Bluegrass is a word which came into being after it’s adoption by musicians and radio disc-jockeys in the early 1950s. Denoting a form of American country or ‘hillbilly’ music yet, distinguishing it from other types of similar genres, which were popular throughout the Kentucky and greater Appalachia even before the turn of the century. Due to the demographics of the settlers in the region, bluegrass is a music built on strong southern traditions and was originally played primarily by the white working class. Although it is still somewhat debated, it is generally accepted that Bill Monroe and his ‘Blue Grass Boys’ played the first of what we now call bluegrass music in 1945. (International Bluegrass Music Association, 2001) The banjo came to the fore as it had not done previously accompanied by multiple vocal parts and a now familiar line-up of bass; mandolin; fiddle and guitar. The argument against, rebukes not the talent of Bill Monroe or his style, but the pre-inception of a less formalised bluegrass genre. No matter which side of the debate one falls on, Monroe is accredited with the commercialisation and formalisation of the characteristics which differentiates the music from other strains of so-called hillbilly music such as country-western, ‘rockabilly’, and other forms of ‘western-swing’. (Smith, 1965)
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Both the immigration of the Scotch-Irish settlers during the latter part of the nineteenth century and subsequent emigration of the second and third generations from the region play distinct roles in the social and economic background of the music itself. Celtic fiddling styles played in the home and songs of heritage were commonplace. Monroe fondly recalls his mother walking through the house singing, and playing the fiddle as she prepared the dinner. His uncle, who he first witnessed at the age of about six years old playing this style of fiddle on the front porch at his family home captured the young Monroe’s imagination.
“He got the wonderful Scotch-Irish sound out of it, â€¦..and if we’d have supper of a night, we’d sit around the fireplace and he’d play the fiddle.”
Most musicians of the time allude to fathers, grandfathers, and uncles who fiddled and mothers who played the organ, it seems everyone sang. Mechanically reproduced music and radio was therefore a luxury not many of these impoverished farmers at the time possessed, and although by the early 1900s, some rural settlers may have had experienced the radio, it was not as pervasive as it was to later become. It is for this reason we can refer to these strains as a form of vernacular music. (Rosenberg, 2005)
During the late 1930s however, these types of technologies had come to the fore allowing greater access to music and film. The film industry in particular had made ‘singing cowboys’ a popular trend and this was being reflected in the rise of western swing outfits such as Bob Wills and Bill Boyd. Other influences began to seep into the ‘old time’ style, as country music began to move closer to the popular music of the era rather than the folk music of its distinct roots. (Rosenberg, 2005)
George D. (Judge) Hay, a former news reporter, turned disc jockey with a popular Saturday night show titled ‘The Grand Ole Opry’, was adamant within his circle to keep these influences at bay and began to promote his radio show as ‘authentic-hill country music’. Urging his musicians to stay true to their roots and “keep it close to the ground”,(Rosenberg, 2005) he fought for years keeping drums off the Opry stage and very much discouraged the attempts to introduce electric style instruments, instead insisting on the musicians ‘authenticity’. It was subsequently the first country music styled show to gain a reputation on a national scale. His hatred of the word ‘hillbilly’ and refusal to use it on his show gained him a respect from one Bill Monroe who tried out for the show in 1938. Cleo Davis who accompanied Monroe at the audition recalls;
“Bill and I did â€¦.. a duet yodel, fast as white lightening. [And were told] â€¦if you ever leave the Opry, it’ll be because you’ve fired yourself”(Rosenberg, 2005)
