Thursday, December 15, 2011

Where Might We Be Headed? - Essay

The essay below is a lightly edited version of my monthly column on the California Bluegrass Association's welcome page. It's always an honor to have been invited to post on this outlet. I look forward to continuing the discussion of the issues raised here on the comment section as well as in the forums and on our Facebook pages.

To start with, I want to say I have no deep concerns about the future of bluegrass, whatever form it might be seen to be taking. Whether folks insist on maintaining that bluegrass can only be a replication of the forms, instrumentation, subject matter, and tone of the Bill Monroe band featuring Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs or continue to be a living, breathing developmental approach to making acoustic music based on those sources makes little difference. Traditional bluegrass will continue to be played and innovators will continue to bring their artistic creativity to having it reflect the times and tastes as they change. Too much time has been spent trying to define what bluegrass is and too little listening to, enjoying, and savoring what thoughtful people are seeking to do with it. Whether adherents are effectively reproducing the sounds and songs of the founders as what are essentially “cover” bands, creating new music in the style of the founders as do such creative innovators as Junior Sisk and Danny Paisley, or creating new sounds based on effective use of contemporary society in the manner of The Country Gentlemen, The New Grass Revival, The Infamous Stringdusters and even Yonder Mountain String Band matters little. We can't say today for certain what will last and what will die away. All remains speculation.

This essay grows from a concern and an assertion I've come across recently that seem to complement each other. The concern is that “bluegrass standards” are no longer being written. The assertion is that bluegrass music is essentially a folk music. Let's start with the idea of folk music. Since earliest times, bards have taken the music of the people (whatever that means), learned it, and sung it to those of wealth and title. Henry VIII is said to have been the composer of “Greensleeves,” but this kind of composition appears unusual. More often songs originated with the people and were translated by interpreters. In the nineteenth century Francis James Child collected 305 Scottish, British and American ballads, many of which were popularized by Joan Baez in the nineteen seventies. Similarly, Charles Seeger along with John and Alan Lomax collected and published mountain music in the twentieth century, laying the groundwork for later folk interpreters. The development of music publishing, recording, and electronic transmission only expedited this process. In other words, folk music has always moved towards becoming “popular” music.

Art Menius recently wrote in a note to me that bluegrass may be the only American music that began as a professional form and moved into being, essentially, folk music. By this, I believe he meant that Bill Monroe concocted a particular sound based on music in the air during his childhood and young adulthood including folk and sacred mountain music, swing, jazz, popular music of the thirties and early forties, and other forms. Monroe and his brother toured, performed, broadcast, and recorded. In other words, they trained themselves to be professional musicians. Monroe wrote over 800 songs in his long career, but his basic sound was established on that day in 1946 when Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs joined his Blue Grass Boys on the stage of the Grand Old Opry. He, as well as imitators and other innovators, spread the music throughout first the south and then the country via radio and recordings during the immediate postwar period when there was an explosion of country music as rural southerners became more mobile while yearning for home. They listened, then played, and then adopted this music as their own. The burgeoning festivals, an offshoot of the folk movement, encouraged people to make the music their own by playing it themselves, turning it into, essentially, a folk music. Nevertheless, the communication and development of bluegrass music has proceeded through the efforts of professional musicians recording, broadcasting, and performing in public forums for pay.

What about the absence of song “Standards?” Where are the songs that become a part of everyone's repertoire being sung from the stage and in the field so they become recognizable to everyone? First, there's no such thing as an instant standard. Songs become standards through being recorded by a variety of artists, played on the radio and at events, and working their way into listeners' minds so they can't get out. Frequently such songs are simple melodies with memorable words people “just can't get out of my head.” To become a standard, a song must be endlessly played on the air, covered by numerous bands, and last a significant period of time. “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and “Fox on the Run” didn't instantly enter into the bluegrass repertoire. Also, in the case of the popular movement I grew up with, it took song stylists like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to turn a great show tune into a pop standard. Meanwhile, I do see young people walking the streets, buds in ears, bouncing to music and mouthing the words, just as Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451. Standards are on the way.

The singer/songwriter movement may have something to do with a supposed lack of standards. As I understand the rules, Performers Rights Organizations (PRO's) assure that song writers and singers get paid for spins and performances of their music. This means that musicians are more rewarded for playing songs they composed and recorded. Performers must pay song writers for the use of their materials. Songs become associated with the person who wrote them and the person or band which first recorded them. Nevertheless, great new songs by first rate song writers move from their original source to the stage performed by others than their originator, and, eventually, if the songs are easily accessible, to the jams. I've recently heard songs by Balsam Range, the Gibson Brothers, Louisa Branscomb, and Mark Brinkman, among others, sung from the stage and in jams. Who can deny that Louisa Branscomb's great song “Steel Rails” has become a standard in the bluegrass repertoire. The song is about thirty years old, a reasonable time for a song to become a standard. The number of times some of Tom T. and Dixie Hall's songs are sung by a variety of singers and bands is truly astounding. Tuneful songs with catchy lyrics still become standards, covered on stage and sung by everyday pickers. In the end, standards develop over time. We've become a country wanting instant gratification. Is it a surprise we cry doom and gloom when new music doesn't become “standard” immediately? But only time will tell.

So I'm not worried about the future of bluegrass music. It will inevitably change and develop over time. The world changes and so do the ways in which it's viewed. But traditional bluegrass music, as exemplified by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers originally and brilliantly continued, for instance, by Junior Sisk with twelve originals in his latest release shows the resilience of the format. Each song has the sound of the ages in it, and was recently composed. Nevertheless, fine examples like this will inevitably have to share the stage with more contemporary sounds and subject matter. At the same time Junior Sisk hits a responsive note for us, so do John Cowan, Tim Shelton, Buddy Melton, and The Gibson Brothers. We're living in a golden age of bluegrass music, so let's enjoy it with the knowledge and faith that the future will identify and enthrone what's best and greatest about it. In fifty or a hundred years we'll know better.