A Semester in Review

This past semester has flown by, thanks to the fun I’ve had in our Bluegrass class. I was initially hesitant about this class, that we would be discussing the technical side of music, note reading, and instrumentation. To my surprise, we covered instead bluegrass’s influential role in everything from modern rock and roll, to its political and social uses throughout time. We started out our class by asking a simple question: What is bluegrass? A question that has thousands of possible answers, and continues to cause arguments in every discussion circle that approaches it. We covered how traditional bluegrass grew from its folk roots, became a national genre, and has now branched off into dozens of sub-genres and cultures. It has spread across the globe, to places like Japan and Sweden, and has produced some of the most talented musicians of our life time, such as Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush and Tony Rice, to name only a few.

Getting to travel to Appalachian State University for the Fiddler’s Convention, and attending jam sessions, concerts and festivals has allowed me and my classmates to expand our ideas of what we consider bluegrass, or perhaps what others might consider it. Through our projects and blogs, I have learned so much about the music I’ve been growing up to, and am amazed at how diverse and dynamic it can be. For every band out there, there is a sub-genre or group they can be linked to, whether they like it or not. While this can seem like conflict within the community, it has allowed these younger artists to express themselves in the way they see fit. A recurring theme in the bluegrass/folk scene is the younger generation constantly pushing the envelope, often to the the disgruntlement of the older generation.

At the end of this class, I find that I have vastly expanded my idea of “what is bluegrass”? My personal definition for bluegrass has definitely changed, as has the way I approach new musicians and bands. The biggest thing I’ve taken away from our class is this; Preserving traditional music, instruments and ideas is perfectly fine, and should be important to us. However, change is a natural part of being human, and the best way for us to express this is through our music.

As an end note, here is one of my personal favorites, Mountain Dew as performed by Stringbean:

Origin of the Five String Banjo

The 5-string banjo is considered one of bluegrass’s most important and historical instruments, and is one of the most easily recognized instruments in the world. The banjo itself can be traced back to Africa, where they were made using animal skins and gourds as the base. A  stick was used as the neck, with no frets or fingerboards, just acting as a holding element for the strings over the skin. Unfortunately, the banjo was spread around the world as a by-product of the slave trade. As African slaves were moved around the world, they brought their music with them, and it blended and evolved as they encountered new things. Exposure to European instruments like the lute and Spanish guitar led to a fretboard being added to the neck of the banjo in the Caribbean islands. The banjo later became a regular part of slave life on plantations and farms in the U.S., and drew the attention of white performers.

One of these performers was Joel Sweeney from Appomattox, Virginia. An early black-face performer, Sweeney was one of the first minstrels to use a banjo as a regular instrument on stage in recurring shows. He is also credited with creating the drum-like resonator seen on modern banjos. Another major addition to the banjo was the addition of the fifth string. The banjo’s fifth string is different in that it starts at the fifth fret and is tuned to a higher open pitch then the other four strings. This is a key part of the playing style of the banjo, relying on rolls and re-entrant tuning to create its distinctive sound.

After the popularity of bluegrass and old time music, the banjo continued to evolve in several different variations. The tenor banjo, which features a shorter neck and higher pitched tuning, allows a banjo player to simulate the sounds of a mandolin or fiddle. Large scale versions of the banjo were also created, such as the cello and bass banjos, even including a stand up bass banjo.

1930's Gibson bass banjo ad.jpg

Finally, the banjo has also advanced into the electronic instrument market, with electric banjos making their way into modern electric bands and alternative bluegrass music.