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:

Bluegrass Festivals

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.