Bill Keith, 1939–2015

Got home Saturday evening (we were out minding four grandkids) to sit down at the iMac and see this sad news from Jim Rooney:

Dear Friends,

Bill Keith

Bill Keith (from his Facebook page; photographer and date not specified)

My long-time dear friend and musical partner Bill Keith left us on Thursday, Oct. 22. For nearly two years Bill, his wife Claire, and sons Martin and Charles dealt with his diagnosis and treatment for cancer with honesty, dignity and clarity. Bill pursued available treatments as far as they went and ultimately accepted the reality that he could go no further down that road. His spirits were lifted enormously when informed that he would be inducted at long last into the IBMA Bluegrass Hall of Fame, and he was absolutely determined to accept the honor in person. It was a joyous occasion. Bill was surrounded by friends and well wishers and accepted their love and support with his usual good humor and modesty. He gave it all he had and went home with Claire to spend his final days in peace, comforted by the knowledge that his time on earth had been well spent and that he had been an enormous help to so many musicians and friends all over the world. He was definitely one of a kind and will be sorely missed. I know that you will join me in sending your love to Claire, Martin and Charles to help them deal with their loss.



Jim Rooney and Alan Mundy present the IBMA’s Hall of Fame Award to Bill Keith (photograph copyright © Jennie L. Scott; used by permission)

Here is the announcement from Claire, Bill’s wife, on Bill’s Facebook page:

Dear music friends far and wide,

We are much saddened to have to announce that Bill Keith left us in the early hours of October 23. Wherever he is now, I know that he has only one regret: that his diminished energy made him postpone, one day too many, the message of infinite gratitude that he very much wanted to post on this forum to all of you.

Your joyful sharings, photos, support, musings, memories, and above all, devotion to music warmed every one of his days, and he never ceased to wonder at the fact that his modest self could inspire so much cheerful devotion.

Bill’s music will live through you all – and as Bill wanted, the Beacon Banjo tuners will also continue their proud tradition, now in the hands of his son Martin.

On his behalf, we thank you all with all our heart.

Claire, Charles and Martin Keith

Bill’s Facebook page is full of tributes and remembrances, so I urge you to go there.  Here’s a wonderful one from local banjo picker and teacher, Rich Stillman:

Bill was a giant. There is no corner of the banjo world that is not better for Bill’s having been there. Groundbreaking stylist, inventor, teacher, author, composer, influence, historian of the banjo, and, above all, musician. More than just about anyone, he was responsible for the wide acceptance of the banjo as a fully capable musical instrument, and he did it all with a sense of modesty and grace that belied his talents, contributions and stature. It’s hard to think of another musician who was both as important, and as accessible, as Bill.

I was fortunate to be a fellow insomniac at the Winterhawk and Grey Fox festivals, and have vivid memories of many two and three banjo jams with Bill at 3 or 4AM on the hill with Ira Gitlin and others, going to bed at sunup with the sound of three banjos playing Liebestraum still ringing in my ears. The tributes on this page show that my experience was not uncommon. Rest in peace, Bill, and thank you.

Just two years ago, Bill was in town to play a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (Bill had been a member), and fortunately made time to visit Hillbilly at Harvard on Saturday, August 31st.  I had not ever had the opportunity to spend time with Bill, and didn’t know what to expect.  As it turned out the hour we spent on air was a delightful, and memorable, experience for me.  Bill was as friendly and forthcoming as anyone could be, so perfectly at home, as we talked about his career and many banjo-related activities, that we could forget we were on the air.  I hope the listeners got a sense of how interesting he was, and what a perfect gentleman as well. /CL


Bill Keith on Hillbilly at Harvard, WHRB, 31Aug13 (photograph copyright © David R. Elliott; used by permission)

UPDATE 26Oct15: The New York Times has published an obituary of Bill Keith by Bill Friskics-Warren, HERE, which is worth reading.  The article closes with these quotes from Bill Monroe:

. . . Mr. Keith’s tenure with Bill Monroe was brief, but the impression he left was enduring. “Brad, he understands music,” Monroe once said of Mr. Keith, whom he always referred to as Brad, a shortened version of his middle name, because as he explained, there was already someone named Bill in the group. “He’s a good listener and he’s a good man to listen to.”

“Before he came along,” Monroe went on, “no banjo player could play those old fiddle numbers right. You have to play like Brad could play or you would be faking your way through a number. It’s learned a lot of banjo players what to do and how to do it where they can come along and fill that bill today.”

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3 Responses to Bill Keith, 1939–2015

  1. renzscott says:

    What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing.

    • What an auditory and visual feast, Fred—thanks!

      Let me call attention to the video of the IBMA award on Fred’s site. Listen to Jim Rooney and Alan Munde present the award, and to Bill Keith’s moving acceptance:

      [video src="" /]

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