Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals


Bean Blossom, Indiana—near Brown County State Park and the artist-colony town of Nashville, Indiana—is home to the annual Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, founded in 1967 by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. Widely recognized as the oldest continuously running bluegrass music festival in the world, this June festival's roots run back to late 1951, when Monroe purchased the Brown County Jamboree, a live weekly country music show presented between April and November each year. Over the years, Monroe's festival ...

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Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals

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Bean Blossom, Indiana—near Brown County State Park and the artist-colony town of Nashville, Indiana—is home to the annual Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, founded in 1967 by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. Widely recognized as the oldest continuously running bluegrass music festival in the world, this June festival's roots run back to late 1951, when Monroe purchased the Brown County Jamboree, a live weekly country music show presented between April and November each year. Over the years, Monroe's festival featured the top performers in bluegrass music, including Jimmy Martin, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, the Goins Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, and many more.
Thomas A. Adler's history of Bean Blossom traces the long and colorful life of the Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festival. Adler discusses the development of bluegrass music, the many personalities involved in the bluegrass music scene, the interplay of local, regional, and national interests, and the meaning of this venue to the music's many performers—both professional and amateur—and its legions of fans.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Bean Blossom offers much-needed insights into one of the most important bluegrass music festivals. . . . Bluegrass aficionados and Bean Blossom regulars will certainly appreciate the care and attention that Adler has paid to the fan communities that have thrived in Brown County and across the globe."—Notes

"Bean Blossom seems to be the ideal subject for an extended historical study such as this. Loaded with facts and details, the unfolding story is so interesting and engrossing. I read it with delighted recognition and remembrance."—John Wright, author of Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music

"A welcome addition to the growing body of literature on the history of bluegrass.  A clearly written and accessible book that combines history and folklore and offers an important case study of two twentieth-century musico-social phenomena:  the rual country music park and the bluegrass festival."—American Music

"An important book in that it weaves together bluegrass music, the changing demographics of the music, the development of the music industry, and the evolving economic elements of staging events in the music park."—Journal of American Folklore

An important book in that it weaves together bluegrass music, the changing demographics of the music, the development of the music industry, and the evolving economic elements of staging events in the music park."—Journal of American Folklore

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252078101
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 5/23/2011
  • Series: Music in American Life
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas A. Adler is a folklorist, banjoist, radio show host, and the former executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and first attended Bean Blossom in 1968.

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The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03615-6


Rural Country Music Parks

This book is a history of one small special cultural scene devoted to vernacular music. Although its story is unique, it exemplifies a type of live music scene that arose in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century: a rural country music park. Hundreds of these parks were established from the 1930s on, but for the most part, they have appeared and disappeared without much written notice, remaining stubbornly below the level of historical scrutiny.

In Bluegrass: A History, Neil V. Rosenberg describes the older country music parks of the 1950s and before, emphasizing their simplicity, rural settings, accessibility from urban centers, and presentation of Sunday-afternoon shows and music contests to family audiences. Bill Monroe biographer Richard Smith also describes these parks, noting features including picnic grounds where families and friends would enjoy "dinner on the ground," a phrase evoking the historical context of church-based all-day singing events. Smith observes the parks' roofed-over stages, benches, and unsophisticated sound systems and highlights their value in bluegrass music history as an informal network of family performance venues. Finally, he points out their significance to a "growing subculture of northern enthusiasts," like Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler, whose subsequent careers repeatedly acknowledged initial encounters with Bill Monroe and other seminal artists at the country music parks of southeastern Pennsylvania. All the early rural country music parks presented outdoor performances of country music, but some other common factors enriched the idea: weekly Sunday-afternoon shows, family orientation, limited use of advertising, picnic facilities, private ownership, the rural location, and the possibility of camping on the grounds.

Other sorts of venues functioned similarly in presenting country, bluegrass, and related music yet differed in critical ways. For instance, historical fiddlers' conventions and radio barn dances, though grounded in the same social matrix noted by Ralph Rinzler to be characteristic of the country music parks, typically took place in major cities like Atlanta or Detroit or regional centers like Bristol, Tennessee, or Galax, Virginia. Public parks in or near major cities have also hosted bluegrass or country music shows, but public parks are neither focused on that function nor owned by an individual or family who promotes a particular kind of music. Some private music parks concentrate on other styles of music, offering only seasonal events like festivals. Many "little Oprys" offer weekly country music and bluegrass music shows, but (in an obvious parallel to Nashville's Ryman Auditorium) are usually set in indoor facilities like converted small-town theaters.

