Adventures in Listening: Old-Timey Bluegrass

When I was little, this godawful TV show called Hee Haw (don’t look it up on YouTube; spare yourself) droned in the background as we visited my grandparents. I associated country music with unfunny comedy skits, and mostly, I hated it. At home, we listened to good things, like classic rock. The other day, though, I decided to check out some roots bluegrass music and, guess what, it’s pretty cool and has a fascinating history.
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.

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Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

5 thoughts on “Adventures in Listening: Old-Timey Bluegrass”

  1. Mr. Dormouse grew up listening to a lot of bluegrass music–his dad even plays harmonica–and when we were first dating, he then discovered a lot of “newgrass” musicians, which are the younger musicians who have taken bluegrass and added their own spins to it. As a result, Ide listened to a lot of it, and it’s really great! I really like folk music because, as you put it, no one is acting tough and there’s an emotional freeness to it that is exuberating to listen to.

    The development of bluegrass music reminds me of the development of a few American dances, and I think it’s because they developed in tandem with the music. I started learning how to tap dance in the last few years, and my teacher told us how tap dancing got started as a blend of traditional African dancing–brought over to the US by slaves–and clogging that is more common in Appalachia. Clogging comes from Irish and Scottish step dancing. Tap is a derivative of all these dance styles, but the steps are typically lower to the ground. There is actually a tap step called the Irish because it looks like Irish step dancing.

    And now I want to dance…

  2. I never was a huge fan of more bluegrass-y country, but I’ve been getting more into it from the folk/indie side of things, I guess. With Mumford and Sons and the Civil Wars, I’ve started liking the banjos and fiddles and the rhythmic patterns of some of the music. Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars is probably my favorite of that type.

    I’m a huge country fan, but mostly more modern country. I’m not much of a “classic” music fan, since I don’t even really care for classic rock, and older country is even less to my taste. I’m a huge Eric Church fan, and I love a wide variety of the country music that’s out right now.

    I was just wondering the other day why there were mostly white people playing country music. It’s a southern thing, and the south is obviously not just populated by white people. Plus, like you discussed, the origins of a lot of the influences in country were from slaves before the civil war, and it just seems odd that Darius Rucker is the only non-white country singer I can think of on the radio today.

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