Thursday, August 25, 2011

Chris Pandolfi and the Direction of IBMA - Response Essay

Chris Pandolfi, banjo player for the Infamous Stringdusters, has written a second blog entry within the past couple of weeks seeking to explore the impact of change to the present and future of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). In the first, he writes about the nominating process for IBMA awards, with an emphasis on the degree to which the same names seem to keep occurring and suggesting the awards continue to recognize the already recognized while tending to ignore many worthy possible recipients. He acknowledges the important naming of George Shuffler and Del McCoury to the IBMA Hall of Fame as well as the recognition his own band has received. In doing this, he justifiably casts himself as an insider writing to his peers, rather than an outsider throwing stones. He particularly raises the issue of the nomination for Emerging Artist, suggesting that many bands cast as emerging don't really belong in the category, because they're composed of established stars of the genre. He concludes by inviting a conversation, which has continued for several weeks in the response section to his blog as well as various other bluegrass forums, especially the two list-servs of IBMA, “Bluegrass-L,” a mailing list designed for those interested in IBMA and its issues and “IBMA-L,” which is supposed to be a members forum. As usually happens on forums, various people have used Chris's blog entry to further their own agendas with regard to the present direction and future leadership of the organization.

In Chris's most recent blog entry, IBMA Keynote, he announces his upcoming keynote address (one of three) to be given at the IBMA World of Bluegrass next month, examines some of the issues confronting the organization, and seeks input from his readers concerning their take on these issues. His general tone is of one looking from both the inside and the outside of IBMA, treasuring its traditions, seeking to strengthen and broaden its outreach, and not having all the answers himself, but equipped with some perspective that he hopes might be helpful. He concludes by asking for comments from his readers and looks forward to the event (September 26 – October 2, 2011 at the Nashville Convention Center. Explore the renewed IBMA web site for further information about the exciting changes coming this year.) In these two essays, Chris Pandolfi has challenged the world of bluegrass (carefully written in lower case to include all of us who consider ourselves to be part of that world, rather than the event coming soon) to examine and seek to understand the complexity of the problems facing the organization, the need for a broadening its scope, the legitimacy of the various audience and membership components both inside and outside the organization, and each individual's relationship to IBMA as well as its overall importance.

My initial reaction, on reading Chris's latest piece and in looking back at some of the material written on IBMA-L during the past week or so was a sense of dread. I thought I was a part or a discussion about the evolutionary development of an organization I've come to care deeply about despite having been a member for only a few short years. Instead, I found myself caught in the midst of a revolution with people calling for resignations from staff and reconstruction of the Board. It seemed all too overwhelming to me. I thought about firing off a comment to Chris, who's been a friend of mine since early in the Stringduster's career, and then thought better of it, slept on it, wrote some notes, and here goes.

First, I'd like to place the current woes of IBMA within the larger context of the problems facing our country. We're on the very slow upswing of an economy changing more rapidly and performing more poorly than many of us can bear. It has forced too many people to change their plans and created a political environment that's nearly devoid of reasonable public conversation, filled with blaming, recrimination, posturing, and bluster. I sense some of that in our current conversation within our own organization. If the economy were humming along, festivals were selling all their seats, people felt they had plenty of discretionary money, and we felt confident about the future, IBMA would not be in trouble. Perhaps it would be a good time to take a deep breath and believe a little more fully in the ability of our music to soothe, heal the troubled soul, and affect those open to its magic. It might be a good idea to remember the epithet on Pete Seeger's banjo, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

I woke up early this morning thinking of Little League, whose first World Series was held in 1947. I was never a Little Leaguer, but I clearly remember, back in the early 1950's, when suburbia was rapidly spreading and American life was going through huge changes. There was, at that time and perhaps still today, a good deal of moaning and groaning about the demise of sandlot baseball, the over-organization of children's lives, the need for them to be able to play without too much adult supervision, and more. Much of that seems laughable today, when we consider the obsessively organized and programmed lives our middle-class suburban children endure on their way to the elite institutions their parents envision for them. But there may be a pretty good analogy between Little League baseball and the conflicts bluegrass music is facing today.

