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Yale awards bluegrass great Ralph Stanley second honorary doctorate

Bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley was awarded his second honorary doctorate yesterday (May 19) at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

Ralph Stanley receives Yale doctorate
Michael Marsland/Yale University

The honor was bestowed upon the 87-year-old music legend by Yale president Peter Salovey—himself a bluegrass enthusiast, who plays bass in the Professors of Bluegrass band.

Stanley was cited as “the patriarch of traditional mountain and bluegrass music.”

“From the Clinch Mountains of southwest Virginia to the concert halls of the world, you have taken a distinct American sound and made it your own,” read Stanley’s doctorate citation. “Your music has its roots in the gospel songs of your childhood and in the banjo playing you learned from your mother. The Stanley style of picking produces a distinctive and characteristic rhythm, and generations of singers have been influenced by your signature voice with its mournful sounds and raw emotional power. You are a living legend and we sing your praises as we award you this degree.”

Yale follows Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., which conferred an honorary doctorate on Stanley in 1976. He was joined at Yale by fellow honorees Tim Berners-Lee—inventor of the World Wide Web—and poet Rita Dove and actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith, among others.

Long the leading exponent of traditional Appalachian music as well as a founding father of bluegrass, “Dr. Ralph Stanley” has toured and recorded for 68 years. His career began in 1946 with older brother Carter Stanley as the Stanley Brothers.

After Carter’s death in 1966, Stanley fielded bands featuring the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore. In 2000, he achieved mainstream country music stardom with his appearance in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, Stanley celebrated his latest honorary degree by playing banjo on an orchestral version his signature song “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

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