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Richard Dyer-Bennet

Richard Dyer-Bennet: The Last Minstrel

Paul O. Jenkins
Foreword by Bonnie Dyer-Bennet
Afterword by Andrew Schulman
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Richard Dyer-Bennet
    Book Description:

    In the 1940s and '50s, Richard Dyer-Bennet (1913-1991) was among the best known and most respected folk singers in America. Paul O. Jenkins tells, for the first time, the story of Dyer-Bennet, often referred to as the "Twentieth-Century Minstrel." Dyer-Bennet's approach to singing sounded almost foreign to many American listeners. The folk artist followed a musical tradition in danger of dying out. The Swede Sven Scholander was the last European proponent of minstrelsy and served as Dyer-Bennet's inspiration after the young singer traveled to Stockholm to meet him one year before Scholander's death.

    Dyer-Bennet's achievements were many. Nine years after his meeting with Scholander, he became the first solo performer of his kind to appear in Carnegie Hall. This book argues Dyer-Bennet helped pave the way for the folk boom of the mid-1950s and early 1960s, finding his influence in the work of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and many others. It also posits strong evidence that Dyer-Bennet would certainly be much better known today had his career not been interrupted midstream by the anticommunist, Red-scare blacklist and its ban on his performances.


    eISBN: 978-1-60473-361-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. XI-XIV)
    Bonnie Dyer-Bennet

    On Christmas Day of 1955 or 1956, when our family was still living in the first home my parents ever owned—a twenty-four by twenty-four–foot bungalow in the middle of the woods—our breakfast was interrupted by the arrival of a neighbor, a farmer who lived up the road a couple of miles and from whom we sometimes bought hay for our horse.

    He banged on the door, demanding loudly that Dad come home with him immediately because there were some people there who did not believe him when he told them Dad was a friend of his. The...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. XV-2)

    Richard Dyer-Bennet’s younger brother John and his wife Mary were my parents’ best friends. Every so often John would give our family one of Richard’s recordings. It was thanks to John that I grew up listening to RDB1,5,6,7,10, and1601. Perhaps it is because I have always been familiar with Dyer-Bennet’s recordings that I am surprised that most others born after 1950 are not.

    Initially it was Dyer-Bennet’s material, those marvelous folk songs that have stood the test of time, that held my interest. As a teenager I began to poke around libraries to find...

  6. Chapter 1 Master and Pupil
    (pp. 3-22)

    “I found him living quietly in the suburbs of Stockholm. He was seventy-five years old, and not much was left of his voice. Nevertheless, when he took his lute in hand and beganThe Golden VanityI heard a kind of singing I had never dreamed of. He looked straight at me and spun tale after tale as though singing out of his own life. He sang of soldiers, sailors, young lovers; he sang dialogues between mother and daughter, altercations between birds and animals, descriptions of mountain and countryside. A pageant of the ages seemed to pass before my eyes,...

  7. Chapter 2 New York
    (pp. 23-39)

    In the early 1940s, New York was the place to be if you sang folk songs. The city was at that time enjoying a sort of golden age. It was home to three professional baseball teams, over six hundred theaters, and dozens of newspapers. Network radio had its base here, and Tin Pan Alley was pumping out songs by the hundreds. Folk musicians from all over the country were congregating there, enjoying the camaraderie, swapping songs, and performing whenever and wherever they could.

    Foremost among this group was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912–1967), known to one and all simply as...

  8. Chapter 3 Early Recordings
    (pp. 40-53)

    Between 1941 and the founding of his own label in 1955, Dyer-Bennet recorded albums for Stinson, Vox, Decca, Continental, Mercury, Remington, and Concert Hall. They vary greatly in recording quality, selection of material, and performance. The fact that Dyer-Bennet later rerecorded nearly all of the songs included on these albums indicates that he was not entirely satisfied with either his performances or their production. In a sense, these early recordings serve as a sort of dress rehearsal for the self-produced albums and, unlike them, probably will never be rereleased. Many of these early recording sessions were rushed affairs. Sometimes Dyer-Bennet...