Two of the immediate differences Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys brought to the Opry, and anything that had gone before were the sheer speed that they performed their songs and the key they performed in. Even slow or medium paced favourites were faster than usual, highlighting the skill that was required to maintain the instrumental dexterity and vocal accuracy if these up-tempo performances were to retain their precision. Along with a speed heretofore unnatural, was the use of unconventional keys. Monroe is accredited with saying;
“We was the first outfit to ever play in B-flat or B-natural and E. Before that it was all C, D, and G. Fiddle men had a fit”. (Rosenberg, 2005)
Accompanying these alterations was a slightly unusual musical practice whereby all instruments were tuned a half-step above standard pitch. This elongation and tightening of the strings served a multipurpose, gaining both in volume and achieving a brighter tone which subsequently served to suit the vocals better than it had previously. (Rosenberg, 2005)
These musical alterations coincided with arguably the most significant social, political, and cultural movement of the entire century, the Second World War. During this period many economic sectors, including the music and recording industries, were in a state of decline. But despite this lull of music sales, the sale of ‘hillbilly’ records grew exponentially. (Rosenberg, 1967) The major reasons for this were, a population shift, incorporating a migration of southern workers to northern cities, and a mass growth in the popularity of the genre within the armed forces, where many were exposed to these strains for the first time. Military service resulted in long standing members having to leave their post for the war effort. This resulted in an array of performers playing different roles for the following war years. Retaining his slot on the Grand Ole Opry, and gaining his own tent show, Monroe continued to perform with a roulette wheel of differing musicians, yet still managed to continuously be the most sought-after performer on the circuit. It is about this time that the real elements of bluegrass started to form with the addition of extra musical elements, and it was at this stage Robert Russell (later to be renamed Chubby Wise) joined the fray. A co-composer of ‘Orange Blossom Special’ a song which Monroe and his boys had covered on many an occasion had heard of Howdy Forrester’s depart, leaving the band without a fiddle player. Having approached Monroe backstage he joined the Opry tour. Although the musician roulette continued for a time with instruments such as the jug, accordion and harmonica making appearances, the seeds that would comprise the latter sound were beginning sprout. (Rosenberg, 2005)
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In 1945, debatably the most influential member was auditioned for the line-up. A young banjo player named Earl Scruggs made an impact with a song titled ‘Dear Old Dixie’, showcasing his ability to “do things you could hardly believe”, with Monroe reportedly saying “hire him, get him whatever it costs”(Rosenberg, 2005). For the first time the band had a banjo player who was not a comedian, but instead had the ability to play solos on songs where all previous players could not. Lester Flatt, a mandolinist and tenor singer was also taken aboard at this time, returning to his guitar and singing lead vocals to accommodate the Blue Grass Boys. Much of the music was actually too fast for Flatt to keep rhythm on the guitar, but he remedied this by using a guitar run at the end of phrases. The run began as an F# on the lower sixth string and ended with an open G. Runs of this type were common in previous country guitar styles, but became so synonymous with Flatt and bluegrass music that it is still referred to as the ‘Lester Flatt G-run’.(Malone and McCulloh, 1975) Both were extremely popular with fans, with Scruggs’ solos demanding encores from “the boy from North Carolina who makes the banjo talk” (Malone and McCulloh, 1975) Scruggs used a three finger picking style adapted from other north Carolina banjo players such as Wade Mainer’s two-finger style. His solos on the Opry from 1945-48 resulted in almost instantaneous star status as a country music instrumentalist.
Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys now consisted of a mandolin; played by Monroe himself, a guitar; a banjo; a fiddle and a bass, a construct that is now the presently accepted make-up of the traditional bluegrass band. The sound they produced together had evolved substantially from the days Bill and his brother Charles Monroe entertained locally in Kentucky, and yet, with the early guidance of ‘Judge’ Hay in Bill’s career, managed to keep true to the roots of the music. Scruggs and Flatt left the Blue Grass boys line-up late in 1948, due to the strain of being on the road. They still played together however forming the ‘Foggy Mountain Boys’. While in this line-up they decided to include the resophonic guitar, (or Dobro) in their band and as a result it is often included in some bluegrass bands today.(International Bluegrass Music Association, 2003) By this time there were other groups mimicking the style set by their outfit, most notably The Stanley Brothers. Monroe had replaced Scruggs with a player similar to Scruggs own banjo style, and after setting the precedent it became the norm to describe a good banjo player as playing ‘just like Earl Scruggs’. (Malone and McCulloh, 1975)
Robert Cantwell describes the relative speed in which bluegrass music permeated the psyche as he recalls an appearance from the Eller Brothers in 1980. They began with an ‘old song’ entitled “On and On”, but could not remember where it had originated or who had written the piece. It was the work of one Bill Monroe and had apparently been inducted, along with those songs brought across the Atlantic, into the realms of ‘tradition’ at the tender age of twenty-seven. A tradition according to Cantwell, that was ‘violently foreshortened by radio’ (2003) The durability of bluegrass has proven this apparent presumption correct however, as the genre grows not only in the Americas but internationally, owing much of its success to the adaptability of the music through other genres, and the capacity to reach wider audiences through the growing medium of technology. The 1960s saw the birth of a new concept, the ‘bluegrass festival’. As bands seemed to be competing for the same audience, it was more productive for all parties involved to put them on the same bill, appearing at festivals around America. These festivals are now internationally common with attendances growing annually. (International Bluegrass Music Association, 2003)
Monroe’s most famous contribution ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ has transcended multiple genres and been re-recorded by artists such as Patsy Kline, Elvis Presley, Rory Gallagher, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Paul McCartney among others. Scruggs and Flatt as mentioned continued recording, and wrote songs that appeared on the soundtracks of the cult movie ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ television show. Bluegrass was once again shot to the forefront of consciousness when Eric Weissberg traded banjo phrases with Steve Mandel’s guitar in the film ‘Deliverance’, and audience’s were once again reintroduced to bluegrass as the soundtrack for one of the Coen brothers cinematic ventures ‘O Brother, Where art Thou?’ went triple platinum. (International Bluegrass Music Association, 2003)
Bluegrass is still providing additives, foundations and inspiration in artists today, as Béla Fleck (possibly the most recognisable banjo player worldwide presently), describes his most powerful memory on first hearing the music during an interview for the popular American network PBS: “My most powerful memory was hearing Earl Scruggsâ€¦.as a five or six year old. That sound just blew me away, shook my head up”. (PBS, 2001) Fleck has attained international fame for his ingenuity with his own band the Flecktones and for his fusion of a fast paced picking style with the jazz and blues undertones of the Dave Matthews Band, an outfit he makes regular appearances with. Once again keeping bluegrass firmly in the minds of the masses.
The three audio files chosen represent three differing aspects of the bluegrass genre; The original bluegrass sound, the rise of the genre’s popularity through the prismatic scope of media, and it’s gradual evolution as these strains enevitably are influenced by other facors. The first, played by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass boys is a recording from 1946 entitled ‘Rocky Top’. It showcases the finger-picking style of banjo thoroughly referenced throughout this essay, while emphasising the vocal layers and dexterity by using choral harmonics. The lyrics themselves reference ‘Rocky Top Tennessee’ a domesticated hometown scence which much of the country bluegrass music was concerned with, the norm generally being a migration or a return to homelands.
The second track was chosen for a number of purposes. Sang by Alison Krauss an extreemely successful country/bluegrass singer with accompaniment by ‘Union Station’, it is entitled ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ originally performed by the Soggy Bottomed Boys. My reasoning for choosing Krauss’ version is simple, she transcends genres. Recently dueting with Robert Plant the famed Led Zeppelin front man, she epitomises the durability and versatility bluegrass has sustained in revealing itself to new audiences. It is also featured prominently in the Coen Brothers classic film ‘O, Brother where Art Thou?’, reinforcing the previous point and illustrating the gains achieved through differing aspects of the media.
The final track is from the aforementioned Bela Fleck, performing with the self explanotory ‘New Grass Revival’. The song itself called ‘Steam Powered Aeroplane’ conveys a movement away from a homeland setting and can be constrewed as having migratory conontations, but more immediately, there is a movement towards the ‘new’. Containing the same basic principles, Scruggs-style picking and Flatt’s ‘G-runs’ are evident. Vocals are also sung in different parts giving a layered effect, yet held secondary to the lead banjo and a commanding base line seems to keep the overwhelming speed in check. But there is a distinct ‘modern’ feel as the instuments are very slightly amplified. In more recent years Fleck establishes the Flecktones and keeping this style joins a group containing a ‘drumguitar’ infusing African beats with blues licks. (See The Flecktones: Next)
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