Bluegrass: A generational experience

The concept of “nurture versus nature” is a scientific and ideological question that haunts every single academic field. Not even the immortal and ever changing world of music can escape. In her 2017 IBMA Keynote address bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens notes that the intersection between her biracial identity and love for bluegrass music are just an examples of why it is so important to “celebrate the greater diversity of the people who have shaped the music that is so much a part of [her] identity”. 1 There is a generational thread that exists within bluegrass music that is not simply resigned to Rhiannon Giddens’ story. The Lomax family, a similarly generational act, documented families all across the American South during the late 1930’s, some who are participating in the musical traditions associated with folk and bluegrass music. 2  

Bog Trotters Band members seated with instruments, Galax, Va. Includes Doc Davis, with autoharp; Crockett Ward, with fiddle; Uncle Alex Dunford, with fiddle; Wade Ward, with banjo; Fields Ward, with guitar

Music is so often attached to particular aspects of identity, it goes beyond family and represents tradition within an entire line of people. One aspect of the folk musical tradition is the way in which it can, and has, reinforced gender and age roles within a tradition. In many songs there may be particular parts mapped out for different vocal ranges, allowing for mother, father, and children to talk their place within the musical tradition. 3 A slightly more contemporary example that S.W. Mills uses in Bringing the family tradition in bluegrass music to the music classroom, is Johnny Cash’s “Daddy Sang Bass”. 

The idea of this broad category of music bringing people together didn’t exist just in communities of white Americans.The racial makeup of these traditions is something explored both by Giddens in her keynote address as well as the Lomax family. Their documentation spanned the gamut, showing musicians in each tradition.

Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson” accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.

One thing that connects these two racially divided traditions is the generational role of music, especially folk music. It shows its importance not only in the formation of modern folk music but also its role in the formation of family values. Though documentation (and misuse) is a relatively controversial topic the ability to study such things wouldn’t exist without the resources provided from people like the Lomax family. Ultimately, it’s important to acknowledge the beautiful and meaningful way music brings people together.

1 Giddens, Rhiannon. “Community and Connection.” IBMA Keynote Speech 2017, Nashville, TN, 2017.

2 Cohen, Ronald D.. Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge: The Library of Congress Letters, 1935-1945. University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

3 Mills, S. W.. Bringing the family tradition in bluegrass music to the music classroom. General Music Today, iss. 22, p. 12-18.

Making Black Influence in Bluegrass Visible

Neil Rosenberg’s book Bluegrass: A History presents a greatly different idea of bluegrass history when being compared to Rhiannon Giddens’ keynote speech at the International Bluegrass Music Association Business Conference. I took particular interest to Giddens’ point that scholars and historians, which surely includes Rosenberg, have contributed the erasure of black history in bluegrass. This general lack of representation led me to wonder if there is anyone who has worked to include the black narrative into the history of country music and bluegrass. It is likely that some individuals, such as Rosenberg, would argue that there is a lack of written or recorded history of black people within these genres because they simply did not contribute a lot to this type of music. However, in searching for Black Appalachian music, I stumbled upon this album, titled Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia. Although it is unclear as to why the album specifically refers to Appalachia (which perhaps should be a topic of research in itself), the songs in the album are labeled as “Country”, with the sub-genres of “Old Time” and “String Band”. This album is from the Alan Lomax Collection, sparking my curiosity in Alan Lomax as an ethnomusicologist, since he seems to be one of the few people who has strived to record the history of black country music.

Something I find particularly interesting is a letter Lomax wrote to Joseph Hickerson at the Library of Congress, which is included in his manuscripts in A Recorded Treasury of Black Folk Song, 1978-1981, Black Appalachia. In this letter, Lomax describes his account of recording Murphy Gribble, a black banjo player, and his band. Lomax highlights characteristics of their music, including the presence of polyphony, and the instrumentation of banjo and fiddle, that are often described as traits of bluegrass. Lomax even acknowledges:

 

“If you listen carefully… you will hear the steady 3,3,2 complex measure of so-called Bluegrass. From before Earl Scruggs and his mentors were born.”

Here, Lomax clearly states the contradiction within the history of bluegrass. Earl Scruggs is the one credited with this core sonic marker of bluegrass, yet Lomax has recorded, physical proof that it existed before him. Not only that, but Lomax found it in music performed by individuals part of a group that is virtually nonexistent in dominant bluegrass history. Listening to other performances by Murphy Gribble and his other band members, the similarity with bluegrass is undeniable.

