Music, Politics and American Culture
By Zachary Rice
America truly is a melting pot and there's no greater example of that then bluegrass music. Everything about it is taken from other cultures from other parts of the world and put together to make something uniquely American. Bluegrass has roots in African music (the banjo), it takes from ragtime, the blues, and jazz. From Europe there are distinct Scottish, Celtic and eastern European influences. Of course it has roots in religion as well. The American south with some exceptions is a deeply religious place. It's no surprise that bluegrass musicians songs with a gospel background.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the origins of the banjo since it has had such a profound influence on the bluegrass sound. As soon as you hear that high toned reverberant fast picking you know you're listening to bluegrass. Although many folks thought that this was an American instrument, it actually hails from Africa. Most likely a descendant from a West African lute, these early lutes were made from a gourd cut in half with skin stretched over it and fitted with a neck and strung with gut strings or plant fibers. They had 3 or 4 strings and where played with a down picking stroking style or picked with thumb and first two fingers (5 String Banjo, Pestcoe). The Africans used an instrument called the akonting which very much resembles the Egyptian lute (Throw down your Heart, Fleck). It is constructed from the same materials (gourd, long neck, 3 strings) and was used by the Africans to keep track of each other when the slave raids were going on (Throw down your Heart, Fleck). If a group was to leave the village at night they would play the akonting, if the villagers heard the music stop that meant that they had been taken by a raiding party (Throw down your Heart, Fleck). It's said that the first trip of slave boats suffered many more casualties then the second. The reason being that the Africans brought akonting's with them on the boat the second time and because of the instruments presence they were able to keep their spirits up amidst the horrible conditions of the slave ship (Throw down your Heart, Fleck). It's played in a similar way to the five string banjo in that it is plucked with the thumb and first to fingers to play a fast melody. The banjo fits right in with the akonting (Throw down your Heart, Fleck). In the documentary “Throw Down Your Heart” by banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, we see him travel to Africa to bring the banjo back to its roots. The faces of the Africans who have never seen a modern 5-string banjo or heard bluegrass music light up immediately with smiles and laughter, affirming that banjo is a happy sound no matter where in the world it's heard (Throw down your Heart, Fleck). In the early part of the 1600's African slaves in the West Indies were seen making these lute like instruments. The Europeans had many names for these primitive instruments, in different regions it had different names. In Surinam it was called a creole bania, in Barbados it was a bangil (5 String Banjo, Pestcoe). These instruments were more commonly seem in the French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies and known as a banza and in the English colonies it was called the banjar (5 String Banjo, Pestcoe). In 1774 Englishman Nicholas Creswell sails to Barbados and comments in his journal “A great number of young people met together with a Fiddle and Banjo played by two Negroes” and “The Negroes meet together and amuse themselves with dancing to the Banjo (Banjo Ancestors, Pestcoe). This musical instrument (if it may be so called) is made of a Gourd, something in the imitation of a Guitar, with only four strings and played with the fingers in the same manner.” In his “Notes on the State of Virginia” written in 1781 President Thomas Jefferson wrote “ The instrument proper to them [slaves] is the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa” (Banjo History, Gibson) (Banjo Ancestors, Pestcoe). The combination of the banjo and fiddle was the first big hit of the minstrel shows (Early Banjo, Pestcoe). The Virginia Minstrels first appeared in 1843, in New York City (Early Banjo, Pestcoe). They dressed in black face and imitated the slaves on the plantation for the amusement of the white folk (Early Banjo, Pestcoe). These imitations often lead the whites to believe that the slaves enjoyed their bondage. It was during this period that the typically four stringed banjo gained it's fifth string. A minstrel performer, Joel Walker Sweeney, took credit for adding the fifth string (the thumb string) to the banjo. Mr. Sweeney like so many other whites, most likely stole his claim from the Africans (Early Banjo, Pestcoe). There are many varieties of the West African folk lute that sport a short string to be plucked only with the thumb. There is also a piece of folk art to prove this from an anonymous painter circa 1790 hung in the Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Va, which clearly shows a gourd instrument with a long neck that has a fifth string that is only about half the length of the others (Early Banjo, Pestcoe). These 5-string banjo's where round (made from bent wood stave to make a circle), while the African style banjo's were made from gourd which are irregular and typically more oval shaped (The 5-String Banjo, Pestcoe). The skins where generally tacked on, thus the name, the tack head banjo (The 5-String Banjo, Pestcoe). By the 1840's the skins where fastened like modern drum heads (The 5-String Banjo, Pestcoe). The next big improvement to the banjo was frets. While some banjo makers where adding frets as early as the 1850's, they didn’t become the standard until the end of the 19th century (The 5-String Banjo, Pestcoe). At this point we had something that we would recognize today as a 5-string banjo.
