Bluegrass is a folk music all right, but don’t tell a folkie that. And you’d best not try plying folk music at a bluegrass jam. Last night, I played at a jam session that featured yet another folk music: blues. A week later, the same venue will host a jam with another musical genre that could be considered a form of folk music: Jazz.
So what IS a “folk music”, anyway? I’m not going to cheat and do any research – my answer would be: folk music is any music that’s handed down from generation to generation by oral (and aural) means, rather than by sheet music. By that definition, bluegrass, old timey and “folk” music certainly qualifies, and probably jazz, although a lot of jazz is painstakingly transcribed and shared by written means. But jazz also lends itself well to being shared by showing, too. The result of this method of preserving the music is, every subsequent retelling of the story adds something from the storyteller, like the children’s game where a story is whispered from person to person and comes out altogether different at the end.
When you share music by sharing it person to person, group to group, it allows for lots of cross-pollination of styles, songs and musical idioms. The music we all love, bluegrass, owes its existence to Bill Monroe’s melting pot of musical influences. Old timey string music, Scottish and Irish tunes, southern blues and spirituals – Bill combined them all and we’re still having fun with it.
If you learned bluegrass only as a fully formed musical art form, you might being missinga chance to bring experience with other folk styles to flavor your playing and singing. I think the same would apply to your listening habits.
When I was learning how to play rock music, I found it easier to be convincing if I took the trouble to learn the earlier styles of rock, and then sort of chart my development by building on those styles. I also tried to learn some blues, and incorporate that into my playing. Of course when I began playing bluegrass, I had to learn which influences enhanced my understanding of that music, and which were hindering it. I’m still trying to get that musical stew seasoned correctly.
So, for instance, if you really want to bring that blues sound to Blue Night, or Body and Soul, go to the source – listen to some Robert Johnson. If you like Flatt and Scruggs’ version of Saro Jane, you should also listen to Uncle Dave Macon’s much earlier version. In either case, you get to hear the raw material that your favorite bluegrass artists synthesized into the music you love. And if you venture deep into the pioneering artists’ works, you may hear a blues song or some old time gem and say, “Hey, I bet I could ‘grass that song up!”, and the next thing you know, you’re dazzling folks at your next jam with your insight and creativity!