This week, I had the pleasure of reading Murphy Henry’s (founder of the Women in Bluegrass magazine) keynote address from the 1998 IBMA Trade Show. In the process of describing the successes achieved and the remaining obstacles faced by women in the genre, she touched upon the idea of gendered instruments, something I’d never really thought about in the context of bluegrass.
(I’m not going to say I’ve NEVER thought about an instrument as inherently feminine…)
In her talk, she expresses her frustration with the author of the liner notes for The Essential Bill Monroe boxed collection over his unnecessary and unfair gendering of a bluegrass origin story involving the mandolin.
“You know that Bill Monroe was the youngest of his family, so when Birch took the fiddle, and Charlie took the guitar, Bill Monroe was left with the mandolin. Well, there’s nothing gender-related about that story. But this author chooses to inject gender into this little story. He points out that if we look at family band photos from that era, that the mandolin is usually being played by a kid of girl. And the way this guy has written this up, it’s like nothing could be worse— the mandolin is a girl’s instrument— isn’t that awful?” -Murphy Henry
Henry goes on to describe how this particular author describes the creation of bluegrass as Bill Monroe’s attempt to create a masculine music on an inherently feminine instrument. Needless to say, Henry (and I) had to disagree with that particular interpretation of events, but it got me thinking about instruments and gender.
(That is NOT what I meant! Though it would make an interesting study in performativity…)
So what’s the most feminine instrument? With the help of some hall mates from the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, I brainstormed a list:
- French horn
This list is in no particular order (except for the order I wrote them down in), but I’ll tell you that when I asked what the most feminine instrument was, the answer was overwhelmingly harp. When I asked what the most feminine bluegrass instrument was, the answer was a resounding “violin” (not fiddle, interestingly enough). Though I’m not sure this is exactly what they meant, Lindsey Sterling certainly does make a strong case:
(Fun fact: Did you know that “fiddle” and “violin” have separate Wikipedia pages?)
I kept bothering my friends and produced the following gender assignments for a traditional bluegrass lineup:
- Fiddle- Feminine
- Upright Bass- Masculine
- Mandolin- Non-gendered (or “asexual,” as one person put it. Maybe Thomas Adler was on to something…)
- Banjo- Masculine
- Acoustic Guitar- Masculine
From my very small sample size, I noticed a few interesting breaks from what I would have expected. The fiddle, the “devil’s box,” long associated with dancing and other sinful behavior, is now considered the most feminine of bluegrass instruments! (at least here on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston)
(Note to self: Blog post exploring the fiddle’s long association with Satan and Co. ?)
Another interesting point to note is that the upright bass, an instrument often associated with women in bluegrass (thanks largely to Bluegrass Boy Bessie Lee Mauldin) was denoted as a masculine instrument, and the supposedly feminine mandolin was deemed non-gendered.
(Food for thought: is a non gendered entity perceived as more feminine in a male-dominated culture?)
But the more I think of it, the more I realize that the mandolin is pretty evenly split in the bluegrass scene (as even as it can be in the bluegrass scene).
So here is a montage of some fantastic female mandolin players:
(Sierra Hull! Can we forgive her amplification? Yes, yes we can.)
(Ashley Lewis picks pretty good…for a HUMAN BEING)
(Even the New Queen of Bluegrass plays the mandolin!)
And here is a montage of fantastic male mandolin players:
(Yeah, he went to my high school. No big deal.)
(What’s with San Diego and mandolin prodigies named Chris?)
(Does this song give anyone else the chills?)
But the mandolin isn’t the only bluegrass instrument being played by women. Not by a long shot.
(Insert literally any Della Mae clip here)
As a final thought, I’d like to address Rosenberg’s claim that the banjo is “the only instrument in American tradition which has not been feminized.” Despite the long list of women in and outside of bluegrass playing the instrument, I think he might be right (no, not because Della Mae leaves it out of their lineup!).
Unfortunately, I suspect this stereotype (and it is a stereotype, like all gendering of inanimate musical objects) comes from a more deeply held image: that of the banjo as the instrument of the poor, white, uneducated hillbilly.
(My point is, there’s a REASON Kermit’s playing a banjo, not a guitar or a mandolin)
But that’s a topic for another post.