Lomax clearly greatly contributes to the documentation of black music/musicians and in conveying the role black music played in the creation of bluegrass. That being said, there is still a gap between his work and getting others, such as Rosenberg, to acknowledge it. It is unfortunate that this research and collection of black country music sets Lomax apart from others. He undoubtedly deserves credit because of his role in preserving the music and existence of black people in genres that generally ignore it. But it is precisely that failure of others in recognizing it that is disappointing. Appreciating black contribution within this type of music is something that should be done more widely. If it was, rather than Lomax being recognized for representing an underrepresented group within the world of country and bluegrass music, it would be the black musicians being recognized for their musical contributions to the world.

Sources:

  • Lomax, Alan. “Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, A Recorded Treasury of Black Folk Song, -1981, Black Appalachia, to 1981, 1978”. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/afc2004004.ms120226/
  • Murphy Gribble, Albert York, & John Lusk, Pateroller’ll Catch You, youtube, 2:33, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfD_pkVRGbA
  • Niel Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).
  • Rhiannon Giddens, “2017 IBMA Business Conference Keynote Address” (presentation, IBMA Business Conference, Nashville, TN, September, 2017).
  • Various Artists. Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia. 1999. Rounder Records, CD.

Bluegrass and “Folk”

The folk revival in the United States showed a growing interest in American folk music styles and was accompanied by various folk festivals. The first newspaper article advertises a folk festival that happened in 1970. Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys are listed first, and there are other performers listed, such as blues guitarist Bukka White, a Mexican-American band, and two American Indians. With bluegrass music grouped alongside, and even above these other prominent folk music styles, it is interesting to look at bluegrass music and how and when it became recognized and categorized.

 

From my experiences of growing up with “folk” music, I would have assumed that bluegrass music would be at the heart of any discussion of American folk music. Most of the folk music I knew about was bluegrass, and the bluegrass music seemed to embody the meaning of folk. One article I found claims that bluegrass music is “the purest type of music in the world today.” For what reasons would this author claim that bluegrass music is the purest music? Perhaps they are the same reasons that led me to believe that bluegrass music was the most “folk” out of any other music I knew.

This bold claim may just be a strategic advertisement that simply reflects a desire to attract audiences, but there is no doubt that it connects to the role of bluegrass music in the folk revival. “Pure” in this context most likely means historically authentic. We have to question how “authentic” bluegrass music is. There are a few things that contradict the idea that it is purely folk music by definition. Richard Crawford notes that bluegrass music is based in the popular sphere, but looks towards the traditional sphere. Bluegrass music is defined by its old-fashioned instrumentation and older influences, such as Anglo-American folk singing and field hollers. While the connections to the past are strong, it is still a and it is known as a modern representation of Appalachian folk music with ties to popular music. Another contradiction has to do with the conception that folk music doesn’t have a clear original source. While bluegrass has many earlier influences that contributed to its existence, there is a more clear beginning with Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs at the Grand Ole Opry. These facts don’t mean that bluegrass music isn’t folk music or that its history is too different from other folk music styles. However, I wonder what gave the writer of the second article and myself the impression that it was the purest form of music, or that it was the epitome of folk music.

Sources

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Evans, David. “Folk Revival Music.” The Journal of American Folklore 92, no. 363 (1979): 108-15.

Haring, Lee. “The Folk Music Revival.” The Journal of American Folklore 86, no. 339 (1973): 60.

Tribe, Ivan M. Mountaineer Jamboree. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

 

What the folk is going on with the youths of America?

An article written about the Mariposa music festival featured in Rock Magazine. 1972, Vol. 3, Issue 10

An article written about the Mariposa music festival featured in Rock Magazine. 1972, Vol. 3, Issue 10

The folk music revival was carried by and largely served the young men and women who were raised to volunteer, organize civil rights protests  and activist groups and work with political powers (at least at the start) to effect the change they envisioned for the world. These college-age individuals rejected commercial mass culture while they favored borrowing and adapting older music from previous generations to serve their own purposes.

During the 1970s, there was a boom in music festivals. Occurring over the span of 3-12 days, festivals became the best place to discover new artists, interact with new like-minded people and share new ideas about politics and the world. (They were also associated with drug use, but that’s not the focus of this article.) Festivals were generally grassroots efforts, organized by local communities, regionally or nationally and could have an educational focus. “The Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, Canada is one of the biggest in North America. [In the summer of 1972] it broke even and its organizers were happy.”1

Many different artists came to the festival to perform the music that was shaping the mentality and ethos of the college-attending generation in 1972. Old folk tunes were repurposed, given new life with new words about the ideas and emotions of the heartbroken and those downtrodden by society.2

“In 1965, a young folk singer named Joni Anderson hitchhiked to Mariposa from Calgary and in 1970 she drew 12,000 to a night concert because she was the famous Joni Mitchell[James] Taylor was asked to Mariposa because ‘he has a lot of roots in folk’ not because he would draw people. Taylor came because he wanted to, not for the money, which amounted to $75. That is the most any performer is paid, along with his traveling and accommodation expenses. Why? Because Mariposa is an annual gathering of balladeers, not a rock festival.”

