The Making of the Old Southern Sound, Bluegrass Blues by Robert Cantwell. 1992, De Capo Press ISBNO-306-80495-6
BLUEGRASS is the true American folk music. This music has its origins in the styles of the original settlers, English, Scots-Irish and West African Negro. Country music, Nashville style and Jazz, in the words of Mr. Cantwell, the former "vulgar and ostentatious" the latter "a tribal bonfire...a form of brigandage rending the fabric of white music," both developed at a later date.
In the beginning was the banjo and the fiddle. The music of these two instruments are identified with a period before the Civil War. The banjo in its four stringed version came from West Africa with the slave trade. Mentioned by Thomas Jefferson as far back as 1781, in its five stringed version it is the only indigenous American musical instrument. Being an African instrument in its original four string form it is essentially percusive, a "drum with strings". The fiddle sailed to America via the British Isles, but its origins go back to the lute of later Medieval times.
Much has been written about the influence of black music on the bluegrass style. The strict and severe style of the English folk ballad and Scots-Irish lament had time in the isolation of the Appalachian mountains to develop a backwoods character; the music became more loose and improvisational. In this the black influence has been felt, but Mr. Cantwell suggests that this freedom may have gone with the territory, so to speak, an effect of the independent lifestyle of the settlers. Western (European) music is distinct from the rest of the world's music in that it doesn't mimic natural sound, eg. birdsong. In Mr. Cantwell's words Western music, "a nearly absolute mathematics-like independence of other forms of expression," is tied to nothing else "in nature but the physcial properties of sound". Black music, as all other forms of non- Western folk music, is tied to dance, ritual, poetry and drama in mimicry and subtlety of voice expression. In close proximity to the primitive style, bluegrass made the banjo talk and the fiddle wail and cry. "Jubilus" is the Latin word for joyful call or country cry and is often heard in bluegrass music. It can be found in black tradition also, as in the field hollers and the shouting of the black musicians Leadbelly and Howling Wolf. This "high and lonesome sound", as bluegrass is often described, may have its origins in the Biblical literalism native to eastern Kentucky in the heart of the Appalachian range. The practices of foot-washing, snake-handling, speaking in tongues and baptism by immersion are also found here. The high pitched singing associated with bluegrass is found in primitive Baptist hymns, "Lift up thy voice like a trumpet" (Isaiah 58:1). Mr. Cantwell suggests the singing style as another literal interpretation. Who influenced whom? Black and white music may have a parallel tradition in this instance.
But what is bluegrass music? As banjo and fiddle music was spread by the minstrel show and travelling circus, bluegrass was spread by the wireless. Mandolin player, vocalist and band leader Bill Monroe of Kentucky is regarded as the father of the sound. In 1945, Monroe, who claims to have been heavily influenced by black musical traditions, took the old hilly-billy sound and "modernised" it. He gave it an upbeat rhythm, organized it as a tight ensemble and featured improved solo parts. All of these features played well over the wireless and rekindled interest in old-time music all over the southland. The popularity of bluegrass, named after Bill Monroe's band, the Bluegrass Boys, led to a search for unknown folk musicians still playing for their small circle of kin back in the hills. The old tunes were reinterpreted and given new life. Bluegrass in the 1950's and 1960's became part of the modern folk revival and was further spread northward. This new bluegrass style, in addition to the fiddle banjo, included the guitar, mandolin and standup bass to complete the ensemble. The guitar was never a popular instrument in the south until it gained popularity by way of the singing cowboy of Holllywood fame. It entered the bluegrass and American folk repertoire from the Spanish influence encountered in the south-west. The mandolin, which became another signature of the sound, thanks to Mr. Monroe's virtuosity, entered the States at the turn of the century when large numbers of Italians and other Southern Europeans emigrated to the States, bringing it with them. Along with other things Latin American in flavour it came into vogue in Victorian parlours. It spread to the American heartland through mail-order catalogues such as Sears Roebuck. Standup bass was added for depth and foundation when performing in large halls.
Drums have never featured in bluegrass. Mr Cantwell conjectures that "drums have been supressed since slavery days" in favour of melody instruments for "fear of the African drum and its power to inspire insurrection". The modern form of this "talking drum" music may be Rap music, which still has the power among blacks to incite to acts of violence, as witnessed often in the U.S. Despite influences to its style, bluegrass music remains true to the character, values and soul of the early Scots-Irish and English pioneers. Many bluegrass musicians today are from the Appalachian region and remain loyal to its traditions. Bands are often formed around families (The Lewis Family, The McLain Family) or brothers (Stanley Brothers, Osborne Brothers). For Mr. Cantwell, "...If the bluegrass band is not actually a family, it is one symbolically. It is patriarchal and masculine, a band of fathers and sons acting in defense of on behalf of and even sometimes in spite of, home, where of course, women reside. Symbolically the band is usually absent from home; an embassy of men sent from one household to another to defend a sister's honor, or a kind of junta, established to declare the rule of law in lawless territory, or only dad and the boys out all night on a coon hunt." (p.164)
This is the type of family America will need more of if she is to survive in any recognizable form. Mr. Cantwell juxtaposes this family to the jazz band, which is not a family but "a confederacy, a faction or fellowship formed out of rage....The old jazz band eventually disintigrated...sending out agents of improvisional espionage into the sanctuaries of European music to weaken and finally destroy such structures as rhythm and tonality." (p.165)
The themes of the bluegrass repertoire are often of home, sung in its praise as a piece of sanctuary and familial warmth. Loss of the old homestead or regret for having left it in search of work or to seek fortunes are on the sadly emotional side of this theme. Love lost or unrequited, a universal theme, is never treated trivially or vulgarized. Modern tunes often decry ecological destruction of the beloved land through strip-mining or development. Although many sentimental nineteenth century songs and old minstrel tunes have found their way in, bluegrass shows the influence of the subsconscious forces which brought the European romantic movement. Themes dealing with the purity of love, the idealizing of heroism and dreams of a more perfect world awaiting us make this evident. In concert advertisement and album covers we are brought
"into this romantic world by picturing the instruments alone...leaning against a rail fence or on a cabin porch, or on a fender of an old sedan, their necks crossed like the rifles of a bivouaced army. It is as if the instruments could make the music all by themselves, or as if the musicians transported to that other world, had decided not to return to this one." (p.224)
If there is such a thing as an analytical and intellectual accompaniment to this music, Mr. Cantwell's Bluegrass Breakdown is it. The refrain of the book is the life and career of Bill Monroe and is beautifully repeated and added onto from beginning to end. The treatment of the subject, although scholarly based, is also illuminated by poetically treated allegory and metaphor.
John A. Stavola