Examination of Bluegrass Identities Through Theories of Identity

Performance Theory & Articulation Theory

“When one starts to think carefully about how discourse might be said to produce a subject, it’s clear that one’s already talking about a certain figure or trope of production.  It is at this point it’s useful to turn to the notion of performativity…So what I’m trying to do is think about performativity as that aspect of discourse that has the capacity to produce what it names.  Then I take a further step…and suggest that this production actually always happens through a certain kind of repetition and recitation.” -Butler (Vila, p. 35-36).

Enter the Performance theory, or the perception of identity not as a stagnant form, but as an ever-changing performance.

Michel Foucault, a French historian and philosopher:

-rejects the idea that there is a true and fixed identity within everyone

-referred to identity as something we communicate to others during our interactions

-identity is a shifting and temporary construction

Evidence:  Bluegrass genre a means of adjustment for southerners

-Bluegrass musicians’ values being rooted in their home places

-desire to constantly relive and identity with these places in the music they create and perform

In his book titled Bluegrass:  A History, musicologist and folklorist, Neil Rosenberg, suggests that

“Bluegrass seems symbolic of responses to outside pressure for social change through group solidarity.  This helps to explain its popularity with Appalachian migrants in northern urban areas, since these people are frequently subjected to such pressure.  It is ironic that those aspects of bluegrass which are restrictive and bound by tradition are, culturally speaking, the most innovative part of the music, since they place the group ahead of the individual” (Rosenberg, p. 9).

In the same spirit, in his article titled “An Introduction to Bluegrass,” folklorist and musician, Mayne Smith, says that

“bluegrass is a nexus of many different cultural factors…the often traumatic process of industrialization and urbanization have swiftly displaced millions of Southerners both geographically and culturally, and there has been increasing economic and political pressure upon the South to conform to Northern urban ways of living.  Bluegrass is both a symptom of and a reaction against this pressure.”

The result is a plethora of songs about leaving the simple life and songs about working in mines (“Dream of a Miner’s Child”), farms (“Thirty Years of Farming”), and mills and factories (“Cotton Mill Man”).

Mandolin player, Bill Monroe, left his rural hometown of Rosine, Kentucky for Indiana, where he worked in an oil refinery & Earl Scruggs left his rural birthplace in Shelby, North Carolina to work in a nearby textile mill

British sociomusicologist, Simon Frith, expresses the following ideas about performativity within music:

-Often times listeners assume a logical flow, beginning with the social identity of a performer and ending with respective musical expression

-Identity is an experiential process and this experience is both social and aesthetic

Mayne Smith: “Bluegrass has acted as a decisive agent for the preservation in commercially viable form of musical performance values that have hardly survived the rest of hillbilly music.  The jazz-like rhythmic elements and ensemble integration of bluegrass function as a vehicle for the continued use of small non-electrified string groups, relatively simple harmonies, traditional vocal styles and repertoire.  Bluegrass thus represents a reaction against the movement of hillbilly music-and perhaps of Southern culture-away from the traditions of rural Appalachia; and the appeal of bluegrass, its means of livelihood, must partially derive from this negative role” (Goldsmith, p. 90).

As a result, Bluegrass music is heavily saturated with southern ideals and values, including life, family, religion, simple living, love, materialized in musical form, as a preservation of the “southern” way of living.

Relevance to women in Bluegrass:

Inspired by Foucault, American gender theorist and philosopher, Judith Butler, applies this notion to the concept of gender.

Butler, “Imitation and Gender Subordination”:  “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a libratory contestation of that very oppression.”

She also claims that these are “idealised and reified norms which people are expected to live up to.”


Mayne Smith summarizes musicians’ own ideas for what makes Bluegrass “Bluegrass”:

“Bluegrass bands are made up of from four to seven male musicians who play non-electrified stringed instruments and who also sing as many as four parts” (Goldsmith, p. 78).

“Male” musicians=idealised norm as players within the genre

“female” musicians=”others” ……”pretty good for a girl”

-Identification of Bluegrass as a male-oriented genre and its promotion as hyper-masculine

-Women’s hyper-sexualization and hyper-femininity in their performances

And since Butler believes that “identity is an effect of power relations,” therefore, these acts are also a direct attempt to undermine such power relations.

Articulation theory, or the theory that “Music and identity are engaged in a constant process of articulation and rearticulation.”  

Author Pablo Vila proposes that narratives construct a character’s identity through construction of the story (Reagan 1993):   “what makes the character’s identity is the story’s identity and not vice versa” (Ricoeur 1992).

In Bluegrass, this can be seen in musicians’ narratives or stories of movement and industrialization. Massive rural to urban migration that occurred in the 1930s to 1950s led to the industrialization of rural southerners…

Other stories include lost love, travel, and nostalgia…

Bluegrass Contradictions

*Old vs. New:  Musicians self-identify as “old-time” musicians despite the genre’s relatively late development

-recorded post-WWII, more than 20 years after first recordings of country music

-by the 1970s musicians used terminology like “traditional bluegrass,” albeit a very brief tradition

Musicians perform in a way that gives value to “tradition” and connects them back to their roots more so than identifies them as city-slickers.

*Limitation of musical individuality, contrastly to supposed high value of individuality in Appalachia

“It seems to me that there is no folk musical form that is more restrictive and bound by an established tradition than is bluegrass.”  Howard Wight Marshall

Mayne Smith, says that “texts determine the identities of songs, since a large number of different songs have nearly identical…yet the literal meanings of texts have relatively little importance to many bluegrass musicians.” He even says that “an informal count discloses over a hundred bluegrass songs that have at least one close tune-mate; many have more than five” (Goldsmith, p. 83).

Uniformity can even be seen in their matching outfits.

Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys
Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys
The Country Gentlemen
The Country Gentlemen


As Frith asserts, identity is an experience of aesthetic and social processes.  Additionally, his assertion that texts of songs determine their identifies aligns with the theory that identities are created through ever-evolving narratives.  Rosenberg claim that Bluegrass is a reaction against change by use of group solidarity is exemplified in the uniformity in their dress.

*Bluegrass portrayed as strictly white European-based form while in actuality, it is the result of cultural exchange (banjo-African roots, blues and ragtime, gospel songs, country, Irish ballads)

Mayne Smith includes musicians’ over claims that:

“Bluegrass is hillbilly music:  it is played by professional, white, Southern musicians, primarily for a Southern audience.  It is stylistically based in Southern musical traditions” (Goldsmith, p. 78).

“Talking performance patterns as a whole, bluegrass shares more stylistic traits with folk tradition than any other well defined category of hillbilly music now produced in quantity.  Anglo- and Afro-American traditional styles ave laid down the lines followed by bluegrass melodies, harmonic accompaniment, and phrasal organization.” -Mayne Smith (Goldsmith, p.84)

African banjo
African banjo
Bela Fleck seeks out African banjo music
Bela Fleck seeks out African banjo music

Performing as an all-American band, as boys from the hills of one place or the valley of another, allows musicians to form an identity that is firmly planted in national tradition and music to which Americans want to relate.

*Bluegrass musicians often referred to as “pickers,” “boys,” and “folks” and they even downplay their ability to perform when they announce that they’ll give a tune a “try”

“Bluegrass was developed by professional musicians, and professional musicians are the ones who define and change the music in their paid performances. The style requires a degree of instrumental virtuosity and a type of ensemble integration seldom found among folk musicians in the United States.” -Mayne Smith (Goldsmith, p. 84)

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