Bluegrass and Philosophy

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As Ripley might say, “Believe it or Not” there is a connection. Although if you try to find a connection between St. Augustine and Bluegrass you find that “Kentucky bluegrass and St. Augustine have little in common other than being green and widely used for lawns”. However, one thing leads to another and the other is based upon the one thing to begin with. It sounds somewhat obvious, but it would appear that we frequently overlook the “one thing” that leads to the other. That is how we end up with so many responses similar to, “I don’t know; that is how we have always done it”. Yet, an understanding of how and why we have always done it that way may yield a different way or a better way based on developments and changes since the “one thing” became an issue. Both Bluegrass and Philosophy have followed this pattern; each successive philosopher adding to the theories and applications of the previous while others have taken a divergent path from the previous while maintaining some of the basic goals of philosophy. Bluegrass seems to have followed a similar path of building on the foundations while, at times, diverging in new directions.  

If we want to look at the foundations it would appear the obvious starting point would be to look at the “Fathers of Bluegrass and Philosophy” respectively. That is pretty easy for Bluegrass as we have to look no farther than Bill Monroe. Surely everyone agrees that Bill gave us Bluegrass music and he claimed it as “his” music; just ask Flatt and Scruggs about that one. On the surface philosophy would appear similarly easy; look no further than Socrates. Socrates was a Greek philosopher who lived in 469/470-399 BC and is considered the father of western philosophy. He influenced many, although there is no record of him actually writing anything down. We know about his teaching through his most famous student Plato who subsequently taught Aristotle who became the tutor for Alexander the Great. Yet, later we get René Descartes (1596 – 1650), the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, who was a French philosopher, mathematician, scientist and writer of the Age of Reason. Much of subsequent Western philosophy can be seen as a response to Descartes’ writings. He is responsible for one of the best-known quotations in philosophy: “I think, therefore I am”. Both Socrates and Descartes influenced others like Thomas Hobbes who gave us “Leviathan” in 1651 that established the foundation for most of western Political Philosophy and John Locke, who along with Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was one of the originators of Contractarianism (or Social Contract Theory). Social Contract Theory formed the theoretical groundwork of democracy, republicanism and modern Liberalism and Libertarianism. Locke is sometimes referred to as the “Philosopher of Freedom”, and his political views influenced both the American and French Revolutions. Yes, it does appear that one thing leads to another, but the one thing did not start with Bill and Socrates.

Believe it or not, there is an argument to be made that both Bill and Socrates owe a great deal to Pythagoras. Yes, Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 – 490 B.C.) who was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and mathematician. It would appear that he was another “Father” of sorts As a mathematician, he is known as the “father of numbers” or as the first pure mathematician, and is best known for his Pythagorean Theorem on the relation between the sides of a right triangle, the concept of square numbers and square roots, and the discovery of the golden ratio. You may recall something about these things from a Geometry or Algebra class at some point. However, Pythagoras was also very interested in music, and wanted to improve the music of his day, which he believed was not harmonious enough and was too hectic. He reportedly noticed the sounds coming from the blacksmith’s shop and through experimentation with different lengths of steel bars discovered that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations. “Pythagorean tuning” is a system of musical tuning in which the frequency relationships of all intervals are based on the ratio 3:2 (a stack of perfect fifths). This tuning produced a series of perfectly harmonious notes that ascended in frequency as the bars got shorter; well, perfectly harmonious for bars one through twelve anyway. The thirteenth division created an overlap of tones that sounded awful (said to be like a wolf howling; thus the term “wolf tones” although this term did not come until much later during the mid 1600s). So our current twelve note system of music originated from Pythagoras whose solution to the wolf tones was to simply throw away the thirteenth bar and only play within the twelve that sounded harmonious.  This created issues for tuning that musicians worked around until Bach’s well-tempered keyboard in 1691, but that is another the story. The point is that even the Fathers of Bluegrass and Philosophy had something to build on.

By the time Bill formed the Bluegrass Boys in 1938, there had been a great deal of music played throughout Appalachia where the immigrants from the old world who brought their own instruments and musical traditions with them collided together in the natural path of least resistance as folks moved west. As stated in an earlier column, the Mandolin from Italy, the guitar from Spain, the Fiddle from Ireland, and the Banjo from Africa came together for the first time as immigrants moved West for various reasons (origins of each instrument can be traced in more detail, but these general origins in relation to how they came together in the New World seems sufficient to demonstrate how bluegrass instrumentation originated). The Billy Boy Bands that gave us the first Hillbilly music that would continue to develop under the genre of folk or mountain music provided the foundations that Bill Monroe would experiment with until he put together the first version of the Bluegrass Boys in Atlanta, Georgia in 1938 and recorded his first solo album for RCA Victor in 1940. Bluegrass music was born and throughout the tenure of the Bluegrass Boys more than 150 musicians rotated through the band; sort of like Socrates and his students. You will recognize a lot of the names, many of whom continued to influence the direction of Bluegrass music on their own. These folks include: singer/guitarists Clyde Moody, Lester Flatt, Jack Cook, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Roland White, Roland Dunn and Doug Green; banjo players Earl Scruggs, Buck Trent, Don Reno, Stringbean, Sonny Osborne, and Bill Keith; and fiddlers Tommy Magness, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements, Byron Berline, Kenny Baker, Bobby Hicks, Gordon Terry, and Glen Duncan.

There was another fella who wasn’t necessarily a Bluegrass Boy in Bill’s band, but did get his start with a former Bluegrass Boy. J.D. Crowe got his first job as a banjo picker for Jimmy Martin in the mid-1950s. He would go on to form a group that while not together for a long time, probably provided the most influential recording for modern Bluegrass. J.D. Crowe and the New South, typically known by its catalogue number – “Rounder 0044”, incorporated traditional bluegrass instrumentation with songs from other genres. Short lived as a band, this one recording changed the nature and direction of bluegrass music to an extent that everything after it has to be viewed in light of this album. You have probably heard and likely played many of the tunes from this record; “Old Home Place”, “Cryin’ Holy”, “Some Old Day”, and others. Today this album is considered a landmark in bluegrass music without which no collection is complete; if you haven’t listened to it, you should. In this respect, J.D. Crowe and the New South could be called the “Father of Modern Bluegrass” in the same way Descartes is called the “Father of Modern Philosophy”. One thing leads to another and hopefully there is someone along the way that understands the “how” and the “why”. Moreover, there will undoubtedly be others that follow from these landmarks, each leaving their mark along the way. Who knows, perhaps one of those young fellas in Cane Mill Road or that young guitar picker and singer, Pressley Barker, will provide the next step in the evolution of Bluegrass. Perhaps it is you! Of course there is always the other side of this analysis that says, “Who cares about all of this philosophical mumbo jumbo; let’s play some music and have fun”. Perhaps that is the underlying philosophy after all.

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