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:
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.
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?