One of the things I love about Bluegrass music is the stories. Here are some common themes:
This is not unique to bluegrass, by any means. But the bluegrass renderings of this story have some really fun subthemes. One is “You Don’t Love Me, I Might As Well Die” – the standard for this is the beautiful song “Bury Me Beneath the Willow”. What teenager hasn’t felt this way? “All the Good Times Are Past and Gone” is another good example. Young lovestruck people can’t be expected to have perspective on this pain. I like to think songs like this actually saved some lives.
An alternative on this theme is searching for someone who’s fled. “On and On” speaks of searching endlessly for a lost love. How does this ever work? Roaming town to town, trying to find a lost love? Even if you find him or her, how will you convince this person to reconsider their actions? The hopelessness of this quest is irresistible, moving and easy to identify with.
To be fair, this is actually an offshoot of the previous category, albeit with a much darker outcome. In this genre of song, the jilted lover chooses violence to deal with the heartbreak, and several songs (“Knoxville Girl”, “Banks of the Ohio”, “Down in the Willow Garden’) plumb those depths. In all of these cases, the perpetrator meets a sad, regretful end. This guy is usually named “Willy”, and he is tortured by his life choices, and made his mother very sad.
Sooner or later, every family knows tragedy, but I think in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they encountered it more often than we now do. There can be no deeper loss than the death of a child, yet many families had to deal with it. Bluegrass songs never shied away from this pain, and I have no doubt these morbid songs brought comfort to listeners. Songs like “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling”, and “Dreadful Snake” make us experience this pain, and for those who know the pain firsthand, I imagine it’s cathartic to hear these songs. Songs like “Footprints in the Snow” tell about near misses, and that’s an experience that almost every parent can relate to.
Love of Home
In the rural economy, a successful farmer might hope to pass his farm onto one of his children. But the wealth of the farm couldn’t be divided by the number of surviving offspring, so many of them took to the road to find their fortunes. Some found it, some didn’t, but it’s easy to imagine many of these wayward youths being separately homesick. One of bluegrass’ most effective themes is longing for the old homestead and this is one its most universal appeals. Yes the songs sing about cabins with their lights, wagon wheels against a pile of hay, but the sentiment is much more general – once you leave home, what you come back will never be quite the same.
In summary, Bluegrass music’s themes are timeless – rooted in families and life, and while they may seem homespun and rural, the truths are actually universal.