While perusing the “Introduction” to Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, I was fascinated by the importance of location in the nostalgia of bluegrass. The folk scholar notes the creation of a fictional geography in commercial bluegrass production and performance.1 I was reminded of a similar conversation when we discussed country music- how decades of scholarship focusing on country as the music of the American South complicated and even diminished the truth in its origins. But this poses the question: If bluegrass really isn’t the music of Appalachia, where was this music being made?
“The idea of Appalachia as a cohesive unit has a large element of mythology to it”
–Bluegrass: a History, pg. 13
In searching for clues in a photography collection in the Library of Congress, I found a photograph that captured a geography that challenged the concept of bluegrass as an Appalachian genre. The picture, taken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1937, was published in a set of photographs displaying the dwellings and lives of squatters and settlers in the area. While most photographs in the lot detail the shelters and natural surroundings of the settlers, this picture stands out.
Take a listen to the piece listed in the photograph description
Take a listen to an older recording here on another blog (not too different from this one!)
It should be noted that we can hear quite a bit of variation among performances and recordings of the piece. Instrumentation greatly varies between recordings, as well as ornamentations and some stylistic approaches to the core material of the music.
Upon consultation of scholarship regarding the movement of bluegrass, it is clear that Michigan and other states in the Upper Midwest created hotspots for this music as economic migrants traversed the country.2 In the years during and directly following the Second World War, places like Detroit got ahold of musics like bluegrass and marketed it to a country longing for an identity that harkened back to the days of peace and the free, roaming settler.
It is fascinating to piece together how one photograph can demonstrate an amalgamation of Southern migrant histories and Midwestern musical production. But consultation of additional sources helped contextualize this photograph in the complex geography of bluegrass that had been previously simplified by production companies intending to sell a particular image of the bluegrass musician and backstory.
Lee, Russell. Lon Allen and his son playing their fiddles to the tune of “The Arkansas Traveler.” Near Iron River, Michigan. May, 1937. LOT 1044, The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
Secondary Sources Cited