Monday, August 24, 2009

Bluegrass and the Preservation of the American Myth

The following essay is a slight revision of an piece posted on the Welcome Page of the Californian Bluegrass Association last week.

I’ve been pondering the strength of “traditional” bluegrass music to hold its devoted audience, and this search has been abetted by my current reading of Daniel Levitin’s book, The World in Six Songs. In a section about what he calls “Comfort” songs, Levitin writes about the ability of song to provide comfort to its listeners. Each person finds comfort in different songs or kinds of songs, identifying with both the music itself and the lyrics in ways that make them feel better. One particular example he uses is the power of songs about feeling left out and excluded to help assuage the anxiety and disaffection of young people who feel they don’t fit in. Since, especially during adolescence, each of us feels misunderstood; such songs have had tremendous power to provide youth with rallying points.

As I read and thought about this phenomenon, I tried to understand why people love the form of bluegrass music they do. I was struck by the power of myth to structure our preferences in life. Even for people my age (I must admit to 68) life in America, for most, no longer contains direct experience in rural living or having grown up on the farm. Because my ancestors came from Europe in the period between about 1865 and 1890 and settled in and around New York City, there isn’t much of a rural tradition in our family memory, except for a great grandfather who peddled notions from his backpack in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania after the Civil War before involving himself in other pursuits. While born in New York, I grew up in various suburbs in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. I think that’s not an unusual background for the majority of Americans my age, although a different kind of immigration moved people from rural farm settings to urban and suburban life during the depression and then after WW II. It’s from this second migration that bluegrass music as well as rock and roll have emerged.

The songs written and performed by Bill Monroe and his musical descendents celebrated the world of simple mountain life, the hardships of scratching a living from the land, the joys of farming and close family relations, fundamental religious belief, and distress at the loss of these life styles forced by poverty and the subsequent move to the industrial centers of the Midwest and the northeast. Along the way, the difficult life of grinding poverty those early immigrants to Detroit, Gary, Cleveland, and other cities began to take on a nostalgic glow, even though the deaths of coal miners were never completely forgotten. David Peterson’s song “1946” provides a good case study of the mythology we like to remember of an America that may never have existed:

Oh the baby boomers were boomin’
And the buck stopped with Old Harry Truman
The best years of our lives was more than Hollywood’s big fix,
Funny thing, it really was back in 1946.

Sometimes I think I would go back,
If I could find a way – when hard work and sacrifice,
Were virtues of the day – when anyone could get ahead –
No gimmicks, gags, or tricks,
And neighbors never locked their doors,
Back in 1946.
Lyric by David Peterson

Conditions in the United States were hardly at their best in 1946. While we were heaving a huge sigh of relief at the end of the “Good” war, millions of women were being laid off from jobs that had provided them with freedom they had never known before to make room to have work for the returning G.I.’s. Major league baseball was still one year away from having its first black player. There was violent labor unrest in the coal, electric, and steel industries, the worst since 1919. The Nuremburg war trials were drawing to a close. The film, The Best Years of Our Lives, depicted the difficulties facing returning veterans, the title being quite ironic. The world was beginning to descend into a twenty year cold war that would cost the opponents hundreds of billions of dollars and perhaps set the stage for our current difficulties. On July 25, 1946 two black couples were lynched from a bridge in Georgia. At least one of the men was a recently returned veteran. Yet David Peterson paints a musical picture of a benign and carefree world he wishes he could return to. To be fair, he does give a brief nod to the specter of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among returning veterans. Nevertheless, the song papers over the quite problematic situation facing Americans in 1946.

By placing even traumatic events within a lively musical context, bluegrass offers a picture of a comforting and hopeful world that makes people who listen to it feel good. Even sad and pitiful songs, as James King puts it, serve up a nostalgic view. Even in songs depicting horrible events like “The Awful, Dreadful Snake,” “Driving Mary Home,” “The Long Black Veil,” “The Banks of the Ohio,” and hundreds of others, the music often paints an optimistic and hopeful vision at least in the melody if not the lyric, a vision people would prefer to maintain in contrast to the risk and uncertainty often facing us in our daily lives. Levitin points out that tragic content is comforting for many as they look at their own reality. The lilting musicality of the sound of a bluegrass band offers hope and encouragement. The world of the bluegrass festival isolates us from the misery of the world. Hearing, and better still, making this music, helps to perpetuate the myth of an America that either never existed, or occurred only briefly in isolated corners of our country. For many bluegrass fans this world maintains traditions we all wish really existed as a general component of American life and we could keep alive.