  9. Chapter 4 Aspen Interlude and Life on the Road
    (pp. 54-65)

    As the excitement of his first tours subsided, Dyer-Bennet began to feel the familiar burdens of life on the road. He missed Mel terribly and longed to be closer to daughters Bonnie and Brooke. Mel also hoped to free her husband from some of the rigors of nightclub life. The hours were long, and his health suffered. As he mused on the challenges of being husband, father, and touring artist, Dyer-Bennet was offered an opportunity he found he could not resist. Walter Paepcke (1896–1960), chairman of the Chicago-based Container Corporation of America, invited Dyer-Bennet to found a school of...

  10. Chapter 5 The Blacklist
    (pp. 66-77)

    Richard Amour, the American poet, once observed that politics has too long been concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong. In the case of Richard Dyer-Bennet, this statement is sadly germane. During and after World War II, Dyer-Bennet took part in a number of activities for all the right reasons—compassion and concern for others—but in support of causes and organizations that attracted the attention of members of the United States government. Dyer-Bennet’s actions would harm and alter his career irrevocably. Pete Seeger, himself a target of such attacks, sums up this period in Dyer-Bennet’s life:...

  11. Chapter 6 Dyer-Bennet Records
    (pp. 78-103)

    In 1951 Dyer-Bennet and his family moved to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Again, the primary impetus behind the move was the welfare of the family. Bonnie was now seven and Brooke four, and Dyer-Bennet saw the rustic area as an ideal place for them to grow up. The territory is an extension of the Green Mountains and is quite beautiful, consisting mostly of wooded hills and small villages. Mount Greylock stands as the range’s highest peak at 3,491 feet above sea level.

    In 1954, the Dyer-Bennets bought land and had a cabin built in Monterey, 134 miles west of...

  12. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  13. Chapter 7 The Lovely Milleress and Stony Brook
    (pp. 104-116)

    While perhaps colored by hyperbole, Howard Schneider’s description of Dyer-Bennet’s career after his 1964 recording was released (Richard Dyer-Bennet 13) serves to indicate the minstrel had reached a kind of crossroads. “Then suddenly, and almost mysteriously, he ‘disappeared’ in the mid-1960s. There were no more records, no more annual concerts at Town Hall. It wasn’t unusual to hear radio program directors and folk aficionados ask where Dyer-Bennet was, and whether he was alive or dead.”¹ He had, in fact, been working for some time on a translation of the Wilhelm Müller poems that Franz Schubert set to music as the...

  14. Chapter 8 The Odyssey of Richard Dyer-Bennet
    (pp. 117-123)

    In 1961 American poet Robert Fitzgerald (1910–1985) published a modern English blank verse translation of Homer’sOdyssey.The book won that year’s Bollingen Award, an annual prize for the best book written by an American citizen. Born to Irish-American parents, Fitzgerald graduated from Harvard in 1933 and subsequently went to work first for theNew York Herald Tribuneand thenTime. He went on to teach English at Sarah Lawrence, Princeton, and finally Harvard. A celebrated poet in his own right, Fitzgerald is today best known for his translations of classics such asOedipus at Colonus,The Iliad,The...

  15. Chapter 9 The Legacy of Richard Dyer-Bennet
    (pp. 124-131)

    If Richard Dyer-Bennet modeled himself on Sven Scholander, there has been no one who has taken up his mantle. Joan Baez came as close as anyone, but her vision was quite different from Dyer-Bennet’s. Baez began her career singing and recording traditional folk songs, some hundreds of years old. Indeed, in a cover story forTimein 1962, she is described as singing “with an ethereal grace that seems to have been caught and stopped in passage over the 18th-century Atlantic.”¹ Fearing that she would be pigeonholed as someone who sang only “old” songs, however, Baez soon began championing the...

  16. Afterword Richard Dyer-Bennet as Guitarist
    (pp. 132-136)
    Andrew Schulman

    I first heard about Richard Dyer-Bennet in 1971 at the end of my freshman year at Stony Brook University. One of my guitar friends told me there was this faculty member who taught a course in voice training for actors in the theater department, was once a famous folk singer, and had this really great guitar made by the Puerto Rican guitar maker Manuel Velazquez. I had started playing the guitar at age eight and it had been at the center of my life since that time, and knowing there was a great guitar nearby was reason enough to make...

  17. Discography
    (pp. 137-142)
  18. Repertoire
    (pp. 143-156)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 157-167)
  20. References
    (pp. 168-171)
  21. Index
    (pp. 172-181)