Bluegrass: An Alternate History

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Like Western Classical music and various other genres or musical styles, bluegrass has been assessed as and plagued by the notion that it is a static and dying music. Yet, the “death of bluegrass” conversation pivots away from other such discussions in the fact that the issues mentioned are rarely economic or practical: but instead musical. Due to its unique origins, characteristics, and practitioners, which will be discussed in the following sections, bluegrass’s relatively short history has been consumed with constant discussions of what this music should be, what it is meant to portray, and who it is meant to portray towards. From the first mentions of the word “bluegrass” in the 1950s when referring to the requests made towards Flatt and Scruggs, to the creation of the world’s first “bluegrass” festivals from the likes of Carlton Haney, to most recently the rise in main stream popularity of the style thanks to films such as Oh Brother Where are Art Thou?, one man has been made to epitomize the answer to all three existential questions: Bill Monroe.

Bill Monroe was a curious, stubborn, and dedicated man who, stuck playing the undesirable mandolin in his family band, made the mandolin a staple instrument in his own future musical synthesis. His curiosity is responsible for the brilliance of this synthesis, and its novel ability to refer to and appreciate a vast amount of music, as well as turn it into something profitable in the post-World War Two era. Yet his stubbornness is also responsible for the music’s relatively static nature due to his insistence that the style be played solely how he envisioned. While innovation did come to bluegrass, these innovations needed to be filtered through, and approved, by Monroe if they were to be accepted. Like a monarchy or dictatorship, all great deeds ran through the leader in terms of responsibility as well as judgement: Monroe is seen as both creator and protector.
While folklore and bluegrass musicologists of the past have fallen prey to Monroe-mania and often times romanticized and sensationalized Monroe’s contributions to the style, those same writers such as Robert Cantwell and Neil Rosenberg have given us countless materials which can tell a much more nuanced and profitable story, a story that will in countless ways remove stigmas of white supremacy, nostalgia, and detrimental conservatism in favor of diversity, innovation, and notions of forward-thinking ideals.
A story that begins with seventeenth century French dance culture, a Francophile English king, and one of the first examples of folk ideology and orientalism in the western world. A story that continues with a romanticized look at the “folk” cultures of Scotland and Ireland with a great musical interest leading to England’s implementation of countless fiddle tunes and folk ballads that would move to the new world in the eighteenth century. A fiddle centered instrumental culture, one based on the reel and jig traditions of western Europe, meets the banjo centered styles of African slaves brought to America carrying with them one of the sole vestiges of their past cultures across the Atlantic. These two seemingly opposite and distant, yet debatably intertwined and relatively cooperative groups, begin to fuse their musical instruments as well as their musical styles together to create the old-time fiddle and banjo sound that would become a hallmark of both the old-time and bluegrass style. Influence from black banjo players would also instigate America’s first “popular” style: the minstrel song. The popularity of these songs in the mid-nineteenth century would be a building block for the string bands that would become relevant in the early twentieth century not only on records in the then rising hillbilly genre, but in square dances and hoedowns in the south. These venues would also be the place where Monroe learned his musical style during his childhood. A product of his environment in terms of childhood location, as well as popular influence due to his success with Charlie Monroe in the era of brother duets in the 1930s, Bill Monroe was allowed to synthesize these elements into a genre he took credit for, and vowed to never dilute due to his emotional connection and monetary success.

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