It may seem odd that Folk Time, an album by a short lived bluegrass collective known as Hart Valley Drifters out of San Francisco in 1962, is getting breathless national coverage 54 years after the fact. The buzz makes sense when you hear one of the names involved… the fellow on the banjo and guitar named Jerry Garcia. For the countless fans of Garcia and the Grateful Dead, the recently unearthed music is a musical treasure chest of prototypical Americana exploration from their fallen idol. While the performances presented here are definitely raw and the bluegrass bonafides of the players questionable, the spirit of love for the material is not.
Starting with band introductions, we meet the Hart Valley Drifters, a collection of college age friends that also includes noted Garcia collaborators, songwriter Robert Hunter and David Nelson of The New Riders Of The Purple Sage. Though all three would go on to make great strides in not just learning the “bluegrass and old-timey” music, as Garcia calls it in the intro, they were key in introducing the genre to a legion of new listeners through their work with The Grateful Dead. Their life long dedication to the form is what makes this snap shot into their earliest attempts at bringing the songs to life in a modern setting.
Many of the tracks on Folk Time are traditional songs like “Roving Gambler” whose origins have passed into iniquity, though at the time they were receiving fresh interpretations by contemporary acts. The second track on the disc, “Ground Speed,” was also released the year before by the famed Flatt & Scruggs Band, and was surely heard by the avid music collectors in the band. Comparing the two contemporary performances reveals a lot of where Jerry Garcia was coming from, instrumentally at least, and where he wished to be.
The late fifties and early sixties folk renaissance was the flip side of the surge in popularity of jazz music, another genre Garcia would come to embrace. While jazz featured free flowing musical experimentation that Garcia would later embrace, bluegrass is a music of structure and tradition. It is said that before one breaks the rules it is best to learn WHY the rules exist. Following that logic, Garcia’s work here putting in the due diligence, studying song craft, gave him the knowledge needed to explore the furthest reaches of his art with the surety that made him a such a trusted musical partner.
In his work on the album on both guitar and banjo, Garcia shows flashes of the smooth runs and insightful ability to find the core of the melody he is playing. His fellow players are all up for the challenge, though their blended vocals seem to lack a certain comfort, likely due to their youth. A tentative nature seems to mark the instrumental performances on Folk Time as well, but the simple fact that they tried illustrates the timeless appeal of the music of the strings, prairies and mountains. What drew these eager young musicians into the art form is the honest simplicity that still exists to this day.
With so many of the form’s greats alive at the time and putting out recordings that have moved on to be iconic versions, this album likely would have fared poorly if it had been released way back when. Now that it is in the hands of fans and students of Jerry Garcia’s work, Folk Time becomes a touchstone in his career, a bridge between where he was and what he eventually became, a many faceted voice that changed the world.