Bruce Conforth

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Bruce Conforth
Born Paterson, New Jersey, United States
Genres Country blues, ragtime, Delta blues, Chicago blues
Occupation(s) Professor, musician, songwriter, artist, writer
Instruments Guitar, harmonica

Bruce Michael Conforth (born in Paterson, New Jersey, United States) was the first curator of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame[1] and is now a lecturer of American Culture at the University of Michigan.[2]

Early years[edit]

Conforth was born September 3, 1950, in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up in New Jersey and New York City.[3] He became an artist and musician at an early age. In 1966 he appeared on an album called It's Happening Here as the bass player for a band called The Nightwatch. The liner notes read as follows:

Too Long - The Nightwatch

"Here is another composition from the repertoire of the talented Bob Carnevale-Roy Francia writing team. Bob sings lead vocal on this one and also does some interesting work on rhythm guitar. (Bob prefers an acoustic guitar with electric pickup for rhythm work, due to its original sound.) Roy, also a fine classical guitarist, does lead guitar and second vocal. Bassman for the Nightwatch is Bruce Conforth, who is also a prolific poet and artist. Skip Daly creates a good solid beat on the drums."[4]

He was an athlete in high school, winning several letters and medals for his abilities as a long jumper, quarter-miler, and a member of the mile-relay team.[5]

The 1960s[edit]

Conforth joined the early 1960s folk scene in New York City's Greenwich Village. He knew, and studied with performers such as Dave Van Ronk, Happy and Artie Traum, Izzy Young, Reverend Gary Davis, and Allen Ginsberg. He frequented Izzy Young's Folklore Center, the Fretted Instruments music center, The Cafe Au Go Go, Cafe Wha? (where Jimi Hendrix performed as Jimi James and the Blue Flames), The Balloon Farm in the East Village (which later became the Electric Circus), the 8th Street Bookstore, and Washington Square Park.[not specific enough to verify]

During this time he also made the acquaintance of Drs. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (better known as Ram Dass), and began his interest in altered states of consciousness.

Conforth received a scholarship to art school after graduation from high school and while enrolled spent one summer as an apprentice to the American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning at the latter's Springs, New York studio.

He had several shows of his work but then seems to have dropped painting to turn his attention to music. He played with several bands during this time, although their exact names are unknown (much time and speculation has been devoted to identifying the names of these bands).

The 1970s[edit]

Conforth was a member of a band called Ruby and the Dykes, which toured the East Coast. He also played with a band called The Shook, and was a friend of John Sinclair manager of the MC5.

In 1973 he was the editor of a short-lived literary magazine called Slowglass whose contributors included Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, and John Lennon.[6]

In 1977 he appeared as "Josh Hawkins" (part of the duet Bates and Hawkins) on an album called "Ragtime, Blues and Jive" (also featuring fiddle great Kenny Kosek) and performed under that name around the East Coast (New York's Gerde's Folk City, The Bitter End) and at the Middletown Folk Festival in Middletown, New Jersey.[7]

The 1980s[edit]

In 1980 Conforth began attending graduate school at Indiana University, where he majored in folklore, ethnomusicology, and American Studies.[8] He married the former Jeanne Harrah and they combined their last names; for the next decade he was known as Bruce Harrah-Conforth. He continued to play music, appearing in a local band called The Extremes. While at Indiana University he worked at the University's Archives of Traditional Music, contributing a number of articles to their newsletter "Resound".[9] More importantly it was through his work at the Archives that he became involved with the still relatively unknown collection of African-American folk recordings of Lawrence Gellert. He produced two albums of songs from this collection. The first, in 1982, was on Rounder Records,"Cap'n You're So mean" (RR#4013 [10]) was recognized by the Library of Congress as one of that year's most outstanding folk recordings.[11] The second, "Nobody Knows My Name" was issued by the English company Heritage Records (HT304 [10]) in 1984.

Norm Cohen reviewed these albums for The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 99, No. 391 (Jan. - Mar., 1986), pp. 102–117

Cap'n You're So Mean: Negro Songs of Protest, Vol. 2 (Rounder 4013). Twenty-four previously unpublished field recordings mostly of protest songs, collected in the southern states in the 1920s and 1930s by Lawrence Gellert. [...] Gellert's field collecting in the south, which resulted in some remarkably candid protest material (the genuineness of which was at one time questioned) has been neglected too long. (An album he prepared for publication in the 1940s was not issued until 40 years later [...]. If ever an album required and deserved extensive documentation, this is it - and not because we still doubt its authenticity. Happily, Conforth has now found Gellert's original fieldnotes. [...] Another [...] package of Gellert collectanea, also edited by Conforth, is nonprotest material, Nobody Knows My Name (Heritage HT 304).[12]

Conforth wrote his 1984 Master's thesis on the collection: "Laughing Just to Keep from Crying: Afro-American Folksong and the Field Recordings of Lawrence Gellert"[13]

In 1985 Conforth completed his PhD, which was titled "The Rise and Fall of a Modern Folk Community: Haight-Ashbury 1965-1967." It contains many interviews with the founding musicians of the "San Francisco Sound."[14]

Altered states of consciousness research[edit]

During the 1980s Harrah-Conforth became involved in researching the use of light and sound stimulation in inducing altered states of consciousness in humans. He produced a work titled "Accessing Alternity" that described the history of man's quest into this area.[15] His research into this field has been cited as a hallmark of its kind. In "A History of Light and Sound", Michael Hutchison wrote:

"In 1990 Bruce Harrah-Conforth, Ph.D., of Indiana University completed a controlled study.... The report by Harrah-Conforth suggests that sound and light devices may cause simultaneous ergotropic arousal, or arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and the cerebral cortex, associated with 'creative' and 'ecstatic experiences,' and trophotropic arousal, or the arousal of the parasympathetic system, associated with deep relaxation and 'the timeless, "oceanic" mode of the mystic experience.' In humans, Dr. Harrah-Conforth concludes, 'these two states may be interpreted as hyper- and hypo- arousal, or ecstasy and samadhi.'"