Today, we still see (or hear of) people borrowing from other musical ideas and traditions. What they borrow leads to commercial success––in the case of Amy Winehouse and Iggy Azalea. Artists borrow ideas for several reasons: they identify with some aspect of the idea or culture, to make money, necessity demands that they adapt their music to today’s pop standards by updating the sounds or affect they use, or, to make a statement. We are in a never ending cycle of cultural repetition. Everything we produce and consume will reoccur in another form some time (shortly or long after) the “original” was produced. However, the questions have not changed from the 1970s when the folk music revival was in full swing, nor from when bluegrass was in its developmental stage as a musical genre. What is the intent behind artist’s borrowing ideas from others and how many alterations must the new work undergo before it is something original? Is there a way to respectfully reproduce or change something when you yourself have not been around to experience the genesis of that idea or have little to no connection with that cultural movement, people, or idea? And what is the significance of festivals? What role do they play with the appropriation, adaptation and spread of ideas and are they important cultural hub or a temporary collection of society’s social outcasts and wannabe reshapers?

The Mariposa music festival still is around today. This year, the festival’s dates are July 3-5, 2015.

 

1. Musgrave, Corinne. “Mariposa: The Festival That Never Fails.” Rock, 1972 3, no. 10 (1972): 20-21.

2. Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Can Bluegrass be Categorized as “Folk” music ?

There is a discussion about whether bluegrass music, a kind of music promoted and developed by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys band from 1950s, is “authentic” folk music. According to the research I did, by the time bluegrass music had been labeled as “folk”, the hallmarks of the style (e.g. acoustic instruments, fast tempo and high tenor vocals) included many of the features that had originally made up by Monroe himself, as an “original invention”, not a subgenre of “folk” music or folk revival. However, bluegrass was adopted by the revivalists later as a type of “folk” music since revivalists subjected bluegrass to ideals of authenticity that have.

When Steve Rathe interviewed Bill Monroe in Dec. 10, 1973, Bill Monroe first told audience about “what bluegrass music is and what elements have gone into its composition”.

 Ewing, Tom, ed. The Bill Monroe Reader. University of Illinois Press, 2000.

From this interview, I can see that Bill Monroe saw his music as a new production, a synthesis of genres he admired, and a way of making profits. However, at this time bluegrass music had not been ”absorbed” by folk revivalist and the best way of gaining this kind of acceptance was to characterize bluegrass as ”folk”. I assumed that it won’t be hard to see bluegrass as folk music, since it featuring much of the traditional repertoire that interested the revivalists.

For example, from the interview Bill Monroe also mentioned his reproduction of Mule Skinner Blues, which completely fit in his definition of bluegrass. I was disappointed of not being able to find an online score of this song, but I can still recognize some characteristics he mentioned in the recording.

 

The song uses the instrumentation of bass, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo. The rhythm, especially the syncopation featured a combination of blues songs and early 20th-century pop song, with fast-paced instrumental breakdowns. After a short entrance, Bill starts with his high-pitched, “lonesome” vocal line with four-parts harmony; and he shows his use of the folk tune “the little mule” in the second stanza. Also, he separates song verses and choruses with virtuosic instrumental soloing.

However, since bluegrass had its origins as a commercial country music in which artists performed on the Grand Ole Opry and recorded for major labels, the music couldn’t hold up as an unchanging tradition that was anti-commercial and “from the mass”. As far as I understand, putting bluegrass in folk genre was an imagined construction and lack of grounding support. Asserting membership in a genre can thus be a form of cultural affirmation, a process that Allan Moore has identified as “second person” arises when a performer succeeds in conveying the impression to the listener that the listener’s experience of life is validated.

I would love to end with what Charles Keil said about folk music:

Keil, Charles. “Who Needs” The Folk”?.” Journal of the Folklore Institute(1978): 263-265. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3813980

 

 

Resource:Ewing, Tom, ed. The Bill Monroe Reader. University of Illinois Press, 2000.

 

Keil, Charles. “Who Needs” The Folk”?.” Journal of the Folklore Institute(1978): 263-265. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3813980