Do Y’all Have Bluegrass Up There?
We’ve headed north towards home, which we won’t reach for another six weeks, leaving the live oaks, sandy soil, and winter friends behind, until we run into them at other events. Ringing in my ears is the oft-asked question, “Do ya’ll have bluegrass up there?” This question not only reflects a kind of provincial regionalism but a syndrome that continues to plague this music. Of course bluegrass music has its roots in Appalachia, but it also has branches that have spread across the entire globe, affecting millions of people in places you’d never expect to find it. The European Bluegrass Music Association is alive and well, as is Moonshiner, a magazine which has been published for 26 years in Japan, and a lively bluegrass and country music awareness in Australia, where each year several American bands tour. Dumplin Valley Bluegrass Festival, held each September in Kodak, TN, has regular visitors from the Netherlands and England, as do larger American events like Merlefest. Yes, bluegrass is an international music, spread from its Appalachian roots and its Monroevian genesis.
But my wife and I are headed for New England, still burdened with feet-deep snow, where we’ll be sitting on the grass in a few weeks. Our path, in a sense, re-creates the flood of Southerners who trekked to the Northeast for jobs fueled by the industrial boom following World War II, which continued into the immediate post-war period.
Hazel Cote came to New York State in her childhood and Mac McGee emigrated to New England after military service in the late 1950s. They formed White Mountain Bluegrass and spread their music throughout the region. (See Robert Fraker’s profile for more.) Al Hawkes, a native of Westbrook, ME, discovered country and bluegrass music in the late ’40s, forming the first – and perhaps only – mixed-race duo in country music (try to see the video The Eventful Life of Al Hawkes). Al, at age 84, is still active, filled with plans, and carefully organizing his legacy. Joe Val (1926 – 1985), a native of Everett, MA, was strongly influenced by listening to Bill Monroe’s music, and became, according to Peter Rowan (a Massachusetts native), “the voice of New England bluegrass.” Meanwhile, in more contemporary times, Berklee College of Music is a nest for hot young bluegrass pickers and bands. The president of Yale University, that bastion of white shoe law firm preparation, plays in a bluegrass band that calls themselves The Professors of Bluegrass.
From before Memorial Day to after Labor Day, bluegrass festivals of all stripes abound in the region. All of New England is smaller than the state or Indiana, with half its size accounted for by Maine alone. The largest and, perhaps, best-known New England Festival is Thomas Point Beach, the season-ender for most people in Maine. Known for its beautiful seaside site and fine lineups, people say it’s a “must.” Other major New England festivals include Strawberry Park, Jenny Brook, Pemi Valley, and Podunk. All five feature major national bands, fine local ones, kids’ academies, and plenty of workshops. In recent years FreshGrass has emerged at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts in North Adams, MA with a very popular autumn festival leaning toward the progressive side in bluegrass music. Time and space don’t permit a catalog of the weekly events available. Suffice it to say, “Yes, we’all have bluegrass up here.” Come north to sample the music, the diversity, and the physical beauty of New England.