Gender Roles as Articulated by Bluegrass Music

“In writing it, Ledford did a rare thing for her time: she made the free-wheeling, globe-trotting, banjo-playing protagonist a woman. If her man thinks he can persuade her to give it up and stick close to home, he might as well save his breath” – Jewly Hight

It would be difficult to discuss gender in Bluegrass without mentioning Bill Monroe and his patriarchal influence on the genre. Sally Ann Forrester is playing the accordion in this song, and she toured with the Bluegrass Boys for several years after WWII, recording with them in 1945.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1QXM5uVwT8

Rhonda Vincent’s hyper-feminized performance of ‘Driving Nails In My Coffin’ – I highlighted this video to comment on its performativity, but upon closer analyzation, I found that the lyrics carried quite a bit of significance.

Ever since the day that we parted,
I’ve been so sad and so blue.
I’m always thinkin’ of you, love,
And I just can’t quit drinkin’ that old booze.
I’m just drivin’ nails in my coffin,
Ev’ry time I drink a bottle of booze.
I’m just drivin’ nails in my coffin:
Drivin’ those nails over you.

Michelle Shocked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQX_ID3j-IE

Uncle Earl is my favorite.

For reference:

Last, Della Mae is an all-female band that carries a forceful performative presence. ‘The Most’ is a song that shows a softer, more tender side (although there is still power behind it) that articulates an intimate relationship. Here, the women of Della Mae are controlling their sexual experience and how the audience hears it.

Reflecting on the Semester

It’s hard to believe this semester is coming to a close and my studies with Bluegrass are ending (for now). Although it’s impossible to articulate the sum of my experiences over the course of a few months, this final post is an attempt to reflect on what I’ve learned and what has impacted me the most.

I’ve felt moved by the connective bridges that music can build, as evidenced by Abigail Washburn’s beautiful work with the Sichuan Quake Relief in China (as well as the tremendous music that emerged from her experience there). I’ve felt at home in the familiar sounds of Allison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, The Osborne Brothers, and so many others that I grew up with. I’ve been challenged by the stereotypes of Bluegrass as a genre, by the space allowed to particular kinds of performers and politics, as well as the space not allowed. I’ve grown with the empowerment that icons like Hazel Dickens inspire. Above all, I’ve been inspired to dig deeper, look further, and listen more carefully to not only Bluegrass or music in general, but the everyday sights and sounds that shape my life.

This is the second Appalachian Studies class that I’ve taken since starting college, and I can say with confidence that both have changed my experience at Virginia Tech for the better. Not only do I find it important to study Appalachia as a region of natural, social, historical, and political value, but I think it is even more crucial to do so as I work to develop a sense of belonging and place, even if I’ll only be staying here as a (potentially) temporary resident. There is much to be learned and loved in the rich culture of the mountains, and I wish more students took advantage of the opportunity that classes like these present to engage with Blacksburg and Appalachia as a whole. For now, I’m happy to have shared in this tiny sliver of Bluegrass, Blacksburg, and Virginia Tech, and I look forward to applying my knowledge and absorbing even more in the future.

Are we really ‘Saving the World with Banjos’?

The American Music Abroad program (AMA), run by American Voices (an NGO) and highlighted in Craig Havighurst’s article “Saving the World with Banjos”, has provided many folk and Bluegrass artists with the opportunity to take their talents to other countries, with the intention of showcasing authentic American music and building connections through performance across the globe. Around a dozen bands are selected yearly to travel to far-reaching countries with non-Western cultures, some of which might have difficult political relations with the United States, and complete a packed tour itinerary of performances for communities spread around a region.

Cultural diplomacy through the sharing of music can accomplish many things. It can shorten cultural distance between places that share few similarities and many differences. It can educate people about a different part of the world, widen global perspective, and change lives. From the sounds of Havighurst’s article, AMA’s form of cultural diplomacy seems to be going well. Many folk and Bluegrass groups are selected to go every year, and they are ostensibly always met with warm welcome in even the most politically “hostile” places.

What his article does not touch on, however, are the downsides of this kind of “diplomacy”. At the risk of sounding cynical, I don’t know if I agree that sending “authentic American” bands to other countries accomplishes just what it is supposed to. From what Havighurst described in the article, bands aren’t really prepped before they leave the country, at least on what the mission of the tour is; this leads me to wonder if they are encouraged to engage in an exchange at all, or if they leave the US with an agenda to promote their music, American music, as superior (subversive colonialism, if you ask me).

Another problematic part of the piece is when Paul Rockower is quoted, saying, “The reason why Della Mae […] work[s] is they’re so authentically American”. I have huge issues with this statement. How exactly is Della Mae any more American than another band started in the United States, by citizens of the United States? Rockower is implying here that there is some quality about the band that qualifies them as more “American” than another. Are they more American because they emerge from the heart of Appalachia, where so many “American values” are upheld? Appalachian values and ways of life are overwhelmingly stereotyped and exaggerated by outsiders, and it seems that this statement is playing on those generalizations. Is it because the sounds that they create are particularly American? Last I checked, I remember learning that Bluegrass emerged from the blending of many different styles of music, brought from all over the world, but that doesn’t seem to be Rockower’s point here. What I gleaned from his statement was the fact that so many

“Send us more Della Mae and less drones” read one evaluation of the AMA tour. This is poignant. Yes, breaking down cultural barriers and allowing for exchange is better than ignorance and unfamiliarity. But what if we brought Pakistani bands to the United States instead of sending our own, with the goal of promoting cultural dialogue? Maybe that would cause Americans to start listening to others and breaking down the misunderstanding and fear that leads our country to make violent militaristic invasions of other places (under the pretense of preserving democracy and spreading our superior Western way of life).

