Master’s Thesis Introduction

Jul 13, 2020 | Welcome Column

Hey Folks! Instead of my usual album review, I thought I would share the introduction to my recently completed masters thesis! I hope y’all enjoy!
Bluegrass has simultaneously been recognized as an archaic folk music and a living, popular art form. Although what was to be later named “bluegrass” is played no earlier than 1939, the genre has been associated with archaic and romanticized symbols such as the banjo and fiddle. Bluegrass performers have also been given the responsibility of continuing past American traditions regardless of its lack of temporal connections to past tradition. Yet, if one thinks of bluegrass as a popular music designed for the evolving marketplace, it would seem to be in the bluegrass musician’s best interest to only allude to these romantic symbols when it is economically beneficial. The bluegrass musician then seems to be in a constant negotiation between historical weight and commercial pressures. The first person to confront this tension and to develop a definitive strategy was Bill Monroe.

Monroe’s extra-musical commercial strategies can be seen as connected to and inspired by the commercial strategies of record and radio industry leaders such as Ralph Peer and George D. Hay. This accounts for wanting to replicate Monroe’s commercial success, but it does not account for why people continue to adhere so strictly to his sound. This dedication to fidelity was inspired by the folk movement of the 1960s which saw folk music as a following of a societal ideal rather than the strict replication of songs. In emphasizing this, and Monroe’s dedication to his own synthesis which they took for timeless American folk music, it became expected of bluegrass musicians to continue his lineage.

This project will analyze both strands of Monroe’s strategy, both commercial and folk, and how the methodologies and strategies of these industries and organizations affected bluegrass’s current status and reputation. The hillbilly record industry, which will be discussed in chapter one, did not cross paths with Monroe until the 1930s, but had laid the groundwork for bluegrass’s future connection to Southern values. The record industry was also responsible for a new copyrighting process that emphasized musical characteristics that would come to resemble Monroe’s. In contrast to the ASCAP division of labor songwriting process, A&R men such as Polk Brockman and Ralph Peer created a system where they would receive earnings for the song writing royalties, while giving the musicians one-time performance fees. Musically, in order to sell to their southern, rural clientele, they needed songs that represented old southern values, yet did not rely on traditional songs. If the songs were traditional, they needed to be arranged differently so that they could receive royalties. Similar to how many regard bluegrass today, the music sold by hillbilly records had to either be new and sound old, or be old and sound new. This dichotomy is analyzed through the music of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, who would symbolize this divide during the heyday of the hillbilly record industry in 1927.

    Changing technologies such as the radio, analyzed in chapter two, ushered in new styles and new strategies for cultivating authenticity. While a recording alluding to events such as a barn dance was possible with a phonograph, the radio allowed a nuanced, energetic, and live recreation of events. Instead of selling records, the purpose of these radio programs was to sell advertisements. Two of the most successful radio programs were the National Barn Dance in Chicago, appealing to a more universal rural and urban divide, and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, which desired to stress southern values and southern artists. Bill Monroe, the mandolinist in his brother duet with guitarist Charlie, was a part of the rising popularity of brother duets during this time. Economically, this could be justified by simply wanting to pay less for performers. Aesthetically, it calls on the audience’s desire for euphonious singing. While family acts made the performers relatable to the listeners, individual personal connection was found to be even more economically beneficial. This ushered in a hillbilly version of the star system. In this system, it was the responsibility of the star to convince the audience that they were a personal friend, and had the same background and values as the listeners. In other words, radio advertisers discovered that the audience, being the ones buying the products, should have input on what should be performed. Bill Monroe not only excelled at being relatable and personable to rural audiences, but became a star on the Grand Ole Opry with his novel sound. This sound would lead the way to Monroe’s perfected bluegrass synthesis in 1946. Today, bluegrass has followed this path of audience ownership and agency. Consequently, bluegrass has a reputation of having a fiery yet committed fan base that thinks of the performers as friends rather than professionals.

    These first two chapters explain the changing tastes and expectations of the audience, implying the evolutionary nature of bluegrass’ musical ancestors, but do not explain how and why bluegrass has attempted to separate itself from the constantly evolving mainstream musical landscape. Chapter three attempts to justify these intentions by investigating the history of the American folk movement. Originally designed to find the European roots of American music, the theory of functionalism, which will be discussed in chapter three, allowed American folklorists to perceive American folk music as an important tool for their own American society. Unfortunately, it emphasized the communal purposes of folk music while still subscribing to the European belief that folk music must be obscure and static. While this chapter analyzes this predicament through Leadbelly and their work with the Lomaxes, bluegrass today has built a up a similar reputation. To many, bluegrass is America’s folk music, obscure, timeless, and static.

    This reputation remains even though the musical ingredients synthesized by Monroe to create bluegrass, which will be discussed in detail in chapter four, all have roots in popular traditions of the twentieth century. For example, the final ingredient added, the five-string banjo, implements ragtime-inspired arpeggiations. Possibly because it combined all these previously successful instrumental styles, bluegrass was initially very poplar in the 1940s and gained many listeners and recreators. Yet, like the audience and technological changes that occurred in the 1920s, commercial improvements came with ramifications. With the growing respectability of hillbilly music, partially because of the creation of bluegrass, many past performers who were part of the hillbilly record or radio industry became obsolete. Not only did change occur in the industries, but the 1950s saw the demographics of the original hillbilly audience change. The urban modernization that was feared in the 1920s, leading to the creation of hillbilly music in the first place, had finally occurred to such an extent that it was believed that a rural, southern, hillbilly demographic was too small to have music designed for it. Stubborn both in terms of how his music would sound and who he would perform to, Monroe continued to perform music for less attended, but more committed crowds that fit this bygone hillbilly demographic.

    By the 1950s, an opposing strategy appealing to non-hillbilly audiences was implemented with great success by Monroe’s former bandmates Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Scruggs, the banjo player who had debatably jumpstarted the synthesis in the first place, had transformed Monroe’s music into a banjo-centered sound which satisfied both consumers and folklorists alike. This ability to entertain both common, fashion-bound audiences, and educated, historically-bound folklorists, had led to immense success in the folk festival circuit and on sponsored radio shows. Chapter five will explain how a Scruggs and banjo centered music of the 1950s changed back to a Monroe-centric music by 1962 with the help of folklorists Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler. Rinzler, Monroe’s future agent, emphasized a faithfulness not to the music itself, but to the people it was meant to entertain. Under this guise, it was not the immensely famous and successful Scruggs who was the leader of bluegrass, but the dedicated and stubborn Monroe.

    Today, under Monroe’s influence, bluegrass musicians remain more dedicated to their origins than other popular music genres. This privileging of the original style has resulted in smaller, but more dedicated audiences that claim an ownership over the musical product. Other musicians, appreciating the Monroe Synthesis but desiring to diversify their audiences, transform the synthesis in ways that differ from the desires of the dedicated fan base. For example, bands that implement extended solos or use electronic instruments are considered suspect to many fans who emphasize bluegrass’s traditional aspects. Instead of picking a side in this debate, this paper hopes to illuminate how bluegrass, due to its connections with both popular music industries and the folk movement, should advertise itself as a unique musical genre with a novel extra-musical dimension.  

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