Keith, Bill, 1939-2017

Bill Keith Collection

1960-2013
1 box 0.25 linear feet
Call no.: MS 1037
Part of: Folk New England Collection
Image of Bill Keith (r.) and Jim Rooney at the Newport Folk Festival, 1965
Bill Keith (r.) and Jim Rooney at the Newport Folk Festival, 1965

A stylistic innovator and influential performer on the five string banjo, Bill Keith is credited with transforming the instrument from a largely percussive role into a one where it carried the melody. A native of Boston and 1961 graduate of Amherst College, Keith cut his teeth as a performer in New England clubs during the hey day of the folk revival, often partnering with his college roomate Jim Rooney, and he spent the better part of the decade as a member of two high profile acts: Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, with whom he played for eight critical month in 1963, and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Adding the pedal steel guitar to his repertoire, Keith performed on stage and in studio with a stylistically and generationally diverse range of acts including Ian and Sylvia, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Loudon Wainwright, and the Bee Gees. Keith continued performing nearly to the time of his death by cancer in October 2015.

This small collection of photographs and ephemera documents the musical career of bluegrass legend Bill Keith, including early images playing in coffee houses and at Newport Folk Festival and images of Keith with musical collaborators throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The collection includes a series of photographs and ephemera taken during the 50th anniversary Jug Band Reunion tour of Japan in 2013.

Background on Bill Keith

A stylistic innovator and influential performer on the five string banjo, Bill Keith is credited with transforming the instrument from a largely percussive role into a one where it carried the melody. Born December 20, 1939, Keith grew up in the Boston suburbs playing the plastic ukulele and piano, learning to read music in the process. His musical direction, however, took a sharp turn after he began listening to country and bluegrass music on radio broadcasts from the south.

Going down to a local music store, Keith purchased began taking Dixieland on a four string banjo until the summer 1957, shortly before entering Amherst College, when he heard a five string being played. Immediately, he recognized that this would be his instrument. Using the Pete Seeger instructional book, he taught himself a three-finger style, but began expanding his technique by listening intently to Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and others and reconstructing their approach, even recording a tablature for Scruggs. Building off from his studies of Scruggs, Keith reimagined the banjo as an instrument capable of carrying the melody usually taken up by the fiddle, playing in a note-for-note rolling style that became his signature.

Meanwhile, Keith and his roommate, guitarist and singer Jim Rooney, began to perform locally in small clubs, on radio shows, and local television, moving to Boston after graduation to immerse themselves in the burgeoning folk revival scene. In December 1962, Keith was introduced to Scruggs after a concert and took the occasion to show him the tablature he had been working on. Although Scruggs did not read music, he was impressed and verified that Keith’s transcriptions were mostly accurate, leading the two to collaborate on a new instruction book, Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo, using the Keith tablature.

Another turn in Keith’s career soon followed. In 1963, the “father of bluegrass,” Bill Monroe, heard Keith playing backstage at the Grand Ole Opry and invited him to become part of his Blue Grass Boys band. Although Keith remained with Monroe only eight months, his reputation as a banjo player grew rapidly. He contributed to the technical side of the music as well, devising a new tuning peg for the banjo with another Amherst alumnus, Dan Bump, that enabled players to change pitch accurately even at high speeds. He marketed the tuner, known as the Keith Tuner, through the Beacon Banjo Company, a company he created in January 1964, selling more than 30,000 units over the next several decades.

After leaving Monroe, Keith joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band for four years and expanded his instrumental range by adding the pedal steel guitar in the late 1960s. On stage and in studio he performed with a stylistically and generationally diverse range of acts over the next two decades, from Ian and Sylvia to Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Loudon Wainwright, and the Bee Gees. He was part of a short-lived bluegrass supergroup, Muleskinner, in 1973, that included Peter Rowan (guitar and signer), David Grisman (mandolin), Richard Greene (fiddle), and former Byrds guitarist Clarence White. In all, Keith performed on nearly twenty albums, beginning with Bluegrass Livin’ on the Mountain, with Jim Rooney in 1963 (Prestige Folklore). He continued to perform nearly to the time of his death by cancer on October 23, 2015.

Contents of Collection

This small collection of photographs and ephemera documents the musical career of bluegrass legend Bill Keith, including early images playing in coffee houses and at Newport Folk Festival and images of Keith with musical collaborators throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The collection includes a series of photographs and ephemera taken during the 50th anniversary Jug Band Reunion tour of Japan in 2013.

Collection inventory

Fincastle 50th anniversary celebration (International Bluegrass Music Museum)
2015
Box 1: 1
Japan tour: Beacon Banjo: Keith Banjo Tuners advertisement [in Japanese]
2007
Box 1: 2
Japan tour: Itoh, Ashura Benimaru caricatures of Bill Keith
2013
Box 1: 4
Japan tour: Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments Lecture concert no. 144: Bill Keith fliers [in Japanese]
2013
Box 1: 3
Japan tour: Moon Shiner no. 30.5 and 30.6
2013
Box 1: 5
Japan tour: Yokosuka: Grassroots Music Workshop: Bill Keith workshop advertisement [in Japanese]
2013
Box 1: 7
Jim Kweskin Jug Band 50th anniversary reunion tour
Box 1: 8
Photographs
1960-1997
Jim Rooney (with guitar) and Bill Keith (banjo): portrait with instruments (photo by Jim McGuire)
1974
Box 1: 10
Bill Monroe (with mandolin) and Bill Keith (photo by R. J. Kelly)
ca.1985
Box 1: 11

Administrative information

Access

The collection is open for research.

Languages:

English, Japanese

Provenance

Acquired from through Tom Curren, July 2018.

Digitized content

The photographs in this collection have been digitized and may be viewed online through SCUA’ online digital repository, Credo.

Processing Information

Processed by I. Eliot Wentworth, July 2018.

Copyright and Use (More informationConnect to publication information)

Cite as: Bill Keith Collection (MS 1037). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

Subjects

  • Folk music--New England

Types of material

  • Ephemera
  • Photographs

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