Before bluegrass there was already a strong blues sound coming from the mountains of Kentucky. Jimmie Rodgers, the “father” of country music was steeped in blues. While he worked and traveled through Mississippi on the railroads he had many opportunity to come in contact with and learn from blues musicians (History Jimmy Rodgers, Lilly). Riley Puckett was one of these country musicians who played the mountain blues (Rural Roots Bluegrass, Erbson, 53). Puckett was blinded as a child and still managed to learn the banjo and the guitar (Rural Roots Bluegrass, Erbson, 53). He was one of the first artist to record “Blue ridge Mountain Blues” and often played with one of early country musics best mandolin players Ted Hawkins. Bessie Smith was another prominent African American blues singer from Kentucky in the 1920's. She made her way around the state traveling with vaudeville acts. Bill Monroe, the “father” of bluegrass, studied under a man called Arnold Shultz, an African American blues musician (Rural Roots Bluegrass, Erbson, 53).
Jazz also played a role in defining the bluegrass sound. Kenny Baker, the sometimes fiddler for the Bluegrass Boys, the man who Bill Monroe often introduced as the best fiddler in bluegrass, had a distinctive jazz sound (Bluegrass, Rosenburg, 306). Although his father was a fiddler, Baker did not undertake this instrument under any family obligation (Bluegrass, Rosenburg, 306). He wasn't interested in the old-time fiddle that his father played (Bluegrass, Rosenburg, 306). In his younger days he was a guitarist, it wasn't until he got older and heard the music of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller (Bluegrass, Rosenburg, 306). Even before Bill Monroe had arranged the Bluegrass Boys, when he was playing with the Monroe Brothers he had a very jazzy mandolin technique. While there was a moment of silence during a song Bill would intrude with snappy mandolin licks similar to the improvisation of a jazz trumpeter (Bluegrass Breakdown, Cantwell, 50). Monroe even talks about his music like you would expect to hear a jazz musician. He refers to the musics ability to talk. He says “The notes will work the same as the words, they'll do lots of things, (and) if you want to put yourself in there and just be thinking like the music goes” (Bluegrass Breakdown, Cantwell, 140). He even calls bluegrass the jazz of country music. We see a huge jazz influence on later bluegrass as well. In the 1970's bluegrass begins to change a little. The people who are playing this new bluegrass are from the “hippie” crowd. Folks like Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, these people where not mountain folk but had a background in bluegrass, and probably smelled worse than the original mountain folk anyway. They still played bluegrass but with a much more improvisational technique. Grisman released a few albums/recording sessions including Jerry Garcia, all playing traditional style music (All Music, Bogdanov, 450). The last of the three was titled “The Pizza Tapes” because as the story goes Garcia's cassette of this session was stolen by a pizza delivery boy (All Music, Bogdanov, 450). This recording features David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, and bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice (All Music, Bogdanov, 450). Many of the songs are traditional songs but they all feature heavy improvisation (All Music, Bogdanov, 450).
It's easy to see a ragtime influence in the Scruggs style banjo roll. Ragtime was also a byproduct of the minstrel show. After emancipation blacks were working in the minstrel performances and changed banjo parts of the old plantation cakewalking songs from clawhammer (a method of strumming the banjo with the fingernails like a claw and using the thumb as a hammer on the short string) to three finger picking style which closely resembles later ragtime songs (Bluegrass Breakdown, Cantwell, 104). Like the banjo, the minstrel show is what brought this three finger picking style, later to be refined by Earl Scruggs, to the mountains of Kentucky (Bluegrass Breakdown, Cantwell, 104). In fact the first ragtime piano piece “New Coon In Town” by J S Putnum was subtitled “a banjo imitation” (Bluegrass Breakdown, Cantwell, 104). So it's no surprise that later banjo music has a ragtime sound.There many ragtime banjoists in the early 20th century. Fred Van Eps is probably the most notable. His music consisted of repetitions of quickly played notes with a 3 finger picking style (Bluegrass Breakdown, Cantwell, 104). Scruggs himself was steeped in ragtime banjo, which really showed through when he created “Scruggs style picking” which is what gives bluegrass its distinctive sound (Bluegrass Breakdown, Cantwell, 104). It's definitely no secret that ragtime's influence on bluegrass is strong when you hear songs like “The Bugle Call Rag” by Bill Monroe, “The Black Mountain Rag” by Doc Watson.