Cultural scenes are tied to the physical settings of each music park. Old music parks that survived the longest often underwent major alterations at the hands of their owners and managers. The most successful parks often added new features like a second stage, better concessions, or an improved campground. The evolution of each park informs both the fact of the park's survival and new commercial directions for the park's owner.

There was a rapid early development of modern outdoor music festivals in the mid-1960s, and then an amazing explosion of them after about 1970. As the bluegrass festival movement spread, some older Sunday-show country music parks, like Virginia's Watermelon Park, lost their weekly show focus and became festival parks, known nationally for presenting annual music festivals. The transformation could be sudden or drawn out over years. From the seventies onward, builders of new festival parks re-created many functional elements familiar to them from the older parks. Later, campgrounds and recreational vehicle parks and other theme parks added music-show facilities, further muddling the paradigm.

No rural country music parks existed before there was something identifiable as "country music," which effectively began as an industry in the late 1920s. But the small parks did not become truly viable until after the Great Depression's hard times subsided. For most, a sense of returning prosperity did not arrive until the late 1930s, even later in some areas. Sometime in this period, a revived degree of personal wealth and automotive mobility brought rural sites within the ready reach of audiences. By the mid- to late 1930s, the earliest country music parks were founded.

The conceptual origins of rural country music parks are elusive. Few historical overviews of music parks exist, and even the best examples, like the story of southeastern Pennsylvania's Sunset Park, were usually written after the parks' demise. The histories of most ephemeral country music parks, even clues to their very existence, are now hidden away in yellowing scrapbooks kept by former owners or performers, or in their evanescent memories, or those of aging attendees. Even when such resources are tapped for historiographic value, they usually do not point at antecedents for the concept.

But parks have a long lineage. More than a thousand years ago the word park meant a privately (or royally) owned enclosed outdoor hunting area. By the twelfth century, "deer parks" had been built by those at the top of the feudal system for their own use, the word deer then meaning game animals in general. The family name Parker identified the keepers of a deer park.

Public municipal parks arose in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1632 England's king Charles I opened London's Hyde Park to the general public, and throughout the seventeenth century, especially after the huge London fire of 1666, many old royal parks opened to the public, as planners added new recreational green spaces, public gardens, and zoos. By the eighteenth century, wealthy patrons commissioned new generations of private parks, zoos, grottoes, and gardens, perfecting and controlling nature in ever more culturalized ways. For example, Marie Antoinette's petit hameau was a fake peasant farm built for her amusement around one of the landscaped lakes at Versailles.

The modern era of amusement parks opened with the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, the last of the nineteenth-century World's Fairs, which inaugurated the Ferris wheel and other rides and presented them to an eager public in conjunction with the carnival-like Midway. In the aftermath of the Columbian Exposition, private developers created the first modern ride-centered amusement parks. All used music to some degree, but a few made popular and classical musical performances a key part of the draw for their urban audiences.

Transportation to rural parks was always an issue. The first wave of modern amusement parks followed the upsurge of urban light electric railway construction from 1890 to 1905. "Trolley parks" were built by the trolley or light-rail companies on cheap land at the end of the line. The initial suburban amusement parks consisted mainly of picnic facilities, often on the shores of a lake or river, and dance halls, restaurants, and games. Later, new trolley parks added roller coasters, Ferris wheels, and other rides.

Early-twentieth-century Philadelphia had four such trolley parks. The most important was Willow Grove Park, constructed on a hundred acres and featuring three picnic grounds, a four-acre lake with a spectacular electric lighted fountain, numerous restaurants and concessions, fifty thousand electric lights to allow evening use of the park, a "mountain railroad" (roller coaster), and a special focus on musical amusements. The Willow Grove music pavilion had a grand band shell that repeatedly attracted leading band and orchestra artists like Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa.

Suburban North Chicago's Ravinia Park, which bills itself as "North America's oldest music festival," was the Chicago and Northwestern Railway's "trolley park." The thirty-six-acre suburban site acted from its inception as a summer venue for classical music and opera. The Ravinia concept of music "festival" is unique in popular entertainments for embracing each entire summer season of musical events. Today that means jazz and popular music appear alongside the classical orchestra and opera concert repertoire that originally dominated.

