Too often in our trips to hear bluegrass music, I’ve seen people get up and leave their seats muttering, “That ain’t bluegrass!” I think what they mean is that whatever is being played does violence to the sound and spirit of the music Bill Monroe brought together and which came to be known as Bluegrass because his band was named The Bluegrass Boys, a reference to his native Kentucky. According to these folks, bluegrass music reached its height with the band the Monroe put together that included his own wonderful mandolin playing as well as featuring Earl Scruggs on banjo and Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals. Also in this seminal band were Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts (known as Cedric Rainwater) on bass. This version of The Bluegrass Boys only lasted a couple of years before Flatt and Scruggs left to form their own band, The Foggy Mountain Boys. Other bands quickly emerged featuring The Stanley Brothers, Don Reno and Red Smiley, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, the Osborne Brothers, and others. The music created by these bands is still alive and well, revered by those who saw them during the middle decades of the twentieth century and copied, covered, and played from festival stages, in parking lot jams, and on bluegrass radio stations. Such attention to the history of our music is important to those who have come after and to informing the further development of the music as we move further away in time from the first generation founders.
Monroe was a prolific songwriter who left hundreds of songs for later interpreters to learn and play. What were his influences? Monroe was born on a farm in 1911 in rural Rosine, Kentucky. He grew up poor and nearsighted, listening to the music of others, a shy, retiring boy too conscious of his crossed eyes. (Listen to John Hartford’s wonderful song “Cross-eyed Child” for a musical biography of Bill Monroe.) Monroe was influenced by the music world that surrounded him. He rolled white and black church music, black blues, western swing, jazz, emerging rock and roll, and other folk and commercial sounds into a fast paced sound that gave his versatile mandolin playing and high pitched singing an almost perfect outlet. He spent a number of years refining and perfecting his sound. His music reflected the sense of loss felt by rural people forced to move to the cities for economic reasons and in response to the needs created by World War II. He cries out with a nostalgic longing for the values of home, family, faith, and goodness exemplified by the rural south of the early twentieth century in which he grew up.
Recently, our friend Bob Cook gave me a copy of the Fall 2007 issue of “Southern Cultures,” a quarterly journal published by the University of North Carolina Press. This issue is the second annual music issue, and is accompanied by a CD giving examples of the music written about in the text. The issue opens with an extended excerpt of an interview done with folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger in 1989 by William Ferris and Michael Honey. Other articles deal with the history of blues over the past hundred years, the influence of black music and musicians on Elvis Presley, and Charlie Derrington’s repair of Bill Monroe’s mandolin after it was attacked and nearly destroyed. In other words, it covers a good deal of the development of southern music during the twentieth century. Bluegrass music gets the attention due it both in the text and on the disk. Reading this issue has encouraged me to approach again the question of what is bluegrass music and how I want to respond to changes in it as we move further and further away from the first generation.
Reading the Seeger interview encouraged me to remember how much bluegrass music is a true folk music. It developed out of people’s singing and playing and continues to thrive in parking lots, in fields at festivals where campers congregate for the jamming, and in informal jams around the country. The proliferation of festivals provides amateur musicians an opportunity to pick together and to mingle with professional musicians who often join them in jams. Frequently, they also get a chance to perform from the stage during open mic periods. One festival we attend turns field picking into a competition by sending professional band members out on Saturday night to select the best band in the field. This band is invited to perform a set from the stage on Saturday. The music of these jams often relies on the traditional songs written and performed by the first generation bluegrass musicians who called upon the music of their childhood to create their sounds.
In the interview in Southern Culture, Pete Seeger quotes his father, musicologist Charles Seeger as saying, “Don’t think of folk music as any one particular group of songs or any one particular group of singers. Think of it as an ancient, ancient process which has been going on for thousands of years where people take older material and remold it to fit into their new times.” Pete went on to say, “If you want to analyze a stream, don’t think that by telling exactly what it is at the instant you know that stream. You’ve got to know how it changes through the seasons, gets bigger and smaller. Then you start to know the stream. You know it as a process.” (Ferris and Honey, Southern Culture, Fall 2007, pp 21-22) As I thought about what makes bluegrass music, I realize that as a folk music, it cannot be pinned down in time. To take Bill Monroe’s great achievement and limit it to his great first recording session, or the period when Flatt and Scruggs were with him, or some other period in his development is to both enshrine and imprison his music.
Monroe developed an idea and built it through many years. Certain elements became central, particularly including acoustic string instruments. Over the years he developed his music and others coming behind him have continued to interpret his songs and add to the body of music as well as adapt the sounds to newer conditions as they learn to work within the format and adapt it to changes in music. Bill Monroe was influenced by blues and incorporated it into his music (Monroe himself was reluctant to call the music “bluegrass”). Blues also influenced the Beatles and The Who who reintroduced their interpretations of blues sounds to America as the British invasion. Bob Dylan took folk music and made it over into a new sound uniquely his own. Those sounds and many others have since been incorporated into contemporary bluegrass as it continues to be a part of the much larger stream of music.
The risk to bluegrass music is much like the dangers faced by folk music as it became popular in the sixties. The music of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, of Leadbelly, Brownie Magee and Sonny Terry, the Carter Family, and others became popularized by slick groups like the Kingston Trio, The Limelighters, The Chad Mitchell Trio and others who took the music from the folk and into sophisticated night clubs as well as onto television until The Smothers Brothers and Hootenanny nearly killed it off. Fortunately, there were still ordinary people singing their own music and adapting that music to fit new situations and conditions and the music continued and grew. Bluegrass, too, faces the risks of over-popularization represented by the increasingly commercial interests of Nashville. It, too, risks losing its edge and becoming too slick. But as long as great musicians continue to push the limits while recognizing and honoring the first generation masters, I think the music is safe. Next time you hear a band that doesn’t sound like bluegrass to you, open your ears and heart to see whether Bill Monroe might be nodding in satisfaction and wonder at where his music has been taken.