Jean Ritchie died a few days ago at the age of 92. For decades, her pure, clear voice brought the sounds and sentiments of Appalachian music to people from Carnegie Hall to A Prairie Home Companion. She played and sang simple songs in a simple way that made us think of apple blossoms and unpainted homesteads in remote hollows, where it’s difficult for the sun to penetrate. Poverty and desperation, as well as joy and faith, mixed themselves there, offering the world a picture of a place most of them scarcely knew. I was saddened by her loss, and it got me thinking about the roots and branches of bluegrass.
Last weekend, at the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival in Preston, CT, a reporter from the Hartford Courant asked what it was about this music that I loved. What was it that moved Irene and me to travel, listen to, study, play (at the most elementary of levels), and devote this latter part of our lives to this music?
In 2006 Daniel Levitin, a professor of neuroscience who specializes in cognitive processes and has written extensively about the roots and effects of music in humans, published a book called This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession. It explores how music affects brain functioning and becomes an essential element of our being. The book is extremely readable and highly accessible, a must-read for people wishing to examine how music affects them, and why. Two major ideas grew out of reading the book, for me. First, Levitin says that the music we love for life is the music we heard and loved as we were going through puberty. In other words, music and sex are inextricably linked to each other for our entire lives. The second idea was that in order to become truly expert, to reach toward professional levels of music performance, a person must put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. You do the math. What Levitin’s work has come to mean to me is that each generation will experience any variety of music in different ways, depending on the music that surrounded their youth and first experiences with sexuality and pairing, and that it’s difficult to make music.
The fathers and mothers of bluegrass shared certain characteristics. Most were from the rural South. They grew up on small farms in or near the mountains where luxury and comfort were nearly unknown. Their early work experiences were on those farms, in the mines, and in the textile mills and factories. They were deeply affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s and by the Second World War. Radios were just being invented, transportation was limited, the work was hard and dangerous, and one of the few joys in this life was playing, making, and listening to music in church, on the back porch, and in the fields. People like John Lomax and Charles Seeger, born in the mid- to late-19th century, developed an interest in this music and began collecting it by going into the “field” to transcribe and record with primitive equipment. Others, like Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, A.P. Carter and his family, and many more began to perform this material and to compose new songs, often based on much older, traditional material, much of it reaching back to the middle ages in England. As recording and radio became more prevalent, the music first reached the rural audience over small, low wattage radio stations and scratchy recordings and then, increasingly, through better and better means of communication.
Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Tut Taylor were all born within a year of each other – in 1923 and 1924. Bill Monroe was a little over a decade older, born in 1911. Ralph Stanley is a couple of years younger, born in 1927, along with Josh Graves and Jimmy Martin. Others of the pioneer generation of bluegrass founders also cluster around these years. The generation that heard these greats for the first time, when they came together as a recognized sub-genre on The Grand Old Opry in 1945 and 1946, are now elderly or gone. They were captured by, as Larry Stephenson sings, “The sound that set my soul on fire,” referring to Bobby Osborne’s (born 1931) singing of “Rocky Top.”
I’ve long maintained that most of the people who consider themselves to be traditionalists are not actually fans of the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, or the Stanley Brothers themselves. Rather, they found bluegrass through the pioneering work of J.D. Crowe, who put together J.D. Crowe & the New South released in 1975 by Rounder Records, followed in the 1980’s by the recordings of the Bluegrass Album Band. The Crowe album is perhaps the only recording ever recognized by its number: Rounder 0044. People who were in their twenties when these albums were released are now in their mid-to late fifties and constitute the core of traditional bluegrass fans.
So where’s it all heading? I often sit next to people at festivals who respond to young bands (like Yonder Mountain Stringband, pictured) on the stage with anger or disgust, saying, “That’s not bluegrass!” before angrily getting up and stomping away from the stage. They’re upset because a particular band doesn’t have a banjo, plays plugged in, uses an electric bass guitar, or – the greatest of all sins – has drums.
(Why didn’t Bill Monroe have drums in his band? Answer: Because the logistics of travel for him didn’t permit a drum kit and a bass to fit in the car they drove. He chose the bass, which was often carried on the roof. That’s my theory, anyway.)
Meanwhile, young, or at least younger bands, have been influenced by – and are being changed by – the influences of rock and roll, punk, grunge, modern country, jazz, alternative music, and many more musical influences in a world where diversity swirls around them. And many of these musicians, who still play acoustic instruments with electronic rigs attached, largely maintain the instruments’ natural sound. They will continue to call their music bluegrass or have it recognized as bluegrass-derived. The genre will change, grow, and evolve both within itself and while reaching out to new and wider audiences. It’s being influenced by all the music that’s out there, and bluegrass is influencing that music, too. Much of the music being created now will naturally be derivative, but some will capture the spirit of those ancient tones while expressing genius in a new way. And the fathers and mothers of bluegrass, wherever they are, will nod their heads and applaud both the tradition and the change.