IBMA SERIES: THOUGHTS: "Traditional Bluegrass"
Contemporary bluegrass is often placed along a spectrum from traditional to progressive. I’d like to think that there’s a relatively even distribution of talent across that spectrum, and that everyone on it respects each other. But Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters sees it as more of a civil war. He argued a few years ago in No Depression that with the arrival of the Country Gentlemen in the late 1950s, "a crack started forming beneath the foundation of bluegrass," which eventually led us to where we are now. "Bluegrass has grown into two distinct musical worlds," Pandolfi wrote, "that seem to intersect less and less as they continue to travel on in two very different directions."
As dire as that sounds, it's difficult to overstate just how much range there is in bluegrass, how many musicians seek to stretch its definition and how many others seek to solidify it. Plenty of acts still stick to the no-drums, no-electricity, no-new-songs formula. Meanwhile, Bela Fleck is putting out albums with tabla players and symphony orchestras, and Chris Thile is playing electric funk mandolin in a red jumpsuit.
To some, bluegrass is the last bastion of "real country." To others, it's simply the least inert form of American folk music, somehow compatible with every other global musical idiom. So how did we get here? What exactly is bluegrass and just how old is it?
In her keynote address at the 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association conference, Rhiannon Giddens asserted that “in order to understand... the history of bluegrass music, we need to move beyond the narrative we've inherited--beyond generalizations that," and here she pitches her voice up and begins gesticulating as though to put scare quotes around the entire sentence, "bluegrass is mostly derived from the Scots-Irish tradition with influences from Africa." She says it like she’s heard it a million times and she probably has; it’s disturbing how much scholarship on American folk music leaves it at that: the notion that while some of the raw materials of bluegrass may be African in origin--the banjo or the blue note, for instance--it was the skill of the white musician that brought bluegrass into being.
Between 1933 and 1946, the musicologist Alan Lomax visited several remote Appalachian towns with the intent of recording black folk musicians. It was specifically the local “string-bands” of these towns that became the basis for bluegrass--small ensembles performing mostly uptempo instrumental dance music on fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin and washtub bass. And in Lomax’s opinion, “black mountaineers formed orchestras that outdid the best of white mountain string bands.”
Then, in 1978, Alan Lomax conceived of a compilation album containing these recordings. He called it Black Appalachia. It wouldn’t be released for another twenty years, but as he reviewed the recordings, he took particular note of a black banjo player named Murphy Gribble who played in the style of “so-called bluegrass… before Earl Scruggs and his mentors were born.” As Lomax has it, Grand Ole Opry-style bluegrass not only co-opts, but also erases the complex and uniquely black styles of music that influenced it. As Lomax says of Gribble’s approach to banjo: “It took me years to figure out and to note down and duplicate. My opinion is that we have lost a whole school of black banjo style going back through the ragtime era.”
But if this proto-bluegrass was the result of a rich cultural exchange between black and white Appalachia, then where did the racist myth that bluegrass is primarily or even strictly a product of the Scottish diaspora begin?
Strangely, we know the exact date of the birth of what we now call bluegrass: December 8, 1945. Around this time, a survey determined that 82% of Americans were radio listeners, and some of the most popular nationally syndicated programs were country-music variety hours like the National Barn Dance, the Wheeling Jamboree and most significantly, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
On December 8, 1945, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs--who would go on to form one of the first major bluegrass recording acts, the Foggy Mountain Boys, joined the Grand Ole Opry’s in-house band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.
At this point, Bill Monroe’s Kentucky string-band music had been modified significantly to toe the line of broadcast radio. Instead of a mostly-instrumental repertoire, they sang vocal songs with instrumental “breakdowns.” The lyrics were largely secular. Instead of a single lead vocalist, the whole band sang in sophisticated close harmony. And the instrumentation had been whittled down to the classic bluegrass configuration. No more accordion, harmonica or hammer dulcimer. With the addition Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe’s already corrupt string-band music would become so warped as to merit reclassification into its own unique genre: bluegrass. This has led to the common misconception that true bluegrass, like champagne or Vidalia onions, must come from Kentucky to be called such, even though it was born in Tennessee and was mostly made possible by a banjo player from North Carolina.
The oldest extant recording of Flatt & Scruggs on the Grand Ole Opry is from March 23, 1946, a few months later. They’re performing “Little Maggie,” one of their signature songs. Lester Flatt is barely audible. He is, as we say, “holding it down.” The real star is Earl Scruggs. He picks rapidly, on every sixteenth-note, often in ascending groups of three. Ding-a-da-ding-a-da. It sure sounds a hell of a lot like bluegrass. And there are still plenty of artists performing in this style. The problem is, they often get labeled as “traditional” or “neotraditional” bluegrass.
The problem with the term “traditional bluegrass” is that it implies that the “tradition” being upheld by bluegrass bands that are performing in the style of the genre’s namesake--the Blue Grass Boys--began only 75 years old. The historicity and complex racial coding of those Grand Ole Opry performances were scrubbed so that they could be broadcast nationwide to sell Martha White Muffin Mix. It was radical to white radio listeners who may not have known it was rehashing centuries-old black musical ideas and establishing a false myth of the white hillbilly at the center of country music.
This is why it’s refreshing to hear that so many young musicians are ambivalent about the term “traditional bluegrass,” wary of its neurotic gatekeeping and troubled racial history. Instead of participating in that distinction between progressive and traditional, they opt for less loaded terms like the “old-time,” “string-band,” “country” and “Americana.” Vaguer terms, certainly, but freeing. They embolden musicians to be both more and less “traditional” than their peers—they can take influence from what came before bluegrass and they can determine what comes next. And while the IBMA still uses “bluegrass” in their name, they have never distinguished between traditional and progressive forms. In recent years, they’ve expanded their definition of what constitutes bluegrass, and what a bluegrass performer looks like. But there’s still a long way to go. The vast majority of this year’s nominees are white and performing in the “traditional” style. But it’s getting better, however slowly. In the meantime, we should all watch Rhiannon Gidden’s 2017 IBMA keynote and listen to some Murphy Gribble. Because the roots of bluegrass run deeper, and in different directions, than at first glance.