Robert Cantwell’s “Hillbilly Music” focuses on the commercial background of the Bluegrass genre, specifically the Monroe Brothers’ music. Cantwell begins this chapter with some of Bill Monroe’s background. In 1929, Monroe moved to Whiting, Indiana from rural Kentucky along with many other Southern migrants after World War I. He worked in a Sinclair refinery for five years, often acting as the only source of income for his family. The presence of industry in northern regions of the United States had formed a “cosmopolitan” yet “southern rural community” in which radio was very influential and, after playing music at local dances and parties, Bill Monroe and his brothers, Charlie and Birch, were offered to be part of a road show sponsored by WLS radio station.
Cantwell speaks to the importance of radio as a means of spreading hillbilly music all over the country. He states, “Radio has the power to transmit its message over geographical and cultural boundaries which even the most intrepid folklorist would hardly dare to cross.” Cantwell makes it clear that the radio helped introduce rural music into urban areas. The Barn Dance on WLS played “southern, rural, traditional music in conjunction with old-fashioned sentimental and popular songs” and “seemed to reconstitute the rural music as a popular or national form.” Aside from spreading the popularity of hillbilly music, radio also played a large political role in the 1930s, “amplifying the audience’s consciousness of its own identity, or even defining it.”
The radio “gathered together the audial images…of a history divided by world war, swift industrialization, and rural to urban migration,” a theme that was common in Bill Monroe’s music. The Monroe Brothers listened to bands on record that had “elements of instrumental technique, aesthetic posture, rhythm, and even the moral position Monroe would adopt for his music” such as the Carter Family, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and Bradley Kincaid. Cantwell states that the Monroe Brothers’ music simplified and presented a “romantic,” “stylized picture of the Appalachian region.”
Although the radio played a huge role in the spread of hillbilly music, Cantwell does address some of its downfalls. He states that the radio “inevitably threw a kind of dust” over hillbilly music, seeming to “shut the speaking or singing voice up into a suitcase.” He concludes his chapter with this statement:
“Old recordings, like the voice of a sweetheart, wife, or mother to whom the long-distance connection does not quite connect you, seem somehow just out of reach, melancholy, dream-like, set in the acoustic half-light of another time and place whose veiled image rises to consciousness under the promptings of an old song.”
While reading Cantwell’s article I began questioning the beginnings of the styles of Bluegrass music—how much of Bluegrass was originally started by Bill Monroe and other first generation artists and how much was borrowed from other genres such as string band and jazz?
I also started to question what attracted the early audience of Bluegrass to the genre. Were people drawn to Bluegrass because they actually connected with its themes of home, religion, family and a simplistic lifestyle? Or did the radio, as Cantwell states, cause a “yearning for places distant from and ways of life markedly different from” a listener’s own?
Cantwell, Robert. “Hillbilly Music: The Commercial Background.” Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. Urbana: U of Illinois. 41-59. Print.