The rural world of the bluegrass founders hardly exists today, yet there is much longing for it. At a festival a year or so ago, someone asked the audience how many of them had grown up on farms. Relatively few hands went up, and most of the people looked pretty old to me...about my age or older. The Gibson Brothers, growing up on a dairy farm along the northernmost reaches of the US and playing baseball with the miners of Lyon Mountain, NY on Sunday afternoons, probably express more eloquently than anyone their age the sense of loss many Americans experience at the slow, painful death of rural America. Most Americans today live in suburbs, a distinctly different environment from the farms of yesteryear, yet a locale somehow seeking to reconcile the values of rural life with the conveniences of modern urban existence. Suburbia has, however, spawned a very different educational and social environment.

From its very beginnings, bluegrass music has presented a revolutionary synthesis of imported and American music filtered through the communities that nourished it. The rural diaspora headed toward the factories in cities surrounding the Great Lakes made the yearning for mountain and farm homes more vocal. The musicians, interacting with black performers, perhaps for the first time, brought blues and other African-American sounds into their music, led, of course, by Bill Monroe. Each change in bluegrass reflected the music that was in the air at the time. The career of John Duffey perhaps best exemplifies this. His father was a trained opera singer who early recognized the extraordinary range his son possessed and helped train his voice. Duffey, not a man of Appalachia, throughout much of his four decade career bent the repertoire of the two bands he's most associated with (The Country Gentlemen, The Seldom Scene) to fit his vocal proclivities, rather than trying to make himself sound more Appalachian (Wikipedia). The other members of The Scene were all urban professionals. The music of both these bands is now considered to be standard repertory. This trend continues as new backgrounds, new forces, new sounds, and new influences are incorporated into what is called bluegrass music by many familiar with the music as well as many just being introduced to the original sounds and its derivatives.

Meanwhile, change continues and resistance to change is pervasive. I remember being appointed for a brief time during the 1979-1980 school year as headmaster of a deeply troubled boarding school in New York State. The school was riven with difficulties, including extensive drug use, unbridled sexuality reflecting the tone of the period, and troubled children from homes broken apart by such issues and more. One of the large elements separating students from students, faculty from faculty, and students from the faculty and their parents was their music. People identified themselves by “their” music and the lifestyle it suggested. They still do. New bands calling themselves bluegrass bands today are deeply influenced by rock, pop, and even hip hop. It's unremarkable that acoustic string bands would reflect these influences. Accepted song lengths of three to four minutes, the length of a song fitting on a ten inch 78 rpm record, are no longer limited to that length, allowing jam bands to lengthen their interpretation of a melody, sometimes, for some, to excruciating lengths. Volume has been drastically, sometimes both painfully and dangerously, increased, largely because of technical capability and the realization that response to music is physical as well as auditory. But, in bluegrass, the influence of Bill Monroe, his peers, and the second generation developers still pervade the music, whether the current practitioners recognize it or not.

So, as IBMA's World of Bluegrass approaches, we are a community separated by age, class, education, and, more recently, language and ethnicity. We are united by our love for what we call bluegrass music. And we are represented by the public face of a trade organization seeking to reconcile these differences and coordinate the strands into which the music seems to have been divided. The Board of IBMA has gone to extensive lengths to re-design WOB to reflect many of the strains that have reduced attendance and increased discontent. Individuals have had their feathers ruffled and their feelings hurt. The institution has not always been good at listening nor fast on its feet. Many challenges confront IBMA, not the least being itself and the tendency of mature organizations to become more about themselves than about their original purpose. (Reference labor unions and political parties) Nevertheless, the leadership and its staff has reached out. It remains for the members as well as potential and past members, to get on board and help move the process along.

Shortly after Labor Day, I'll be posting an extensive preview of WOB as well as some thoughts on how to make the conference work for those who attend. As much as anyone else, I've been struggling to understand how the changes taking place will effect me and how I'll respond to and write about them. Perhaps it's worth remembering that the journey itself is what the adventure is all about. Let's be involved in the journey as we seek a destination we can all inhabit in comfort.