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.

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:

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.