Bluegrass is intertwined into Appalachian culture as a folk tradition–folk being the key word here. Folk has different connotations depending on the context. It can mean a genre of music, a qualitative characteristic of culture and art, or simply people in general. These three definitions of folk come together in bluegrass.
Our class discussion this week centered on whether the music makes the place, or the place makes the music. We’ve discussed how bluegrass reflects the physical geography of Appalachia through songs about mountains, coal mining, and home-place. We established that bluegrass is a form of expression for Appalachian culture as well. This discussion covers the first two definitions of folk: music and culture. However, there is another element that we touched on: the people, or the actual folk.
The class discussion seemed to group Appalachian people in with the physical place. The question I want put forward is not how the place makes the music (or vice versa) but how the place makes the people who in turn make the music. Following the definitions of folk, I separate bluegrass into three branches: the music itself as one entity, the content reflecting Appalachia as another, and the performers and listeners as the base folk. It’s incredibly difficult to establish dividing lines between the music, the place, and the people in bluegrass. As a music genre, bluegrass simultaneously IS music, place, and people. Furthermore, these three branches are so flexible that any aspect of bluegrass could belong to all three. There really isn’t a rigid answer.
My interpretation (not necessarily an answer) is that Appalachian people made bluegrass based on their identity with their place–even if they weren’t physically in Appalachia at the time. It’s a cyclic process of tradition. Music is a purposefully created expression of identity. The people who make and listen to music project a distinguished culture onto a physical place. The place, in turn, fosters the growth of a culture and sustains the identity as similar people gather in certain spaces. All of this happens at the same time–the music IS the culture IS the people ARE the place. This makes bluegrass a folk tradition.