Harrah-Conforth wrote in Megabrain Report: "I have little doubt that brain entrainment technology is a highly effective means of inducing changes in consciousness. [...] The evolution of human consciousness is a tangibly manipulable process. We can control our destiny. It would appear as though brain entrainment will be among the technologies leading the way."[16]

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame[edit]

In May 1991 Conforth became the curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.[3] His initial duties were to create the collections for the Museum. Among the artists he worked with were The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, U2, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, B. B. King, The Everly Brothers, The Kinks, Jeff Beck, Tom Petty, The Yardbirds, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Eric Burdon, Dire Straits, Neil Young, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, The Beach Boys, The Doors, James Brown, Carl Perkins, and The Eagles, some of whom he had known during his own days as a performer.[not specific enough to verify] The early years of the Rock Hall saw some tensions develop friction between the two boards of directors: one in Cleveland made of local businessmen, and one in New York City (the location of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation) populated by industry executives such as Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone Magazine. With the construction of the building almost complete, Conforth left the job. He was alleged to have written a tell-all book called "Don't Rock the Hall" but the work has never been published.[17]

The 1990s: the Himalayas, Tibetan Buddhism, and Castalia II[edit]

After leaving the Museum, Conforth was appointed one of six "founding faculty" designated to create the programs for a "New College of Global Studies" being created by Radford University in Radford, Virginia.[18] While there he worked with noted neuro-psychologist Dr. Karl Pribram at his Center for Brain Research.

In 1995 Conforth took his first trip to Nepal and immediately developed a deep interest in the region and in the religion of Tibetan Buddhism. For the following five years he worked as a trekking guide in that area. The New College eventually closed when Virginia Governor George Allen stripped its budget.

In 1996 Conforth founded Castalia II, an organization dedicated to the exploration of consciousness. Board members included Dr. Timothy Leary, Dr. Charles Tart, Dr. John Beresford (of the Albert Hofmann Foundation), physicist Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, and other "psychedelic" notables.

Current career[edit]

In 2000, Conforth was appointed Director of the Jewel Heart Center for Tibetan Buddhism and Culture in Ann Arbor, Michigan, founded by the Buddhist teacher, Gelek Rinpoche.[19] He also began teaching part-time at the University of Michigan. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, with charitable donations drying up, he left Jewel Heart in 2004 and became a full-time member of the University's Program in American Culture.

Conforth teaches folklore, blues music, popular culture, and the history of social movements at the University of Michigan and is, apparently, a popular teacher.[20]

His current work includes researching the life of bluesman Robert Johnson; a recent publication concerns Isaiah "Ike" Zimmerman, Johnson's main guitar mentor.[21]

On March 14, 2012, it was announced that Conforth would be the 2012 recipient of the University of Michigan's Golden Apple Award for outstanding teaching.[22]

In May 2013 Conforth's book African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story was published by Scarecrow Press, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield publishers. It has been included as one of the 100 most important books on American music.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "Roanoke Times". 1995-08-31. Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  2. ^ "American Culture Faculty | American Culture | University of Michigan". Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  3. ^ a b Plain Dealer 08 May, 1991, pg. 01 sec. A
  4. ^ "365 Days #85 - It's Happening Here (mp3s) - WFMU's Beware of the Blog". 2007-03-26. Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  5. ^ The Manchester Cavalier, 1967
  6. ^ "SLOWGLASS: Volume One By Nancy (Editors) Bruce And Daugherty - Used Books - Paperback - 1973 - from Black Dog Books and". Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  7. ^ "Bongo's - the coolest in primitive vinyl: lowdown blues". Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  8. ^ "Contributors" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-06-28. 
  9. ^ [1] Archived September 12, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ a b "Discography of Lawrence Gellert". Retrieved 2014-06-28. 
  11. ^ [2][dead link]
  12. ^ Norm Cohen (January–March 1986). "The American Folklife Center's Selected Lists of Recordings". 99 (391): 102–117. JSTOR 540868jstor=540868. 
  13. ^ Indiana University 1984
  14. ^ "Enterzone: Underground Lit: The Electric Tibet". Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  15. ^ "AAWP2.PDF" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  16. ^ "A history of Sound and Light". Electronic Healing. Archived from the original on 2014-07-09. Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  17. ^ "Behind the Scenes at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame". Entertainment Weekly. 
  18. ^ [3][dead link]
  19. ^ [4] Archived July 23, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  20. ^ "Bruce Conforth at University of Michigan". Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  21. ^ Conforth Bruce. "Ike Zimmerman: The X in Robert Johnson's Crossroads" in Living Blues Issue #194, Vol. 39, #1. February 2008. pp. 68-73
  22. ^ Klein, Kody Jon. "Former Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curator Bruce Conforth wins Golden Apple as U-M Instructor". Retrieved 23 March 2013.