Seriously, What Is Bluegrass?

In relation to the visit our class had today from John Lawless, editor of bluegrasstoday.com, and an article by Chris Pandolfi of The Infamous Stringdusters, I’m going to (yet again) address the question of just what exactly bluegrass is, something I previously touched on in an earlier post.

In class today, Mr. Lawless said that bluegrass can be music played by people brought up in the bluegrass tradition, even if they’re doing something different now. Pandolfi feels similarly about bluegrass. Pandolfi says that bluegrass is “wide open,” and “whatever someone says it is.” He continues to argue that bluegrass isn’t politics, but music. The issue that lies in this approach is that many of the traditionalists of the genre are very conservative in what they will designate as bluegrass. They take an approach of exclusivity, with a great hesitance to call something “bluegrass” for fear of tarnishing one of the greatest musical traditions around.

Is this a reasonable approach to take? Bluegrass, as I’ve said before is one of the most interesting genres of music currently around due to its reverence for tradition and roots and its supposed appreciation for innovation. However, the appreciation for innovation does seem to contradict with the conservative view.

In 1965, Bob Dylan (rest assured, I’m not arguing that Bob Dylan is a bluegrass artist) played Newport Folk Festival. Dylan decided on a whim that he would play with a full backing band, or “electric” as they called it. At this point, Newport Folk Festival was a pretty traditional folk festival, with “electric” acts getting a bit of a hard time and disapproval. Dylan wasn’t exactly a fan of this attitude, and in an attempt to subvert this perception, decided to go “electric” with his set at Newport. This was met with mixed reactions. Both booing and cheering were heard as Dylan played his music. Some artists appreciated what Dylan was doing, some hated it. Some attendees loved it, some hated it. In that day and age, folk music didn’t venture too far from acoustic instruments, which is why, when Dylan played with an “electric” band (electric guitar, electric bass and drums), he was met with some harsh criticism. However, in retrospect, this is absolutely an innovation in folk music, as we see modern folk music using a variety of both acoustic and electric instruments, and few people even bat an eye at this.

Honestly, I see the bluegrass community being similar today. A more conservative crowd, fearing the tarnishing of something they loved dearly reacted negatively to something that, in retrospect, was innovative, but at the time seemed to be destructive to a prized genre. Others, seeing the innovation and being excited by it, reacted positively.

My point is that, by fearing the destruction of tradition, are we missing out on innovation? None of these modern artists are actively trying to destroy bluegrass. They all have a deep reverence for the tradition in bluegrass. Pandolfi says that he isn’t sure “traditionalists understand how much respect the young progressive players give to guys like Earl and Ralph, even if they don’t copy their music.” When I saw Mumford and Sons in Fairfax, Virginia about two years back, Marcus Mumford (who is from England) told the crowd it felt good to be back in the south (of course, few people from the states would consider Fairfax, Virginia the “south,” but that’s another argument entirely). While this may seem inauthentic or misinformed, I didn’t take it that way. I took it as a showing of respect for the musical traditions of the south, including the folk and bluegrass traditions, which have obviously heavily influenced a band like Mumford and Sons. Now, of course, we could debate the “bluegrassness” or “bluegrassality” of Mumford and Sons for days, and I’m not saying either way whether or not I think they are bluegrass (because I’m honestly torn), but who is to say they aren’t? Maybe they’re an innovation of bluegrass. Maybe the Avett Brothers are an innovation of bluegrass.

Now, I want to clarify and say I mean no disrespect whatsoever for the traditionalists of bluegrass. Bill Monroe was a master, Lester and Earl were incredible and Ralph and Carter are extremely valuable as well. But what were they if they weren’t innovators? Bluegrass didn’t exist when Bill started playing. Earl invented a whole new style of banjo playing.

Pandolfi point out an irony in the current tension between bluegrass traditionalists and progressive artists. “Ironically, while traditionalists feel they are protecting ‘real bluegrass,’ acts like Mumford (Mumford and Sons) and Yonder (Yonder Mountain String Band) want to celebrate the traditional idiom like never before.” He goes on to say that “bluegrass needs these bands way more than they need bluegrass.” I would have to agree.  Nobody is trying to tarnish the good reputation of bluegrass. The fact that these bands want to be called “bluegrass” and that they are seeking out this distinction from a community known for being stingy with such a distinction should indicate a great respect for the tradition. I don’t think tradition will be lost if these artists are allowed the title of “bluegrass.” If anything, these bands will help bring more people to know the tradition. Tradition does run the risk of getting lost if these artists aren’t allowed the title of “bluegrass.” By broadening the definition of the genre, it will broaden the fan base of bluegrass, allowing many more people the opportunity to explore the wonderful world of bluegrass some people are trying so hard to defend.

So here’s to Bill Monroe. Here’s to Scott Avett. Here’s to Earl Scruggs. Here’s to Marcus Mumford. Here’s to coexistence and acceptance. Here’s to bluegrass.

 

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