Monday, June 21, 2010

Introduction to Blue Grass Music

Ben's There:

The question was asked in a recent comment about how one could go about getting acquainted with bluegrass music. That is a hard question to answer. The best way to get acclimated to bluegrass music is to have ancestors who were eeking out a rugged existence around the locks and in the glens of Scotland. From their hard-scrabble lives, they would have found joy in the gatherings of the clans where music was heard and lads and lassies could dance to the tunes. The music was timeless or always old, as though it had originated with the very hills and dales of that mystical land. From there, those ancestors would have imbibed the Calvinism of John Knox and Andrew Melville, which blended psalm-like devotions to their jigs and reels. Then after a few decades of persecution, along with the pain of the defeat of the rising of 1745, those ancestors crossed the Atlantic, slid on past the settlements on the coast and taken up new lives in the hills of Appalachia, which bore faint resemblances to the old country. Lots of possessions might have been left behind, but the catechisms and the fiddles would have been packed along for the ocean crossing.

As Bill Monroe, and you have to know that name to even begin thinking of bluegrass music, once said (when gazing at the surrounding hills and valleys while the bluegrass boys repaired a flat tire on the Bluegrass Express), "Just listen to those ancient tones."

There's got to be "the fierce pull of blood" (to borrow from Bill Faulkner) that causes those combinations of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, bass, and high tenor to create the ache, the joy, and the deep emotional tie to bluegrass music. Of course, it is much more complicated. Monroe picked up syncopation patterns from an old Negro who played guitar. All Southern music forms are integrated.

(Remember the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?
Junior: "Pappy, they's integrated."
Gov. Pappy O'Daniel: "Folks don't seem to mind that they's integrated.")

In fact, I long to see a compilation CD called Black and Blue Grass--Roots Music of the South.

Is there hope for urban-dwelling Yankees, haters of Southerners, high brows who can't saw down on a fiddle, stuffy music snobs, green and purple haired freeks who would shock Flannery O'Connor, non-Celtic tribes, and folks whose ears have been warped by too much screaming and hollering? Probably not if you fit at least three of those categories. But in a time of cultural renewal, perhaps folks can still cultivate an appreciation of bluegrass music. Remember, it was not all that long ago (c. 1940) when the governor of Tennessee (a Democrat) said that country music was an embarassment to that state.

The best way to learn about bluegrass music is to attend a bluegrass festival. The festivals began in the 1960s. They grew out of the folk music revival of that time. People discovering folk music (and often opposing the Vietnam War for different reasons) discovered that there was a whole class of folks who played accustic string instruments and who learned old tunes from granpa's, uncles, local bands, traveling preachers, and from an old radio show on WSM called the Grand Ole Opry. Elvis had revved up music's volume and others had electrified the instruments, but there were those who still played the old styles. They had blame near starved, but they had not changed their music. The festivals were their re-entry port into American culture and success.

And many discovered Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, Flatt and Scruggs, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers and others.

Local festivals are still held all over the country. The quality of the relatively unknown bands is usually quite amazing. Bluegrass festivals are generally held outside with rows and rows of folding chairs surrounding the stage and with groups jamming all over the campgrounds.

But since this summer is unusually hot, even for the south, I would recommend a few albums/CDs to that contain various artists who exemplify the best of Bluegrass music.

High Lonesome is a CD that accompanies a wonderful documentary by the same name. The documentary is the best introduction to the roots and development of Bluegrass music. The CD contains some outstanding music by Monroe, Jim and Jesse, Mac Wiseman, and some more recent artists.

One of the earliest, most famous, and still defining bluegrass festivals is held yearly in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Monroe was a key figure in the establishment of this festival and his influence still weighs heavily on the performances there. This live recording includes the applause, yells, and screams of the audience. It is a fine collection of music.

Back in the early 70s, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band gathered together in a music studio with some of their heroes. These included Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson, and Merle Travis. The result was a three record album collection called Will the Circle Be Unbroken?. In subsequent years, second and third compilations have been produced. While this collection is not strictly bluegrass, it contains lots of bluegrass music, instrumental accustic music, and music with deep roots. (I only own this on the old vinyl records, but I still value the collection.)

The movie O Brother Where Art Thou? introduced many people to the music that kept folks spirit's high while the nation's economic conditions were so low during the 1930s. Again, not all the music in the movie or on the soundtrack is strictly bluegrass. But it does contain some outstanding music.

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