Basking in the Vernacular

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Last week, I wrote about how improvised music became popular music, through a combination of factors – including its visceral appeal, and the emergence of mass media. I want to discuss the appeal a little more, by broadening that argument to include vernacular music – which was actually the term the author of “Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans” (Thomas Brothers) used.

In his context, “vernacular” meant music for common consumption by common people – we use to term for speech patterns and vocabularies as well. And there’s where his point circles back to bluegrass very nicely – just as his description of the rise of music that lends itself – thrives on it, in fact – to improvisation (blues, jazz, bluegrass.)
This morning, I had some toast for breakfast (OK, maybe some sausage as well), and when I was done and cleaning up, I saw the uncovered butter dish and thought, “I better cover that up or flies will get on it.”, which immediately brought to mind the lyric “Flies in the buttermilk shoo fly, shoo!” from “Skip to My Lou”.
I have always loved bluegrass lyrics because they generally describe very real slices of life in the minds of the singers. The specific circumstances are generally peculiar to rural life decades (generations!) ago, and to me, they bring that era and locale to mind in a way no dusty history book could. History books have facts and dates, but they can’t put us in the minds of the people that lived then. Lyrics that have been handed down from generation to generation can do this, very well.
I am now reading Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi”, and one of the things that made Twain originally popular (aside from his keen eye and dead-on wit) were, he wrote whole books in the vernacular of the day, and it’s a joy to step outside of dry reporting and get the feel of life in that bygone era.
So, when I hear a bluegrass song about a fellow trying to impress a girl he only sees once a month in church, only to have her heart stolen by someone who managed to see her just a time or two more often, it’s poignant. The demands on this fellow’s time and the difficulties of travel into town meant he could only pitch woo once a week, and he knows he has to make it count, and for the days leading up to Sundays, he’s thinking about what he’s going to say and stresses over what her responses will be (dreading the worse and hoping for the best).
This is not terribly different than my early teen agonies over calling a girl on the phone and dreading coming off like a gibbering idiot (which did happen, of course.)
Many bluegrass lyrics are near nonsense just designed to provide a vocal contribution to a fiddle melody (“Bile The Cabbage Down” for example), but these still convey a sense of the life from this they sprang, and that adds tremendously to the music’s appeal – for me at least.. Nobody wants flies in their buttermilk, right?

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