Scottish fiddle music and Irish Celtic music came to early America with influx of of immigrants from the British Isles. It quickly became interwoven with American traditional music. The fiddle more then any instrument really carried the Scotch/Irish sound into American traditional. The reason the fiddle carried over so much is because it was the instrument that people got the most joy from. It was the centerpiece of music played at bar or festival. The fiddle is an instrument that can sing and it makes people want to dance. But, it's because it became so ingrained in American traditional music that's it's difficult to prove the relation between Gaelic music and bluegrass. However the Celtic influence is unmistakable when you hear “Turkey in the Straw” or “Arkansas Traveler” (Complete Celtic Banjo, Hanway, 11).
Now as I mentioned earlier, Bill Monroe is credited with being the father of bluegrass, due his creation of the Bluegrass Boys. Others think that bluegrass music didn't really get it's start until Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt joined the band in 1945 (Bluegrass Tune book, Matteson, 9). Their argument goes, when they left the Bluegrass Boys in 1948 to form their own band, The Foggy Mountain Boys, their fans wanted to hear some of the old songs from their days with Monroe and the Bluegrass boys. They would shout “Play some of that bluegrass music!” (Kentuck's Bluegrass Music, Claypool, 7). Scruggs and Flatt say that it was the people who loved the music that gave it its name and that Bill Monroe just had a band that called it bluegrass, not they were playing bluegrass music (Kentuck's Bluegrass Music, Claypool, 7). . That being said, it was Bill Monroe who first solidified the bluegrass sound and had all the components that future bluegrass bands would emulate (Kentuck's Bluegrass Music, Claypool, 7).
It was after the separation of Scruggs and Flatt that bluegrass music started to develop. From the 50's through the late sixties there were many more artists that wanted to get involved in bluegrass. Many of these new additions, such as, The Osborne's, The Sullivan’s, The Coon Creek Girls, Merle Travis, Grandpa Jones, Doc Watson, and many others, brought a more country or gospel sound to bluegrass. People like this new bluegrass, and it during this time period that hits such as “Rocky Top” by the Osborne's were released. There was also an article in Esquire Magazine by Alan Lomax in 1959 here he defines bluegrass as “one of the styles that transformed American music”. Shortly after, the bluegrass festival came into existence. The most popular festival was established by Bill Monroe in Indiana in 1967, but there are hundreds of bluegrass festivals around the country today (Kentuck's Bluegrass Music, Claypool, 9).
Into the 70's bluegrass changing again. As mentioned earlier, it was around this time that bluegrass's audience started to grow in a new direction. Sam bush was part of this revolution, and it was one his band mates, Ebo Walker that coined the phrase “Newgrass” for this new style of avant-garde bluegrass . There were a lot of other musicians who took part in this newgrass. Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Tony Rice to name a few. They added new chord progressions, more of an improvisational jazz feel, new instruments like the piano. They wanted to offer an alternative to older, more somber bluegrass of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley's day (Kentuck's Bluegrass Music, Claypool, 9).
Bluegrass still exists in American Popular culture to this day. It has recently seen a revival mainly due to the release of the movie “O' brother where art thou” in 2000. it featured big mane actors like George Clooney and John Goodman and sported a sountrack steeped in old-time and bluegrass music. It featured artists like Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss. There is also a new wave of bluegrass bands that come from all over the country. Old Crowe Medicine Show originated in New York City and later settled in North Carolina. The Yonder Mountain String Band hails from Boulder, Colorado. They both share a similar sound however. They have once again added new elements to bluegrass, this time a more rock sound, particularly “jam” music, which has roots with the Grateful Dead. Bluegrass is a music so uniquely American that it wasn't able to come about until the rest of the world had something to contribute, just like America itself.