Friday, May 25, 2007

Bluegrass: A History by Neil V. Rosenberg - Review

Rosenberg, Niel V., Bluegrass: A History – Twentieth Anniversary edition, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL, $24.95, paper

I come to bluegrass music late in life. I should say “we” because my wife Irene is a part of this story as we share a love for the music and have invested a significant portion of our recent life in it. Nevertheless, as in many other aspects of our life, we come at the music from different perspectives and value it in different ways. Although we have listened to country music for years, we came to bluegrass at Merlefest in 2003. The initial performers who blew us away were people like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. At this first festival, we also heard Del McCoury and Doyle Lawson. Not a bad way to be introduced to the music. Since then, we’ve become increasingly involved in the music, as listeners and then in the slow process of trying to learn to play bluegrass instruments. At festivals and concerts we have been introduced to the wide variety of kinds of music that come, at least peripherally, under the umbrella of bluegrass. We’ve also seen the stresses and strains that exist in the different strands the music has taken.

I come to bluegrass with a musical taste informed by the folk music of Burl Ives, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Oscar Brand, The Kingston Trio, The Limelighters, the Chad Mitchel Trio and many more individuals and groups who emerged during the folk revival of the fifties and sixties. In my home, as a child, were the Sea Chanties of the Almanac Singers, a group I only learned as an adult included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Paul Robson, both for Ballad for Americans and his other singing rings through my memory. As a young adult my music was dominated by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and other Pop/Jazz singers. Rock music somehow pretty well passed my by until middle age.

Neil Rosenberg’s seminal book Bluegrass: A History, first published in 1985 by the University of Illinois press and reissued in a twentieth anniversary edition with a new preface, has filled in many of the holes in my knowledge of bluegrass music from its earliest beginnings into the early 1980’s when Rosenberg’s account hurriedly ends. But no matter, Rosenberg’s contribution to understanding the beginnings of bluegrass music and the stresses and strains that have influenced it since the very beginning is important reading for anyone interested in the music as a social and cultural force. Furthermore, Rosenberg’s extensive discography provides a roadmap for people wishing to listen to the way the music has developed and changed through the years. In all, this book provides essential background about bluegrass music.

Beginning with an extensive discussion of Bill Monroe and his development of a particular sound as well as the transmogrification of the name of his group, The Blue Grass Boys, into a specific musical genre called bluegrass; Rosenberg provides great detail about how the music developed. He places bluegrass into a context of the movement of people from rural Appalachia to the urban industrial centers of the Midwest and the northeast. Rosenberg details how Monroe, first with his brothers Charlie and Burch and later with a succession of musicians who came, stayed a while, and then moved off to form their own bands, developed a musicians’ and performers’ music synthesizing old time country music, Appalachian mountain music, southern white and black sacred music, jazz, western swing, and more into a fast paced music played on a limited number of acoustic instruments. He shows how performers like Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt were both formed by and formed Monroe’s music before moving on.

Rosenberg describes the way bluegrass music spread from a predominantly rural music enjoyed on the radio, on records, and in barns and small auditoriums to larger venues closer to urban areas. With the first festival, organized by Carleton Haney near Washington, D.C. in 1965, bluegrass found a way for fans to see and hear the performers they had enjoyed on the radio. The music spread at first through a series of small radio stations in the southeast. Early on it was indistinguishable from the country music of the time. Because the music was not a set form during its emergence, the musicians experimented with including different instruments – drums, harmonica, electric amplification – until the fans made it clear they wanted bluegrass to be pretty much what Bill Monroe said it was.

With the coming of the folk revival and rock and roll in the late fifties and sixties, the music industry was challenged in all forms including bluegrass. New influences and sounds were developed, some coming into bluegrass and others being rejected. Often the musicians were more willing to change than were the fans, both rural adherents and urban newcomers attracted by this driving folk-like country music. With the advent, at first, of groups like the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene and later the New Grass Revival and other groups, the influence of folk and rock moved into bluegrass changing the music and causing a split between fans of “traditional” and “progressive” bluegrass. While much that this new movement brought to bluegrass moved from being radical change to being an integral part of the music, such change happened slowly, and bluegrass fans remain conservative, only accepting changes in bluegrass slowly, if at all. This can particularly be seen today in the bluegrass festivals of Florida, where many fans demand Monroe style hard driving bluegrass.

The festival scene became established as a way for bluegrass fans, whom Rosenberg characterizes as being so committed to the music that they became “believers,” to perform the music themselves in parking lot and campsite jams as well as to interact with the performers in relatively informal settings. Festivals proliferated throughout the decades of the seventies and eighties. Today hundred exist along the eastern seaboard and in California as well as internationally. They are supported by fans who come to see and hear national “headliners’ as well as local and regional bands. Many festivals are held in music parks and campgrounds, to which fans in tents and recreational vehicles flock. A robust recording and music publishing industry helps to spread and support the music. Bluegrass remains a robust niche of country music and is viewed by many as a form of folk music, even though it is largely and invented form only sixty-some years old.

Rosenberg’s story ends in the mid-nineteen eighties with bluegrass “articulated and defined as a traditional art form which cannot articulate too much definition. While some innovation is now accepted as a part of bluegrass, anything likely to gain mass success would probably be considered not really bluegrass.” (368) New groups continue to emerge and tour, some emphasizing their ties to traditional bluegrass while other groups develop new sounds using largely the traditional forms. Often, when a band crosses over into country or popular music, fans continue to dismiss its music as they have for two generations. The music changes, however slowly, and admits songs that treat the old subjects in new ways. Groups seeking to establish themselves, hope to fuse traditional sounds with new ones in ways acceptable to the fans. Meanwhile, more than twenty years have passed since Rosenberg published this important book, and it’s time for the story to be brought up to date in a scholarly and rigorous fashion. Rosenberg’s work is distinguished by its thoroughness and scholarly tone. It is not for every reader, but those wishing to understand where bluegrass came from and how it developed can only benefit from reading this work.