Appalachian Bluegrass: A Transplanted Tradition

The sounds and lyrics in bluegrass music often echo reminiscent feelings of lost loves, distant family, and the beauty of the landscape of Appalachia.

I have always felt a strong connection with these cries. They remind me of the Blue Ridge Mountains, my roots, and a sense of pride. They remind me of the rivers, lakes, and streams, that carved this land just as my family has shaped the land and tended to their crops.

Merriam-Webster gives two very different definitions of bluegrass. The first is as follows:

1: any of several grasses (genus Poa) of which some have bluish-green culms; especially : kentucky bluegrass

The first definition is the root and association that brings meaning to the second definition. Many do not know that bluegrass is not native to North America. Bluegrass, or Poa, is native to different parts of Europe. Just as the plant has found a home in North America, so too have European immigrants transplanted their roots of bluegrass music in the culture of Appalachia.

The International Bluegrass Music Association credit Irish, Scottish, English, as well as African immigrants with the development of the genre. I myself am descendent from an Irish bloodline. Nearly all of my family at some time has lived in Franklin County, the city of Roanoke, and Bedford County, Virginia

Although these areas are not technically considered part of Appalachia, much of the bluegrass tradition can be observed there, especially in Franklin County.

My mom comes from a relatively large family, consisting of seven children. Naturally, this has led to a huge extended family with a wide variety of personality. There are beach kids, city kids, and the hometown locals.

Family gatherings are always somewhat hectic, but somehow always seem to come together. Dinner is served buffet style and begins with the ringing of the dinner bell by the youngest member of the family. The line for food is loosely organized by age with the youngest eating first considering that their patience dissipates first.

When I was younger, my grandfather was the DeWitt family patriarch. He was born a surprise twin and was named after his father, Daniel John DeWitt. His brother was named just the opposite, John Daniel DeWitt.

Just as their names suggested, they were mirror images of each other, both in body and in mind. The rest of the family joked that they had developed their own language of grunts and mumbles in the womb. During family meetings, even after John went blind they would be found speaking their language and bursting out into laughter for reasons unknown to the rest of us.

Some mornings, grandpa would be sitting at the breakfast table singing old country songs without his teeth in, but being from a family from the Blue Ridge Mountains, we knew the songs he sang. Whether it was because the song contained his name or he just liked the way it sounded, “Danny Boy” was always his favorite to sing loud and the only way he knew how.

The family structure in many traditional Appalachian families is similar to mine, large and full of energy to work the farm. This brings me to the second definition of Bluegrass.

2: country music played on unamplified stringed instruments (as banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin) and characterized by free improvisation and close usually high-pitched harmony

Many bluegrass fans would also include the dobro in a traditional bluegrass arrangement.

The structure of bluegrass could be said to be very close to a traditional Appalachian family structure. All instruments included in a traditional arrangement are strings, suggesting roots in the same family. The free improvisation of the music allows each musicians personality and style to be displayed, none being quite like the other. Finally the harmony, which in a family can be seen as the grounding factor that when put together makes everything work.

Bluegrass is much more than just music. It is a culture that reflects family, history, landscape, and the unity of it all.

Derek Via


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