Today, Bluegrass and Folk Music Festivals are extremely popular scenes, and draw both large audiences and important exposure for musicians. However, the idea of having a festival for bluegrass music was not always popular, and was in some places actively resisted. When Bluegrass was emerging onto the national stage, most bluegrass performances occurred at recording studios, performance houses, and local small gatherings. Bluegrass music was played mostly over the radio, at church or social gatherings, and occasionally in jams or practice when traveling musicians passed through. Bluegrass concerts in the 30’s and 40’s were the main source if interaction with the musicians for the audience, in family friendly environments.
It wouldn’t be until the 60’s and 70’s, and the help of the hippie/rural revival that bluegrass would enter the festival scene. With the revival of interest in folk and bluegrass music, younger audiences and musicians wanted to have their own opportunity to get their music to the audience. However, without a recording studio or an appointment for radio, this was extremely difficult. The first bluegrass festival at Fincastle, VA was little more than a stage and a field to camp, with musicians, bands and listeners appearing out of the woodwork. camp circles formed and impromptu jam sessions were carrying on at all hours.
As stated in Robert Gardner’s “The Portable Community: Mobility and Modernization in Bluegrass Life”, many listeners found their way to these festivals through friends, word of mouth, and exposure generated by other bands and genres, such as the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival. On the west coast, festivals were far more focused on the younger generation, with hippies and progressive musicians being the norm. “Traditional” bluegrass artists like Bill Monroe often were skeptic of these festivals, and usually only played organized, family friendly shows. At the end of the day, these festivals gave emerging artists and the genre as a whole important exposure on a national scale, that has allowed bluegrass to expand even over seas as an important cultural product of the U.S.
What type of music you listen to or the type you are exposed to often depends most on where you are. Different physical and cultural regions all have varying musical preferences, and can heavily influence those who grow up in these areas. Even within genres we have sub-genres, that can often have distinct differences and very picky fan-bases. Differences in playing styles, popular instruments and other factors can change vastly, even if its just one valley over.
In class this week one of the main topics we discussed was background and “authenticity”. Bluegrass is considered an Appalachian tradition, but some of its founding fathers weren’t even from the area. Bluegrass players from western Kentucky, or even upstate New York could be found touring throughout the Appalachians attending festivals and recording sessions. Visiting bands from as far away as Japan would appear at the bluegrass festivals, to share their own interpretation and love of the music. This brought many people to ask; do you have to be from a certain place to be considered “bluegrass”? What do you have to do to be considered an “authentic bluegrass musician”?
While it is true that certain music is associated with certain cultural or regional backgrounds, you shouldn’t be limited or judged for the music you play just because you are different. Songwriters and performers produce music that people can enjoy, it shouldn’t be limited by needing a seal of approval for being “100% authentic”. Besides, one persons idea of an authentic sound could be completely different from mine or yours. Instead of focusing on where the music is coming from, look at what is saying and what the musicians are trying to convey.
One of our readings this week is a text titled simply “Music and Politics” by John Street. He describes how music, despite being considered one of the purest and powerful forms of free speech and expression, is constantly subjugated to censorship, political pressure, religious bashing and threats, and sometimes outright bans. Every genre of music has encountered these situations at one time or another; rock n’ roll, metal, hip hop and rap, all of these and more were and are constantly trying to be regulated and controlled. Street mentions how radio stations in Mogadishu had to halt music broadcasting due to the Islamic militia. Other incidents included bans on Swedish death metal in the U.S., and the Soviet Unions attempts to filter western music stars during the Cold War.
However, Bluegrass has had a different issue with censorship and politics in its songs and artists. Many people claim that bluegrass holds no political message, that it hasn’t been used for any political or ethical message or platform. It certainly is true that mainstream or more well known bluegrass doesn’t include political issues, but the genre has been used to express distaste or anger over issues.
Bluegrass as a whole has actually made an attempt to separate itself from current issues, politics and conflicts. The factor that draws many people to the music is its sense of nostalgia, of better times, and how things used to be. The music is meant to be an escape from these issues that have become so invasive in our day and age. Bluegrass started out as a source of entertainment, to enjoy after a hard days work, or a friendly gathering on the weekend. Traditional bluegrass festivals were family oriented and designed specifically to offer a day or two of pure joy to the people who enjoy this music.
One of the points that is raised in Music and Politics, is a simple and powerful message that has proven itself countless times. The harder that a group or government tries to censor or block music, the bigger the resistance to them becomes, and the musical community often becomes stronger and more outspoken because of it. People are naturally inspired to express their beliefs and ideas, and no amount of regulation or redtape can stop them.