Della Mae might have brought good music to the ears of a few dozen Pakistani people while touring with AMA, and from my research they are doing truly wonderful things in the aftermath of their visit — but they certainly aren’t saving the world with banjos.

Soundscapes

Last week, I attended a workshop that asked me to listen and watch my surroundings carefully, to heighten my senses and notice how sound shapes my world. On top of our soundscape class activity, this workshop was the second opportunity I had last week to break from my everyday perspective and take a minute to focus on what I was hearing. Given my current packed schedule, I would be lying if I said this wasn’t initially frustrating; I couldn’t help but think that I had much better, more pressing things to attend to than walking around listening to everyday sounds.

Predictably, I emerged from both of these exercises feeling differently than how I started them. After paying closer attention to what I was hearing, I was more at ease and in tune with myself and my surroundings, more likely to find something interesting to listen to. Below is a picture of one of my favorite soundscapes on campus:

IMG_6870

 

Bluegrass and Appalachia call for deeper connection with place-based soundscapes. The many sounds, voice, and instruments involved in a Bluegrass song or band parallel the rich tapestry of sound that characterizes the Appalachian region – sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious, sometimes telling a story and quite often evoking a specific memory or feeling. Bluegrass demands that its audience listens more actively than everyday passive hearing, drawing the listener closer to the music, to nature, and to themselves.

 

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 8.38.56 PM

 

Reflection on Authenticity: Mumford & Sons

Our class discussion about authenticity a couple weeks ago got me thinking a lot about Bluegrass and the standards I hold for authenticity within the genre. Mumford & Sons is one of those bands who certainly push boundaries, but retain the instrumentation, themes, and look of a folk band from the past.

I used to be a big fan of Mumford & Sons. Their first album, Sigh No More (2009), was a gateway record for me into other contemporary folk, as I had grown up around Bluegrass but wanted something more accessible to my lifestyle. Mumford & Sons’ second album, Babel (2012), was not far off from the sounds and feelings of their first, and seemed a natural progression for the band while still holding ground within the parameters of the new-age folk pop scene.

I never considered Mumford & Sons to be Bluegrass, but I definitely recognized the parallels and similar foundation of the music. In an interview with Marcus Mumford following the release of Babel, the cited the inspiration of their first album came from the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou. For some reason, that fact made me uneasy about the authenticity of their music. Although the soundtrack was curated by a number of generally accepted “authentic” Bluegrass musicians, the notion that the album could serve as inspiration to form an internationally renowned band made the music seem forced and inauthentic. Throwing on the fact that a foreign band (Mumford hails from the UK) was capitalizing on such a traditionally American genre made them seem that much more fake; I saw them playing into stereotypes and what they had learned about folk/Bluegrass through the media, rather than authentically being raised around it.

I kept listening to Mumford & Sons and enjoyed their music despite what I had learned about their roots, and I was disappointed when they took an indefinite break from recording. The band has recently resurfaced, and to no surprise, they have totally departed from their folk and Bluegrass beginnings. They were even quoted in a recent article, stating “there are no banjos on album three” (NME). One of the singles off of their new album (out April 27), “The Wolf”, can be heard below; no traces of their original sound to be found.

Does the fact that their sound has changed so drastically negate the band’s authenticity? To me, it certainly emphasizes the importance of loyalty and ingenuity within creating music. Mumford & Sons has officially crossed the threshold out of Bluegrass, but does that mean they can never be remembered as a part of the genre?

On Bluegrass and Politics

“Music embodies political values and experiences, and organizes our response to society as political expression.” – John Street

Bluegrass, as we have discussed in class, is markedly apolitical. This trait cannot possibly be attributed to the genre’s regional roots, as Appalachia is and always has been a political hotbed for a number of controversial issues. Perhaps it was the conception of Bluegrass as a legitimate musical genre through the media that prevented musicians from addressing political issues through their music, or perhaps it was the respect for tradition and recreating old sounds that set the precedent for its largely even-keeled themes. Maybe audience had something to do with the apolitical development of Bluegrass music, in the sense that their taste for more wholesome and uncontroversial expression changed the way the genre took shape. Or most likely, perhaps it is a combination of all of these things that led Bluegrass to the apolitical path that it is on today.

Bluegrass is a genre that unites people of all ages, and it’s possible that this is achieved through its accessibility to all listeners, regardless of their political positions. Perhaps the function of the music is not to rally or polarize people, but to offer simple and beautiful expression around which communities can gather. In the end, I can’t help but wonder what the genre, its audience, or even Appalachia might look like today had Bluegrass always been a political tool for gathering people and effecting change.

Cited: Music and Politics, John Street.

The Osborne Brothers

Bobby and Sonny Osborne were born in Hyden, Kentucky and raised outside of Dayton, Ohio. Bobby learned he had a natural ability on the guitar when he started playing in bands as a teenager, and Sonny followed suit a few years later on the banjo. Starting in 1949, Bobby had a few stints with radio stations and artists such as Larry Richardson, Jimmy Martin, and the Stanley Brothers, but his musical career was put on hold in 1952 when he was drafted into the army. Sonny went on to play with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, even working a little with Decca Records, and upon Bobby’s return the duo formed their official band, the Osborne Brothers.

Through the 1950s, the Osborne Brothers had success working with Jimmy Martin and at radio stations in Knoxville and Wheeling. In 1956, Red Allen joined and the band signed with MGM Records, allowing them to tour and gain a faithful audience. Their hit ‘Once More’ became a hit on the 1958 country charts, and that success pushed the Osborne Brothers into the mainstream.

For the next few years, the band members changed but Bobby and Sonny remained constant. They were the first bluegrass group to perform on a college campus in 1960 at Antioch College, which symbolized a shift to a new and younger audience. Upon signing with Decca Records in 1963, the band pushed the limits of the genre and began producing new sounds with piano, steel guitar, electric instruments, and drums. This allowed them to be more accessible to a wider audience, and the Osborne Brothers experienced great success over the next couple decades – even if they had angered the Bluegrass purists with their experimentation. By the 1980s, the Osborne Brothers had returned to a more traditional sound and stuck to that in their performances through the mid-90s, over forty years after their formation. They are still recognized as one of the most innovative Bluegrass bands of their time, and acclaimed for gaining a wider audience and pushing their music to new directions.

The video below shows a performance of one of the Osborne Brother’s most famous hits, ‘Rocky Top’. Although they stick to a mostly traditional Bluegrass sound here (check out the electric bass), it is easy to tell from the visual aspects of the performance (sorry for the low quality) that the band was striving for a unique, modern look. They may be a little flashy, but I personally really like the gold jackets:

‘Rocky Top’ was declared an official song of Tennessee by the state’s General Assembly in 1982. Another track by the Osbornes, ‘Kentucky’, was also adopted as an official song of their home state.

The song below was one I included because it was my first encounter with the Osborne Brothers, and remains to be one of my favorite tracks.

Osborne Brothers Artist Biography, Steven Thomas Erlewine http://www.allmusic.com/artist/osborne-brothers-mn0000489071/biography

“The Osborne Brothers–Getting it Off” Neil Rosenberg, The Bluegrass Reader edited by Thomas Goldsmith.

Samantha Bumgarner

Samantha Biddix was born in Jackson County, North Carolina in 1878 and grew up in the hills southeast of Asheville. Her father, Has Biddix, was a well-known local fiddler who was at first unsupportive of her interest in music, and then later grew to encourage her talents on both the fiddle and banjo. The first banjo she used was “a gourd with cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread and waxed with beeswax,” until the age of fifteen, when her father bought her her first real banjo.

In her early twenties, Samantha married Carse Bumgarner, who right away supported her musical career and bought her her first fiddle. Sadly, all of her instruments burned in a house fire shortly after her marriage, leaving Bumgarner with no means of music-making or income. Struggling to get back on her feet, she bought a “ten-cent banjo” and entered a picking competition in Canton, NC; to no surprise, she won, and then continued to win several following competitions as well.

When she was 37, Bumgarner had built enough regional acclaim to be invited by Columbia Phonograph Company to travel with her friend and fellow musician Eva Smathers Davis up to New York to record her music.

Original Columbia recording for ‘Big-Eyed Rabbit’, the first release of the ten tracks recorded at the New York studio.

The Bumgarner-Davis visit to Columbia Records in April of 1924 was one of the first times traditional string band music was ever recorded (especially banjo music), let alone by two female musicians. The video below is one of the original 1924 recordings, and in this song, Bumgarner performs both vocals and banjo, whereas on some of the other tracks she only fiddled or sang.

Though the records were hugely successful, neither Davis nor Bumgarner ever returned for additional recording or received critical acclaim. Bumgarner finished out her career continuing to perform and annually attend Bascom Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville (where she also routinely won the clogging competition). She died in 1960, and in her obituary she was recognized for her influence on mountain music, her inspiration to young women musicians, and as one of the “region’s most colorful and picturesque individuals.”

Sources: http://www.anb.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/articles/18/18-03116.html, http://www.anb.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/articles/18/18-03116.html, http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2013/04/samantha-bumgarner-records-the-first-banjo-record-ever.html

 

What is Bluegrass?

Bluegrass is a unique genre of music whose origins rise from the cultural intersection of the Appalachian Mountain region (with influences including but not limited to African American, Scotch-Irish, traditional). It is characterized by the use of specific instruments (banjo, guitar, dobro, bass, mandolin) and harmonies, generation of a raw, acoustic sound, and themes of hardship and nostalgia. Bluegrass serves as the foundation of country and folk music and continues to inspire musicians from across every genre today.