Tradition’s Rolling Target, An Ever-Present Allure
Recently I was chatting with an up-and-coming bluegrass performer about her band. We began to talk about “traditional” bluegrass, and she noted that one of her biggest thrills was to be on the same stage with the Seldom Scene. When that band first started performing in 1971, they were revolutionary. They infused their bluegrass with sounds sourced from the recent folk craze, plus rock and roll, and added it all to the more traditional roots material that was coming from Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and others. The Seldom Scene had its naysayers and chair clappers alike – a fact confirmed for me in a different conversation, with the band’s current lead singer Dudley Connell, who’s only been with them for 20 years. Connell noted, too, that for many of today’s fans, the Seldom Scene’s music is considered “traditional bluegrass.”
These two conversations confirm ideas that have been growing and percolating in me for months. They are confirmed by my reading of Patrick Huber’s scholarly piece Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South and Barry Mazor’s wonderful biography of legendary R&A man, music publisher, and international entrepreneur Ralph Peer. Peer’s influence on roots music, music publication, recording, and popular culture continue to influence us more than 50 years after his death. I’ve been doing all this reading and thinking at the same time as I’ve been participating more fully, in my own little way, in playing and singing bluegrass music, in jams around the country. I’ve been joining far more jams since I divorced my banjo and married a guitar a little over a year ago.
Since my wife and I first encountered bluegrass about a dozen years ago, I’ve always been attracted to its more contemporary manifestations, as a listener. As a player, I’ve found that many of the older, more traditional songs are easier to learn, play, and sing in jamming groups. When new songs find their way into jams, it’s an indication of their growing acceptance into an essentially conservative, traditional group of players. Their regular structure, using mostly three-chord progressions, and the generally simple lyrics make many of the older songs a real joy to play in jams. I find myself increasingly participating in the musical convergence I’ve frequently asserted in my writing. That is, that people who seriously become involved in listening to bluegrass music, in any of its manifestations, will, almost inevitably, be drawn back to Bill Monroe, his influences, and successors. It goes without saying that this leads to the antecedents of bluegrass music, as well as the various ways it has evolved through time.
Legend has it that bluegrass developed out of the hills, farms, and mines of Appalachia as untutored musicians learned older songs and wrote new ones celebrating their lives and the area. This now-romanticized life actually was one of grinding poverty, lived largely on the edge, where there was little cash, formal education, or entertainment. What was there grew out of the small rural churches, square dances, and front porches, where old-time musicians played to entertain themselves and their neighbors.
The closest approximation to ready cash for these folks could be found in moonshine corn liquor. The development of bluegrass and country music, according to Huber in Linthead Stomp, required people to move to the post-Civil War, developing industrial South, the industrial necklace surrounding the Great Lakes, and later, New England. There, people went to work in mills and factories, often living in company-owned mill villages, where there was more ready cash enabling them to buy inexpensive, factory-made instruments, record players, and radios. They heard vaudeville music, black blues, and other styles.
So, the environment of the mill and the mill village dominated the development of bluegrass music. A motivating factor for Earl Scruggs to become a professional musician was the hard work and low wages of the cotton mill where he worked as a young man.
Ralph Peer is best known to bluegrass fans as the RCA Victor A&R (artists and repertoire) man who both “discovered” and recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, during several days of historic recording in a warehouse in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia, between July 25 and August 5, 1927. Many of the songs from these sessions have remained standard repertoire in bluegrass music and are still widely sung today. Songs like “Bury Me beneath the Willow” and “Look on the Sunny Side” by the Carters, and “Blue Yodel” by Rodgers, were first recorded here. Important, too, was the relationship Peer developed with Earnest (Pop) Stoneman as an adviser and as an artist.
Less well-known is that Peer had also recorded men like Fiddlin’ John Carson and Charlie Poole, both mill hands and semi-professional musicians, as early as 1922. Peer is often regarded as a folk music archivist like John Lomax. In fact, his great gift was recognizing the potential for a broader popularity for these local artists, as he sought wider markets for the companies that manufactured phonographs. Those same companies continually needed new, potentially wide-selling recordings to feed the desire people had, to play something on this new and fast-developing technology. Throughout his long career as a music publisher, Peer’s strength was recognizing the potential of synergies (he never would have used this now-popular word) between various forms of music and new markets into which they could be sold, as technology continued to change.
The inescapable conclusion to these seed moments in the development of popular bluegrass and country music is that, in order to survive, the music must always develop, changing as the larger world, new ways to distribute and consume music, and changing tastes dictate. It means that what people consider to be “traditional” will depend on what they listened to in their youth. Frequently, we find that the music people love throughout their lives is intimately connected to the music they heard and loved as they were going through puberty. There’s a strong connection between sex and music. The bluegrass audience, often recognized as middle aged or older, still clings to the music of 40 or 50 years ago. We have the continual re-emergence of the founders of bluegrass in modern bands reviving their work to thank for keeping the founders alive.
Thus, the Bluegrass Album Band, the Johnson Mountain Boys, and more recently the Earls of Leicester serve to remind us of the greatness from which more contemporary, even so-called progressive and jam bands, have grown. The Sam Bush Band, Trampled by Turtles, Punch Brothers, and the Infamous Stringdusters – each of whom many people consider to be “not bluegrass” – frequently make clear the debt they owe to these older bands that have influenced their development. Bluegrass music has remained true to its genesis, whether or not it sounds exactly like it did back then.
Meanwhile, the center continues to move. The founders will still be there, played on air and in jams by people who revere their work and their contributions, and the modern fringe will continue to influence some to change with the times. In the end, only time will tell what will remain, what will be discarded, and what will become of today’s music. In bluegrass, we can count on the founders – those who first conflated mountain music, holiness music, Piedmont and Delta blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley pop music, Latin, and other influences into the amalgam form that we love to call “bluegrass.”