This week some of our readings consisted of Robert Cantwell’s “Hillbilly Music” and select chapters of Thomas Goldsmith’s ‘The Bluegrass Reader”. After reading them several questions rose to mind. Chiefly among them were two issues I’ve been considering regarding bluegrass music:
1. Much of bluegrass’s success can be credited to the widespread of radio in the early 20th century. If there hadn’t been radio stations and shows like the Old Opry, would bluegrass have still risen to popularity? Like Jazz and Blues before it, could the mountain music have spread simply by traveling musicians and word of mouth?
2. One of the most prominent and most respected musicians today, Ralph Stanley has a history of over 70+ years of making bluegrass music. What is it about the Stanley Brothers (and later just Ralph’s) singing that draws so many people? How does it differ from Bill Monroe’s “high lonesome” sound, or the high energy drive of the Osborne Brothers?
To show why Ralph Stanley is such a talented vocalist and musician, here is an earlier version of “Oh Death”, as recorded with his brother Carter and the Clinch Mountain Boys. This song would later bring worldwide recognition for Ralph’s solo performance featured in the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
Clarence “Tom” Ashley was born on Sept. 29, 1895 in Bristol, Tennessee. The Ashley family were Irish Immigrants, who had settled in Eastern Virginia and had a passion for the ballads and folk songs that blended the tunes of their ancestral home with the rhythm of American folk music. Clarence’s mother Rose-Belle Ashley, was known as an excellent singer, and his father George McCurry, was a fiddle player. However, his father was run out of town after it was found he was an adulterer, having “married” four or five different women. After that Clarence and his mother moved in with her parents, and Clarence chose to take their family name of Ashley.
When he was twelve, His mother and grandmother taught him what they knew on the guitar, and Clarence picked up to it well. He also worked on memorizing the songs and dance tunes of his community. Whenever there was a barn-raisin or community get together, there was almost always some music, and Clarence was a regular in the band get togethers. Clarence, or as everyone knew him “Tom”, was an intelligent and sharp young man, but he decided to drop out of school in fifth grade, to help earn money. When he was sixteen, a traveling medicine show passed through and played a couple songs for the townsfolk. When the medicine show headed out again, Tom was with them, and this started his musical career.
After a few early recording sessions in the late 20’s, the nation was hit with the Great Depression, and Clarence had to earn a living doing odd jobs, working as a coal miner in West Virginia for some time. It wasn’t until the folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s that Clarence could make a living off his music. While he did well on the festival circuit, his biggest influence was his knowledge of folk songs. Along with others like Doc Watson and Clint Howard, Clarence recorded many of the old ballads and tunes that had been passed down but never recorded. He is also credited with the first recording of “The House of the Rising Sun”, which he learned from his grandmother.
A classic example of Appalachian Folk Music, here is Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie”:
After reading the introduction texts to “Bluegrass: A History” by Neil Rosenberg, and “The Bluegrass Reader” by Thomas Goldsmith, I had formed a good idea for what a true, technical definition for bluegrass would be. “Bluegrass” in the academic, dictionary idea, is a genre of music defined by the use of acoustic instruments such as the banjo, fiddle, and guitar, as well as other instruments, playing medium to fast tempo songs and ballads. This definition serves to encompass as much of the music as possible, while keeping Bluegrass separate from the folk and country genres.
However, after watching the film “High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music”, and considering my personal experience with bluegrass, I have my own definition. Bluegrass is simply music from people’s homes and experiences; it can be about whatever you’ve experiences, or stories and tales from back home. Like they said in the film, “bluegrass was considered folk tunes on overdrive”. Bluegrass has such a wide variety of styles and musicians, who come from all different reaches of the world, that they are redefining the genre whenever a new song or rhythm is played. Bluegrass from the Catskills Mountains is bound to differ from the melodies and tunes of the Shenandoah Valley, but its the idea of the music that binds it together.
As an example of this, Here is a particular song I enjoy from a group called Iron Horse, based out of Killen, Alabama. They’ve done excellent covers of famous songs, such as “Fire on the Mountain” by the Marshall Tucker Band, as well as covering dozens of songs from heavy metal band Metallica. A personal favorite of mine, this is their rendition of “Enter Sandman”.