In the 1800s and early 1900s, descendants of Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants around the Appalachian mountains in Kentucky, Tennessee, the Virginias, and the Carolinas were still singing ballads from the old country. They also played dance music with fiddle. In this clip from the movie Songcatcher, directed by Maggie Greenwald, a musicologist collecting folk songs and an Appalachian orphan sings “Matty Groves,” which dates back to the 17th century.
The music was evolving from its European roots, though. Enslaved West Africans had introduced the banjo to the United States. Here’s Senegalese musician Sana Ndiaye playing the akonting (or ekonting), a related instrument to the banjo.
White banjo players performed in blackface as early as 1767, and during the Civil War, minstrel bands with the instruments sometimes entertained the troops. There’s a chilling image for you.
A lot of soldiers came home playing the banjo or wanting to learn. By the beginning of the 20th century, lots of people were also getting into the mandolin. Gospel, the songs of black workers, and jazz all influenced white musicians in the Appalachian region as well. To give you an idea of the kinds of music going into the mix, here’s the contemporary country legend Alison Krauss performing “Down to the River to Pray,” an old spiritual.
In 1939, an already popular singer and mandolin player from Kentucky named Bill Monroe formed his own band, The Blue Grass Boys, which would eventually give bluegrass music its name. The instruments were Monroe’s mandolin, a fiddle, a banjo, a guitar, and a bass. Here’s Monroe in the late 1980s or early 1990s, playing with his band and a younger man with remarkable hair.
Some guys named Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt were in Monroe’s band for a while before forming their own, the Foggy Mountain Boys. Their band included someone on Dobro, or resonating guitar. Here’s what that instrument looks like:
Here are the Foggy Mountain Boys playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” A “breakdown” is when each musician gets to improvise a solo, an idea adopted from jazz.
Here are two bluegrass songs I often heard and did not hate as a kid: the adorable “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and ”Rockytop,” about a man in the city feeling lonesome for the country. I sang them for Mr. Donovan in the car the other day, and he had never heard them before, which blew my mind. I had thought they were ubiquitous, but we grew up in different communities and different parts of the country.
I really like the plaintive, nasal tone in that last one, which you also hear in early blues recordings.
Here’s Jack White doing about my favorite Jack White thing ever, which is really saying something: “Wayfaring Stranger,” a song that dates to the early 19th century.
The 2004 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou did a lot to bring bluegrass and roots music to people’s attention. Dick Burnett, an almost-blind fiddler from Monticello, Kentucky, first published “Man of Constant Sorrow” in a songbook in 1913, and it’s probably based on an older folk song. Despite the mournful lyrics, this scene in the movie is very cheerful, with the KKK asswipe being literally run out of town on a rail.
Of course, the racially integrated band is probably a bit of wishful thinking, given the times, and despite black influences on the music, not many black people actually played or play bluegrass. A black banjo player blogged a little bit about this here.
The contemporary English rock band Mumford and Sons takes a lot of inspiration from bluegrass. Here’s their song in the trailer for the 2011 film version of Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold, which I still want to see.
But while most of Mumford and Sons songs are pretty slow, lots of bluegrass is dance music. And here’s how you dance to it! They say you should try everything once except incest and folk dancing, but folk dancing looks pretty fun.
I admire the musical skill of bluegrass musicians, and I appreciate the emotional honesty of the songs. As far as I can tell, no one’s acting tough, super sexy, or ironic and above it all. It’s kind of refreshing.