As a promotional idea, privately developed rural music parks may have evolved in part from the early success of large well-publicized amusement parks or musically specialized theme parks like Ravinia and Willow Grove. As a cultural idea, the rural music parks also echo earlier American social institutions, including the religious camp meeting, the Chautauqua movement, and regional fiddlers' conventions. All these historical institutions contributed to the development of the rural country music park idea.

Religious camp meetings date to the dawn of the nineteenth century, with deeper roots in the "Great Awakening" of evangelistic fervor that swept through Europe and America prior to that time. The "Second Great Awakening" brought the new institution of the religious camp meeting to the Kentucky frontier. Camp meetings, created by early American Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist, and other Protestant churches, pulled together dispersed rural congregations for "revivals" of worship and fellowship. Held annually in wooded areas or attractive groves, camp meetings brought together like-minded families who lived in tents or covered wagons and constructed makeshift shelters, "brush arbors," for worship, singing, and communion. In places where an annual camp meeting succeeded and flourished, the original brush arbor was eventually succeeded by an open-sided "tabernacle" or pavilion, under which participants met for singing, worshiping, and socializing.

Outdoor stages are central in depictions and photos of nineteenth-century camp-meeting sites, and their simple designs directly foreshadow the stages of many music parks. The camp meetings also prefigured the music parks' social settings, which arose predictably wherever southern visitors literally camped on the grounds for the duration of an extended multiday event.

Another source for the idea of music parks was the Chautauqua movement, which President Theodore Roosevelt famously characterized as "the most American thing in America." This late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century movement, rooted in the older Lyceum concept of adult education, used natural or park environments for fresh, informal presentations of music and art intended to ennoble and uplift audiences. The original Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly was created at a rural western New York site in 1874 as an educational experiment in out-of-school vacation learning. That first Chautauqua's "auditorium" was an open-sided pavilion, shading and protecting both the musicians or lecturers and their audiences. Chautauqua quickly succeeded and broadened almost immediately beyond courses for Sunday-school teachers to include academic subjects, music, art, and physical education. "Daughter-" and tent-based circuit Chautauquas soon followed, diffusing across the nation, bringing summertime outdoor lectures, dramatizations, and performances—particularly musical performances—to large numbers of rural Americans. In many states, both public and private parks were built in attractive natural settings for the use of daughter Chautauquas. Virtually all the original "Chautauqua Parks" surviving in Ohio, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and beyond have in common their regular use for public musical performances.

Characteristically, Chautauqua parks had one or more focal points for performance. Amphitheaters, open-sided pavilions, and outdoor stages were planned, built, improved, altered, and maintained as permanent park facilities. From early times, too, those attending special annual summertime Chautauqua events camped on or near the grounds, generating the feeling of a camp-meeting community and heightening the emotional impact of all that was presented.

Another precursor of the rural country music parks was the desire to compete at music making. Fiddlers' contests or conventions have been held in America since the early 1700s. A fiddle-contest boom occurred in the mid-1920s with the advent of radio, when many large, nationally promoted fiddling championships were broadcast. Henry Ford sponsored many such competitions to help promote his conservative vision for the American lifestyle.

In addition to the actual competition or contest, the cultural scene at most southern fiddle contests included much more. Neil Rosenberg describes it: "Acquaintances were renewed, tunes swapped, drinks taken (often clandestinely), and new musicians (often youngsters) initiated. Meals were shared, news exchanged, instruments swapped or sold, late hours kept; all were part of the offstage aspects of these events."


Excerpted from BEAN BLOSSOM by THOMAS A. ADLER Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Rural Country Music Parks....................xv
1. Brown County History and Roots....................1
2. Origins of the Brown County Jamboree, 1939–41....................12
3. The Rund Family's Brown County Jamboree, 1941–51....................21
4. Bill Monroe's Brown County Jamboree Park, 1952–57....................48
5. Survivals, Revivals, and Arrivals, 1958–66....................66
6. Building the Festivals, 1967–68....................90
7. The Festival Becomes a Landmark, 1969–71....................108
8. The Festival's Golden Age, 1972–82....................123
9. Festival People and Lore....................145
10. Bill and James Monroe's Festival Park, 1983–97....................159
11. Renaissance, Continuity, and Change, 1998 and After....................179
List of Interviews....................209
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