We would all prefer to see our world as looking more like Disney’s Main Street or the life of River City, Iowa the day Professor Harold Hill arrived there to sell band instruments and uniforms in The Music Man. We enjoy imagining the world of the western hero who’s more like Shane or Hondo than like Al Swearengen depicted in the recent HBO series Deadwood. We allow ourselves to become a part of Fred Astaire and Judy Garland’s stroll down fifth avenue in Easter Parade. Partly because the traditional songs of bluegrass music help us retain our illusions about the world and recall to us a long lost vision of a world that may never have been, fans, particulalarly those of a certain age, cling to it.


  1. You make some interesting points Ted -Thank you.
    It seems that Bluegrass , at least the type of lyric that you refer to is very similar to Norman Rockwell's work.
    It is a curious thing that I , born in England in 1948, have this same nostalgia for the , perhaps mythical, America that you refer to. My images were gained from TV shows - The Westerns of course , but Burns and Allen and I Married Joan ( among many others ) - and they perpetuated the ideal that America was funny, modern, tough, but, above all, kind and, ultimately, fair. I knew nothing of racial problems at that time. This picture was reborn in The Waltons and Evening Shade.
    This is no bad thing in my opinion. It doesn't hurt to have an ideal , however unrealistic in actuality , to aspire to.
    However , we romanticise poverty at great risk to many Americans and America's image abroad. Many will say they don't really care what anyone else thinks , but for many people I am sure they would like to be thought of in the same way as I pictured America and Americans in my childhood.
    As you so rightly say Ted , there is a lack of actual experience of the rural hard scrabble times or the Bluegrass diaspora in the younger Bluegrass fans and they cannot expect to understand real hardship like that. That is a two edged sword and , while it is good , of course, that times for many are better in the economic sense , the romanticism could lead to complacency.
    Having said all that, I love those songs - "Over the Hills to the Poorhouse" , "The Fields Have Turned Brown" etc.. I do bear in mind though that some of these songs reflect a reality that some are not so far from now.

  2. Love this article. The image it brought to mind for me: "a tether firmly anchored to earthy values as we are buffeted, tossed and turned, on the other end of the line, by the winds of change"

  3. I love bluegrass because it speaks to the truth. Even though it is a nostagic music, it also deals with reality in it's own way.

    I've always said we sing all those killing songs 'cause it lets us deal with the desire to do someone in who likely deserves it. That way we can process the emotion but still stay out of trouble.

    Dr. B

  4. Yes, I agree there is a huge cultural differance now than in 46. However, don't see Bluegrass as a catagory of music just nostalgic for simpler times. While that thread is there. The mythic good old times and all. But listen more and you hear murder, hard times, loss, grueling labor, lost love, misery. I am thinking of the Stanley's Little Maggie, as an example. There is some Rockwell kind of stuff that gets out there, the sappy hyper patriotic damn the liberals ruining our country with this godless talk and music. In some parts of the Bluegrass world there are some people who equate bluegrass and orthodox christian faith and patriotism. But thats the minority report. Me? I grew up as a kind of suburban kid/country kid nearby where Mom grew up on a farm. In Illinois for Gods sake. Northern Illinois! Yet when I heard In the Pines by Monroe, I was hooked. (in 75)
    So, I see what your saying but it's not that simple IMO.

  5. Absolutely right! Nothing is simple, but I need to focus on particular elements. Levitin writes about music capturing us at least partly because of the honest truth it communicates. I've been struck many times by the disingenuousness of "1946" many times. Furthermore. the risks of killing bluegrass by clinging tenaciously to the simple themes of the early times. I think I did make a bow to murder songs and so-on in the essay, although maybe I did it elsewhere. Thanks to all for the thoughtful and thought provoking comments. They serve to keep me on my feet and growing. - Ted

  6. Ted you make my head hurt sometimes. I thought it was just the banjo and the beat.