50 STATES OF FOLK: The Enduring Power of Kentucky’s High Lonesome Sound
We in the bluegrass world love to talk about the high lonesome sound — that painful, heartbreaking high tenor pealing out mournfully in the happy-sad songs in our particular musical canon — as though it’s something that’s wholly ours. If it were up to our most hardcore traditionalist stalwarts, you might just believe that the high tenor itself was invented by Bill Monroe during his quest to singlehandedly invent bluegrass in 1945 alongside his Blue Grass Boys. (Happy #Bluegrass75, y’all!)
Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s problematic in a lot of ways. Not only does this narrative conveniently overwrite and erase the contributions of countless women and people of color (particularly Black musicians) who participated in the creation of bluegrass as a genre, but it also just ignores the fact that humans have been obsessed with high male voices for as long as there has been music, arguably never more so than right now.
A Brief History of Men Singing Really High
From as early as 2600 BC, there are records of castrato singers, i.e., men who were castrated for the express purpose of maintaining their prepubescent treble singing ranges. Castration had likely been around for much longer — first in order to maintain docility in slave populations in Mesopotamia and later in order to create “safe intimates” for royal bedchambers. But even in those early days, there was something enchanting specifically about the sound of a castrato’s voice. Not only did the procedure maintain the treble ranges of young male voices, but it also had a handful of other physiological side effects, giving castrati an almost inhuman singing ability.
It wouldn’t become a full-on phenomenon until the 16th century, when Pope Sixtus V banned women from singing on stage in 1588 (they had already been banned from singing in church by edict from 1 Corinthians chapter 14 verse 34: “let women keep silent in churches”). This put operas into a tight spot, as the soprano prima donna was one of the most essential roles in the business. So essential that being a male singer with a preternaturally high singing voice became an extremely lucrative career prospect overnight. So while castration was never strictly legal, it was still highly coveted in certain sectors — leading to a literally unbelievable number of reported “accidents” that just happened to leave young men castrated before their voices changed.
In the 17th century, thousands of boys between the ages of 8 and 12 were castrated annually, all to fulfill the desire to hear high, feminine voices in music. Operas would be written explicitly to showcase the talents of castrati singers. For those who weren’t recruited by operas (the highest paying gig a castrato could hope for in society), churches were always looking to fill in the highest ranges in their choirs.
It would take until the 19th century before the procedure was officially banned. The last castrato sang in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican in 1913. You can hear him sing here:
Bill Monroe and the High Lonesome Sound
In America, there was never any kind of institutionalized demand for castrated male singers (thank God). But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t any demand for those impossibly high pitches. Turns out it wasn’t just high society operagoers in Rome and Venice pining for feminine male voices; people loved the high lonesome sound on the Opry as well.
As a young man in rural Kentucky, Bill Monroe grew up living a very musical life. Like many young children in the South, he was taught to sing by traveling music teachers who brought with them the shape-note singing method. As previously discussed in this series, this educational tool was a convenient way to bring people (particularly those in the rural South) up to speed on sight-reading music without having to teach them all the ins and outs of Western music theory.
One important aspect of the shape-note tradition is that the tenor voice almost always takes the melody. So Monroe, famously a man who liked to be in the lead, trained himself to sing in the higher-pitched tenor voice.
But more than just sounding high, the actual physical strain to reach the notes is kind of iconic to the genre — giving bluegrass that “edge” that everyone loves to talk about. When you listen to Bill Monroe sing, it isn’t beautiful or effortless like the castrato Alessandro Moreschi singing “Ave Maria.” What makes it interesting, and what gives it the authenticity that bluegrass audiences crave, is the fact that it actually sounds a little bit painful. That is what takes it from just being your dime-a-dozen falsetto to being that high lonesome sound.
The Modern Falsetto
But it wasn’t enough to invent an entire genre of music and spawn generations of fans devoted to the pursuit of a more perfect G-run. No, Bill Monroe had to go and inspire all of pop music for about half a century.
A large number of musicians in the ’50s were huge Monroe fans, but perhaps the one you are most familiar with is Elvis Presley. In 1954, Elvis recorded Monroe’s song, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, bringing Monroe into the Big Bang of rock and roll. Elvis himself had a deep, crooning voice, which is part of what makes it so striking when he does traverse up to those high tenor ranges while singing the hit Blue Grass Boys single.
In fact, it is this juxtaposition of lower male speaking voice ranges compared to the piercing highs of falsetto singing that researchers believe makes high male voices particularly fascinating to listeners. In exploring your own music library, you will likely find that it’s pretty rare to find a whole song sung in a male falsetto. Rather, you find that it’s a tool employed to bring particular emphasis to an emotional line or chorus, drawing the listener’s ear to attention in order to hammer home the point that the singer is trying to make. As Chris Richards said in his Washington Post article on the subject, “In a society that teaches men to smother their feelings, a burst of falsetto allows a singer to speak a higher, hotter emotional truth.”
And so, the high lonesome sound traveled far beyond the borders of Kentucky’s bluegrass and went on to infect all of pop culture. When Vox journalist Estelle Caswell and her collaborators at The Pudding looked at the Billboard top 100 over the past several decades, they found that male singers going into that high vocal register (whether going fully falsetto into the head voice or just pushing up to the highest edges of the chest voice like Bill Monroe popularized) puts songs higher on the charts for longer. And that wasn’t just true in the ’50s, it’s been true for decades. From the crooning barbershop sounds of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to the shimmering soulful falsettos of Curtis Mayfield to the modern high tenors of Justin Timberlake, Childish Gambino, and The Weeknd, the evidence shows that across time and space, people just love the sound of men singing real high.
And now a playlist showing off that high lonesome sound throughout the ages: