Tag Archives: Chris Thile

“It’s a boy!” (or how we gender instruments here on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston)

This week, I had the pleasure of reading Murphy Henry’s (founder of the Women in Bluegrass magazine) keynote address from the 1998 IBMA Trade Show. In the process of describing the successes achieved and the remaining obstacles faced by women in the genre, she touched upon the idea of gendered instruments, something I’d never really thought about in the context of bluegrass.

harp

(I’m not going to say  I’ve NEVER thought about an instrument as inherently feminine…)

In her talk, she expresses her frustration with the author of the liner notes for The Essential Bill Monroe boxed collection over his unnecessary and unfair gendering of a bluegrass origin story involving the mandolin.

“You know that Bill Monroe was the youngest of his family, so when Birch took the fiddle, and Charlie took the guitar, Bill Monroe was left with the mandolin. Well, there’s nothing gender-related about that story. But this author chooses to inject gender into this little story. He points out that if we look at family band photos from that era, that the mandolin is usually being played by a kid of girl. And the way this guy has written this up, it’s like nothing could be worse— the mandolin is a girl’s instrument— isn’t that awful?” -Murphy Henry

Henry goes on to describe how this particular author describes the creation of bluegrass as Bill Monroe’s attempt to create a masculine music on an inherently feminine instrument. Needless to say, Henry (and I) had to disagree with that particular interpretation of events, but it got me thinking about instruments and gender.

(That is NOT what I meant! Though it would make an interesting study in performativity…)

So what’s the most feminine instrument? With the help of some hall mates from the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, I brainstormed a list:

  • Flute
  • Violin
  • Tambourine
  • Harp
  • Clarinet
  • French horn

This list is in no particular order (except for the order I wrote them down in), but I’ll tell you that when I asked what the most feminine instrument was, the answer was overwhelmingly harp. When I asked what the most feminine bluegrass instrument was, the answer was a resounding “violin” (not fiddle, interestingly enough). Though I’m not sure this is exactly what they meant, Lindsey Sterling certainly does make a strong case:

(Fun fact: Did you know that “fiddle” and “violin” have separate Wikipedia pages?)

I kept bothering my friends and produced the following gender assignments for a traditional bluegrass lineup:

  • Fiddle- Feminine
  • Upright Bass- Masculine
  • Mandolin- Non-gendered (or “asexual,” as one person put it. Maybe Thomas Adler was on to something…)
  • Banjo- Masculine
  • Acoustic Guitar- Masculine

From my very small sample size, I noticed a few interesting breaks from what I would have expected. The fiddle, the “devil’s box,” long associated with dancing and other sinful behavior, is now considered the most feminine of bluegrass instruments! (at least here on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston)

Satan and his fiddle

(Note to self: Blog post exploring the fiddle’s long association with Satan and Co. ?)

Another interesting point to note is that the upright bass, an instrument often associated with women in bluegrass (thanks largely to Bluegrass Boy Bessie Lee Mauldin) was denoted as a masculine instrument, and the supposedly feminine mandolin was deemed non-gendered.

(Food for thought: is a non gendered entity perceived as more feminine in a male-dominated culture?)

But the more I think of it, the more I realize that the mandolin is pretty evenly split in the bluegrass scene (as even as it can be in the bluegrass scene).

So here is a montage of some fantastic female mandolin players:

(Sierra Hull! Can we forgive her amplification? Yes, yes we can.)

(Ashley Lewis picks pretty good…for a HUMAN BEING)

(Even the New Queen of Bluegrass plays the mandolin!)

And here is a montage of fantastic male mandolin players:

(Yeah, he went to my high school. No big deal.)

(What’s with San Diego and mandolin prodigies named Chris?)

(Does this song give anyone else the chills?)

But the mandolin isn’t the only bluegrass instrument being played by women. Not by a long shot.

(Insert literally any Della Mae clip here)

As a final thought, I’d like to address Rosenberg’s claim that the banjo is “the only instrument in American tradition which has not been feminized.” Despite the long list of women in and outside of bluegrass playing the instrument, I think he might be right (no, not because Della Mae leaves it out of their lineup!).

Unfortunately, I suspect this stereotype (and it is a stereotype, like all gendering of inanimate musical objects) comes from a more deeply held image: that of the banjo as the instrument of the poor, white, uneducated hillbilly.

(My point is, there’s a REASON Kermit’s playing a banjo, not a guitar or a mandolin)

But that’s a topic for another post.

Confession

I have a confession to make.

Every time I hear someone bring up Mumford and Sons as a bluegrass band, I cringe.

I know, I know. I’m judgmental, and narrow minded, and old fashioned, but I do have my reasons!

Before I make any more enemies, I’d like to give you a little bit more background about my relationship with their music. In all honesty, I’ve never seriously listened to much of it. What little I was exposed to entered my life right around the time I decided to boycott my local radio station for betraying their roots and overplaying the top 40. (I’m looking at you, Little Lion Man.)

(As a side note, how many bluegrass bands can you name that swear in their lyrics?)

^No, actually, I don’t this is bluegrass.^

I want to be clear: I don’t dislike their music. I find their style, their lyrics, and their energy not only inspiring, but also incredibly fun.

But that’s not enough to make it Bluegrass. Not by a long shot.

Personal tastes aside, I’d like to try and break down some of the key characteristics that separate Mumford and Sons from what I would consider bluegrass.

The big one, of course, is instrumentation. Though Mumford and Sons spotlight the banjo (it’s part of their sound most praised by pop audiences) and feature many of the same instruments associated with bluegrass (Banjo, Guitar, Upright Bass, etc.) the use of these instruments is distinctly different from bluegrass. The biggest difference is the substitution of drums for mandolin to keep time and play rhythm, but the use of horns and piano (which create a free, joyful sound that somehow always reminds me of the music-under-the-sky sound of Edward Sharp) helps create further distinction.

mumford and sons
I’m sorry, did you drop something?  A MANDOLIN perhaps?
(Photo by Larry Busacca)

Though I don’t want to get into the electric/acoustic debate, and I don’t typically put much value on the distinction myself, their latest release doesn’t exactly help their case.

^I really miss that mandolin, but the drums create a whole new kind of sound.^

The second distinction I’d like to make involves repertoire and song content. The typical bluegrass repertoire features a mix of original music and genre standards. Though I’ve never seen Mumford and Sons live, I have never found any performances of theirs that feature genre standards, suggesting the group doesn’t go out of their way to establish themselves in the lineage that many groups make it a point to be part of.

^So maybe this is more of an old time standard, but hey, OCMS is more of an old time band!^

The content and structure of their music further separates them from the norm, with many of their songs featuring a more complicated structure than is typically found in roots music. The group makes little attempt to emulate the typical content (where are the trains, mountains, and Uncle Penn?) of bluegrass and old time songs, but their stage presence and marketing certainly suggests a link to such a sound.

^Got to love this song and video, though. Note the bluegrass link through Helms and others.^

Though I have a hard time classifying their sound as bluegrass (and I don’t think they consider themselves bluegrass, either), the members of Mumford and Sons have just as much right to embrace the bluegrass community as anyone. They even came into the music in what many would call a “traditional way,” learning from the popular musicians of their generation. Emmylou Harris, among others, had a big part to play in the group’s history:

“Harris, 65, was among the gateway artists who helped Mumford and bandmates Ben Lovett, Ted Dwane and Winston Marshall discover their love for American roots music. It started with the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack…That eventually led them to the Old Crow Medicine Show and then deep immersion in old-timey sounds from America’s long-neglected past”

(USA Today).

 

Which leads me to my final thought.

Musicians can play across genre. Albums can play across genre. Even individual songs can play across genre. So maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t really matter how we classify Mumford and Sons?

^Have I mentioned how much I love these guys yet?^

 

Take, for instance, Mumford and Sons performance of Where Is My Heart?, from the Telluride Bluegrass festival, an excellent example of the bluegrass genre, down to the comic elements (and notice how much that mandolin stands out!). Take a listen and tell me you can’t see why songs like Where Is My Heart are clearly bluegrass while songs like The Cave really aren’t.

^ This is bluegrass.^

 

^This isn’t bluegrass. I’m sorry.^

Two songs, two distinct styles, one artist.

I think Chris Thile has it right: genres are made for hopping.


Special thanks to my dear friend Tacy for inspiring this post!