Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bluegrass and the Bagpipes of Old England

A letter-writer outs an Economist  staffer who betrays the truth that he doesn't know much about the United States:
It was odd of you to claim that Mississippi is “famous for bluegrass” (“Painting by numbers”, November 5th). That is rather like saying England is famous for bagpipes. Bluegrass comes from Kentucky, home of Bill Monroe, the creator of that particular musical style. Mississippi is famous for the blues, spawning musicians such as Muddy Waters (pictured) and Robert Johnson.
Bluegrass is a form of country music, inspired by the traditional music of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish immigrants living in the Appalachians. Blues is rooted in African-American traditions of the Deep South, especially the Mississippi Delta.
 "Famous for bagpipes" is right on, but I'd differ on the detail. In the first place, while Bill Monroe is from Kentucky, he is not from "the Bluegrass."  He was born in Rosine over in the coal belt of this complex little state. The heart of the Bluegrass is Lexington, near 150 miles away.   The Appalachians, provenance of Bluegrass music's "traditional roots" are even further away--the epicenter is perhaps Big Stone Gap, VA, where there is a justly well-placed museum.  Monroe undoubtedly chose the name more for its marketing appeal than for any direct connection.

More: the letter-writer undertakes to contrast the traditional music of the Appalachians from the African-American music of the  Deep South.  But the whole point of Bluegrass is precisely that it marries the English/Scots-Irish folk tradition together with African-American music, particularly Dixieland.  Indeed, Monroe's contribution lies precisely in his development of vocabulary whereby mountain folk musicians could present thir material in the style of a Dixieland band.  


Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Bluegrass is a melding of Appalachian music and Dixieland? I can't hear it.

I tried this on my wife, who is far more musically literate than I, and thinks that all classical musicians are really black, except for Wagner. (She thinks that George Clinton was a reincarnation of JS Bach, for instance.) She couldn't hear it, either.

Although some Bluegrass sounds hundreds of years old, I know it is a postwar invention. But why do you think Dixieland is part of Bill Monroe's mix?

Buce said...

Orchestration (if that is the right word). Close instrumental interweaving, with breakout riffs. Also driving rhythm. Traditional Scots-Irish is one voice alone perhaps with a single accompaniment (dulcimer?). Rhythm almost optional. Think Barbry Allen, and all the stuff you hear on old Alan Lomax disks.

Re classical roots, I gather there is a school of thought that Diieland emerged when a change of zoning laws forced high-yaller downtown blacks with classical training to live cheek by jowl alongside field blacks who knew how to do social/communal (African roots) work songs--think Sidney Bechet.

As to "post-war," I am sure you are right, but which war? Monroe was fronting his own bands in the 30s, perhaps groping for a maarketable style. I'd acknowledge that a major breakthrough was teaming up with Earl Scruggs after WWII (and that Scruggs banjo is itself a 20C invention--though query how much credit should go to Scruggs himself).

Be at ease about Wagner--it's not music.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Your explanation makes sense to me. And more importantly, it makes sense to my wife. Although my wife actually likes Wagner.