The following is the first of nine tracks on an annotated mix-tape exploring the Bluegrass Scene of my home, San Diego County. Click the link and read along.
-Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies (1936)
A few years ago, I stumbled across a fascinating photo while perusing the photos of the City of Encinitas Facebook page. While looking through their collection of old photos from the San Dieguito Heritage Museum (the organization that preserves and celebrates the local history of my home town) a photo of what appeared to be a seven-member string band in full cowboy garb (I’m talking Stetsons and lambskin chaps) happened to catch my eye. Under the photo, the caption read:
“Back in the 1930s, all the young folk in Encinitas would spend their summer nights at a carnival near the beach. Local ranch hands, including these photographed, would keep the party going.”
Fascinated, I saved the picture in my own collection of local historical photographs, and promptly forgot about it.
(The Encinitas Ranch Hands. Now where have I seen that before…?)
Fast forward to 2015, and I found myself in the first class on Bluegrass music to run in the history of Virginia Tech. Discussions of geographically rooted music sparked memories of my own experiences back in San Diego County, and that photograph became suddenly relevant. At a second viewing, with the defining characteristics of bluegrass fresh in my mind, I realized that the instrumentation featured in the photograph almost perfectly matched that of a traditional bluegrass group (minus the mandolin). But that couldn’t be right, because the caption listed the photo as being from the 30’s, the decade before bluegrass as we know it came to be. Something was wrong and I was bound and determined to figure out what it was.
So I did some digging. Thanks to an insightful source from a 2006 San Diego Union Tribune article, I was able to recognize the group not as some “local ranch hands” as the caption described, but as The Encinitas Ranch Hands, a collection of musicians with an instrumentation more complicated than I first thought. In addition to the more traditional fiddle, banjo, guitar, and upright bass first identified in the photograph, the band included the husband-and-wife duo of D.M. and Gertie MacFarland, who played saxophone and piano respectively. Further defining their own unique sound, the Encinitas Ranch Hands rounded off their group with the musical saw of Scottish immigrant and carpenter, Charles “Snuffy” Brass. Brass, who arrived in the area at the onset of the great depression, joined the group in performances at all kinds of local events, including weddings, festivals, and weekly dances organized by the community.
In many ways, The Encinitas Ranch Hands were part western swing and part jug band, incorporating the performativity and style of a Bob Wills with the eclectic sound of thrown-together family groups. With members bringing his or her own form of musical instrumentation, their performance must have been like nothing you can hear today. As you might imagine, I’ve had some difficulty tracking this sound down.
In the absence of any actual recordings by the group, this track by the Texas-based Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, a pioneering western swing band from the 1930’s, features similar instrumentation and dance musicality as the Encinitas Ranch Hands. Though I have many reservations including a non-San Diegan band on this mix (as the first track, no less!) I’ve decided this recording is the best available approximation for what I am trying to convey. Important similarities to note are the use of piano, the call-and-answer vocals, and the use of musical breaks. Though not represented in this song, “westernized” versions of jazz standards, such as the 1919 hit, “Somebody Stole My Gal,” were performed for the audience right next to more “traditional” western songs, like “Home On the Range,” perhaps representing the more varied audiences found in the coastal cities.
As we move forward in this exploration of San Diego County Bluegrass, keep in mind the Encinitas Ranch Hands, the story of seven community members of different backgrounds arriving in the west to put together a sound of their own. Keep in mind the role of venues, their shared passion for music, and the local successes they shared together. Their story might just help us understand why there is a bluegrass scene in San Diego.
For more on the Encinitas Ranch Hands, check out the Union Tribune article here.