The Bluegrass “Family”

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I find it interesting how it would appear that every organization or entity develops a culture of its own. Individuals that make up the group bring their own perspectives and views which combine with those of others and at some point a group dynamic appears. If you take the time to look around you will see this organizational culture everywhere. It is where you work, in the community where you live, the schools, the restaurants where you eat, and nearly everywhere else you look. If more than one person is gathered together, some form of organizational culture tends to emerge. Sometimes it is this organizational culture that forms the stereotypes associated with the organization or groups of similar people. Yet, in many cases the stereotype bears little resemblance to the individual members of the group (although in some cases the stereotype fits better than others; by the way stereotypes can be both good and bad). This is particularly true when we make artificial groupings of people based on their role vice the organization they actually belong to. Take for example the following list: Corporate CEOs, Soccer Moms, Construction Workers, Politicians, Office Clerks, Financial Planner, Wait Staff, or Criminal. Most folks probably had some kind of image or impression that arose by merely reading the above list due to the brain’s natural tendency take shortcuts. Just like many folks automatically get an image (good, bad, or neutral based on personal experience) when one is introduced to a new Banjo player, Guitarist, Bassist, Mandolin player, Fiddler, or any other instrument player. Our background and experiences tend to shape what we think as soon as we hear the instrument. However, we sometimes find out the initial image does not fit, or maybe it does, but the point is that we often mentally jump to conclusions with the slightest clues and certainly not enough information for a decision.

So what if we decided to artificially look at Bluegrass music as if it was as an Organized Crime Family? Sound crazy? Not really, after all the model has been used to characterize other entities. Probably one of the most notable has been the characterization of North Korea. The Kim family fills the role of a succession of Godfathers (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il, and now Kim Jung Un) dictating to the masses what to do and how to do it. Punishment for those that don’t comply ranges from banishment to execution (sometimes using anti-aircraft missiles as the instrument for added affect). Bill Monroe would most certainly be the Godfather of bluegrass, although he would likely hate the term if he was still around; early on he did not even want to promote Bluegrass as a genre of music, but would rather retain it as his own personal brand. There are the stories about how he was a disciplinarian when it came to “his” music. His own son being made to sit off stage because he forgot his hat for the performance and the stormy break up with Flatt & Scruggs resulting in the Foggy Mountain Boys claiming that they sang Folk Music not Bluegrass and Monroe not speaking with either of them for more than 20 years after they left his band. Musicians followed the path of his brother whom he fought physically and verbally, yet later musicians would simply be banished from the band. So it would appear that Bill had quite a bit of dictatorial spirit in him although it does not come close to the extremes provided by North Korea, it is not too far afield to liken it to the culture of an Organized Crime Family with him as the Godfather.

Then there is another problem, what kind of Family is the one we call Bluegrass? After all which model of organized crime are we using? Is Bluegrass more like the La Cosa Nostra, the Yakuza, the Triads, the Camorra, the Sinaloa Cartel, or the Solntsevskaya Bratva (The Russian Mafia with the Russian Business Network being the most internationally well-known as it focuses on cyber activities). Perhaps it is a little bit of all of them in some ways; for example the Russian Mafia is believed to be a highly decentralized confederation or the Triads who are considered to be a loose conglomeration of criminals while others like the Yakuza and Camorra have elaborate hierarchies that dictate every aspect of the organization. Bluegrass in different parts of the country or even at different jam venues takes on a different flavor. Some seem very dictatorial with a distinctive hierarchy and pecking order while others seem less organized. Perhaps some are guided by the “What would Bill do” syndrome while others are more free ranging. It reminds me of a fella named Bud who would go absolutely crazy and try to stop a song if it was not being done exactly the way Bill did it. Of course, that didn’t last long once Bud understood that none of the folks playing was Bill Monroe and therefore could not do the tune like Bill did. However, it did not stop him from trying. That particular jam most certainly would have ended with some executions in places like North Korea, but fortunately we were only in a firehouse in coastal North Carolina. However, Bud did hold a grudge for a while, but it certainly did not last 20 years.

At this point, if you are still reading, you may be asking yourself what does any of this talk about organizational structure, stereotypes, and crime families have to do with bluegrass music. It boils down to a short story about a Fiddler’s Convention that I observed a couple of weeks ago. I told some folks I was going and they said, “That is Old Time; I don’t think I want to do that” in a very disdainful tone. I said, “You don’t have to go, but I am going; just thought you might like to check it out and play a few tunes”. I did not really try to convince them, but simply informed them I was going anyway when they decided that they would go. However, the whole way there was talk about all of the “bad” stuff we should expect as bluegrass jammers going to an Old Time Fiddler’s Convention. However, just a few hours at the convention and these folks were having the time of their life playing music, which went on until about 2 AM. After initially stating that they would probably only go the first day for a few hours, they suddenly decided that they had to return the second day to jam some more. All the way home they had nothing but great things to say about how much fun they had and how they looked forward to going to another Fiddler’s Convention in the future. I could not resist asking them about how they would deal with all of the “bad” stuff they were espousing 48 hours earlier which gave everybody a good laugh.

Sure, I have been to some Old Time jams that I did not necessarily like. However, I can say the same about some bluegrass jams. It reminds me of a recent student who lamented, “That is not how we do it in Texas”. Yet, after talking to him a while I found out he attended the same jam every week and had never been to another jam anywhere. From this he concluded that is how it works all over Texas and that was the only way do a particular tune or conduct a jam. The point is we are a product of our own experiences and we do often make conclusions based on some perceived stereotype that results from organizational culture. However we can overcome some of these things if we are willing to commit to having fun playing music while exploring new venues to jam. Some you may find you do not like as much as others, but we should try to keep that experience in context as a sample of one. Lest we forget that Bill experimented with a lot of different instrument combinations to include the accordion and the banjo as accompaniment for his mandolin before settling on what became the “standard” bluegrass arrangement. Bluegrass music is comprised of a lot of different styles and musical traditions from around the globe and according to Flatt & Scruggs, the Foggy Mountain Boys played Folk Music. So don’t be afraid to venture out and play some music and have some fun while you are at it. You may find that there are a bunch of people there who want to have fun playing music just like you and you might learn something at the same time. I am pretty sure there will be no executions, however you might experience two banjo players that simultaneously decide to stand on either side of you while seated. It is not quite the same as execution by anti-aircraft missile, but you will probably hope for banishment at that point.

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