institution organizing a festival on the National Mall. The Festival of American Folklife focuses on the traditional arts of two or three different communities each year including crafts, food, occupational stories and lore plus other traditions. The festival is well known for not booking stars but artists closely tied to their communities and traditions. The festival is still in operation today and each year a memorial concert is held in his honor.
Rinzler remained with The Smithsonian for the rest of his life. He was instrumental in obtaining the Folkways Records following the death of Moe Asch by organizing a television special and Grammy award-winning album entitles “tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly,” to fund the acquisition. In 1998 the Center for Folklife Programs prompted the Smithsonian to name its collection The Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections in his honor. His field tapes have been used to create a number of CD releases on the Smithsonian Folkways label. Rinzler died in 1994.