Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Regionalism and Bluegrass

The essay below is a slightly revised version of an essay I posted on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association's web site last month.  I write a monthly column for the CBA, which effectively manages to maintain a regional and a national perspective in its newsletter and web site.

The other day, in response to a post examining issues of taste and breadth of vision in bluegrass I was accused of being a Yankee (guilty) and of bringing a Yankee sensibility to my analysis of what's happening in bluegrass music (maybe not so guilty). The post, however, raised to a higher level of consciousness, some questions that have been growing in me. How do regionalism and internationalism affect the growth and development of bluegrass music in the contemporary world? Recently, Gabrielle Gray, Executive Director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY, said to me that “bluegrass represents the authentic rural voice of America.” This seems to me to be as fine a summation of what bluegrass music is as I've heard anywhere. And I think it's true of the history of our music. But it occurs to me that rural America, as represented in bluegrass music historically, hardly exists any longer in contemporary life, and, as such, new music created in our current world will only be an imitation of the earlier voice rather than a representation of the world we currently live in. If this is so, then how can bluegrass continue to grow and prosper?

What I'm writing about today is speculative and exploratory in my mind. I hope to grow in my insight as I try to develop these ideas with the aid of the people reading this. I have been wrestling with the question that attending many bluegrass festivals raises in sometimes not-so-subtle fashion. The question: Does bluegrass music so fully represent a rural, southern, mountain culture that people not coming from that environment can't adequately understand, listen to, respond to, perform, or write it? And there's a corollary question: Can people learn to play and sing the music any other way than by ear on the porch of their grandfather's mountain cabin?

These two questions reflect at least an implicit reaction I've felt communicated to me. A year or so ago we attended a small festival in north-central North Carolina. The performance area was roped off and hung with signs asking attendees not to smoke or drink therein. When I wrote about the amount of alcohol and tobacco smoke in the area making it difficult for some people to enjoy the music, someone posted on my blog that because I am a Yankee, I'm incapable of understanding the way that southerners enjoy themselves! At another festival, this one in Georgia, a noted bluegrass banjo player played a series of patriotic American songs, and concluded with an instrumental version of “Dixie.” At the first notes of this great southern battle song, almost everyone in the audience stood up, doffed their caps, and held them over their hearts. In my mind, there's only one song requiring me to behave in such a way, and I've noticed, frequently, that the people tending to agree with me are often wearing clothes suggesting that they're veterans. Regardless, it seemed to me that the action represented a kind of regionalism that pervades much of our music. I bow to no-one in my appreciation of the quality of that great song “The Ballad of the Rebel Soldier,” or the deeply affecting one sung by David Davis about Stonewall Jackson's death at Chancellorsville. It does bother me somewhat that a man at many festivals we attend always requests Rebel Soldier and then, dressed in a rebel campaign hat, comes to the front and stands at attention for it. Many other great songs celebrate a more universal rural experience that depicts the joys of life on the farm, the closeness of rural family living, the risks of work in the mines, and the isolation of life in the cities.

It seems to me that there's also a northern sensibility, one might call it Yankee Bluegrass, found in songs and festivals in the northeastern part of the country. For instance, the Gibson Brothers song “Sam Smith” pictures a Civil War veteran living “somewhere north of Canaanville, along the borderline,” who's returned injured and gone to live alone in the woods saying, “They'll never get me back again and march me off to war.” Smith, to me an obvious sufferer from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder represents a very different sensibility than the rebel soldier or the glory of battle to save a lost cause. Another Gibson Brothers song “Iron & Diamonds” (nominated for Best Song in 2009 by IBMA this year) depicts immigrant miners (Poles, Lithuanians, and Italians) emerging from the dark of the mine to play baseball each Sunday afternoon after church. The baseball game gives them the dignity their work never offers. Dawn Kenney, a Boston singer/songwriter, has penned a song that symbolically presents a huge, old tree on a hill in a meadow as a spiritual guide. Such songs suggest a different world view than many written for southern audiences.

Now I'm really going to step into it a bit, and suggest what I think I perceive as a “California” approach to bluegrass, too. This is really risky for two reasons, first, I haven't been to California in twenty-five years or so, and second, I knew nothing about bluegrass when I was there (some maintain I still know nothing about bluegrass...a different issue.). I think of the music of Laurie Lewis as being quintessentially Californian in nature. Her sometimes airy melodies and focus on nature, the natural world, and finding peace through connecting closely to nature present a kind of secular gospel rarely found in southern gospel music where such emotions are directly connected to Christian belief and practice. Northern and western approaches to what might be the subject matter but not the direct content of something connected to spiritual existence are less Gospel (that is, Biblically) oriented than those found in southern gospel music.

I have yet to see the bluegrass song celebrating suburban living or the joys of urban life. While Bill Monroe played baseball in the afternoons before his barnstorming concerts, I'm not familiar with any song of his about baseball, or any contemporary song about learning to play in Little League. I guess we have to leave that to the rockers. Billy Joel may be the poet of the suburbs, but I'm not familiar with Joel songs that have been grassed. Anyway, readers of this piece are urged to view it as tentative and open to lots of development. The ideas are a result of my musings over the past few months, and this is my first effort at getting them out. I look forward to your responses, either on comment section here, or via e-mail directly to me.