Nostalgia in the Songs of Women in Bluegrass

My topic for my final project is looking at nostalgia in the songs of women in bluegrass.  I found that each song talks about home in a different way.  Some have left home and are longing to go back, some left home and have now returned, and some are where they consider home but it doesn’t feel like home anymore because of change.  In most cases, especially in these songs, the change that caused the singers to lose their sense of home was an environmental change.

I became interested in this topic because my family recently sold a piece of farm land to someone who wanted the land to build a housing development.

Solastalgia vs. Nostalgia

Solastalgia-the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment

(Australas Psychiatry. 2007;15 Suppl 1:S95-8.)

Like we discussed in class, being a lady and a bluegrass musician is not easy.  Since there are so few bluegrass singers that are women I struggled to find songs that fit my topic.  We also discussed in class that many women had to work around the genre norms to become successful musicians, for this reason, many of the following artists are not considered bluegrass, but rather folk/Americana/singer-songwriter/etc.

Written while living in Washington DC

“It’s only a memory, I can never go back home again”

Going home in her mind, without physically going home


Also mentions “ragged and hungry”

Popular Counting Crows cover

“Paved paradise, put up a parking lot”

Losing home and leaving home

Actually returning home


Don’t Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There

(This is Don’t Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard if the link won’t play)

 Well, there’s more to her than powder and paint
Than her peroxided, bleached out hair
Well, if she acts that way, it’s cause you had your day
Don’t put her down, you helped put her there

The typical image of bluegrass is an old man playing the banjo.  Women have been involved the pioneering of bluegrass since its beginnings with Bill Monroe but they’re often left out of the story.  Many women in bluegrass rely heavily on the performativity and showiness of their act rather than their music.  The Judds are a good example of this with their makeup, fiery hair that reaches to heaven, and story/joke telling during their songs.  Other women in bluegrass work around the genre and may not play what is traditionally considered bluegrass.  An example of this is Della Mae, an all women band that doesn’t use a banjo in their songs.  Last week I went to the Steel Wheels concert at the Lyric theater and Kat Mills was the opening act.  She was the opposite of showy, her performance was very simple but, she worked around the genre by playing the guitar and singing with only another guitar or mandolin accompaniment.

(sorry, my video recording skills are not fabulous)

Appalachia and Bluegrass

Most people automatically associate fiddles and banjos with the Appalachian region, but others question whether bluegrass music and Appalachia actually have a strong relationship.  I think there’s no doubt that bluegrass music is tied to Appalachia.  Many, many songs are written about the mountainous terrain of Appalachia and jobs, such as coal mining and farming that are largely found in Appalachia.  The people that live in Appalachia are often found playing bluegrass music but bluegrass music can also be found anywhere in the United States from New England to California and it’s also enjoyed globally in Europe and Asian countries.   While many Bluegrass songs sing about the hard times of a coal miner in the mountains, a Japanese farmer who spends his days in the rice fields could relate to these songs.  So without Appalachia would bluegrass even exist? The instruments would still exist, the banjo has an African background and the people who play bluegrass would still exist.  Bill Monroe, not even from Appalachia, is considered the father of bluegrass and I’m sure he would have still been playing music without the existence of Appalachia.  The lyrics and hardships that are written about would certainly change but the music itself would remain.  The Appalachian region has definitely helped shape Bluegrass into what it is today but without it bluegrass still would have found its way into the world.

“The Business of Bluegrass”

Music and Politics

“They [music and politics] are not to be seen as separate entities whose worlds collide only occasionally, but rather are extensions of each other.”

Deciding whether music and politics are directly related is a difficult judgement to make.  In his book Music and Politics John Street states that the boundary between music in politics is merely illusionary. I’d say that it’s also hard to make the assumption that the line is illusionary because there are many songs that may incite some kind of emotion but nothing that would make one want to make a political stance.  When the Taliban placed a ban on music in 2002 many folks linked music to power and freedom. And when the violence in Rwanda between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes erupted the question was raised: are song, lyrics, and melodies able to create enough emotion within a person to compel them to commit genocide?  We know that many retail stores, car dealerships, and any type of business often use music in their lobby’s and stores to create a certain atmosphere that causes the consumer to feel comfortable and want to buy what the business is selling.  Obviously music has an impact on our emotions but this is not to say that every type of music is carrying a political message behind it to try to persuade listeners. If this were the case it could be argued that everything someone does and every way that they express themselves is a political statement.  Music that is to be considered political it must cause a group of people to feel strongly enough about the topic to take some type of action, not solely personal contemplation.



Frank Wakefield

Frank Wakefield is a mandolin player from Emory Gap, Tennessee who has played with many great musicians including Jimmy Martin, Red Allen, and Ricky Skaggs.  He has also influenced the sound of those such as David Grisman and Ronnie McCoury.  Frank has, several times, played in Carnegie Hall and in 1999 was even nominated for a Grammy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Wakefield was born in 1934 to a family of musicians and by age 6 was already playing the harmonica.  During his teenage years he played the mandolin to his brother Ralph’s guitar.  The brother duo specialized in gospel and old time music and sometimes appeared on their local radio station in Dayton, Ohio.  Later in 1952, Frank toured around the midwest and at Bean Blossom with Red Allen and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys.  They toured together for about 3 years.  From 1955-1957 he worked with the Chain Mountain Boys out of Detroit where he recorded his first RPM.  These recordings included the popular “New Camptown Races.”

Frank Moved on the tour with Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys until 1958.  Next, Frank reunited with Red Allen to form Red Allen, Frank Wakefield and the Kentuckians.  It’s with this band that he appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1963.


In 1964, Frank became the mandolinist for the Greenbriar Boys.  Then in 1972 he finally launched his solo career.  Throughout this period he toured with many popular artists with genres ranging from blues to country to pop.  Frank’s album “The Kitchen Tapes” has, to this day, sold over 200,000 copies

Robert Cantwell: Hillbilly Music

Robert Cantwell describes the radio as a tool to bring many different types of people together and take them to a new region or city.  I guess I don’t really know how the radio works, but how does a family in  North Carolina pick up a radio station out of Chicago?

In many of the readings and especially in this piece by Cantwell, they discuss how the banjo player was often used as comedy relief or that there was a comedy act within the music.

Funny Banjo Players: Five Plucky Pairings of Comedy and Music

They also refer to black face, minstrel acts, and rural medicine comedian acts. Why did musicians feel that just their music wasn’t entertaining enough?  Now, people will go to concerts of many genres of music that have no comedy in them at all.

Dock Boggs

“Dock Boggs” was born on February 7, 1898 in West Norton, Virginia.  His given name was Moran Lee, after an admired town doctor, but his father started calling him Dock as a child.  Dock went to school up to seventh grade but at age 12 he began working in the coal mines of Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.  Dock heard the songs that he played from other musicians and his family.  He was heavily influenced by African American music being a turn of the century artist and he’s considered part of the bridge connecting traditional African music with old time music.  Dock was also an excellent dancer and many of his routines were imitations of people living their everyday lives.  Though Dock wasn’t a drunk he led a hard life and was a heavy drinker.  His life influenced his songs as he often sang about sadness and death.

“Lonesome songs always appealed to me.”

In 1927 Dock recorded several songs, including Country Blues and Sugar Baby.

After these recordings Dock decided to stop working in the mines, bought a Gibson Mastertone banjo, and put together a stringband to play locally however, after about a year economic hardships and other factors caused the band to fizzle out.  His first music career was short lived as the Great Depression hit soon after these 1927 recordings and the development of his string band.  He was married in 1918 to Sara from the mountains of Kentucky, and their relationship was very rocky during the 1930’s.  Sara was very devoted to her husband even though he may have been whatt is considered a “rambling man.”

Dock had to pawn his banjo to a friend and begin work in the coal mines again when the depression hit hard on Sara and him.  He worked hard in the coalmines until 1960 when he began to take an interest in music again.  Dock went back to the friend that he pawned his banjo to 25 years ago and picked up where he left off.  He played for family and friends, but also at concerts and festivals.  His second musical career was much more successful and he continued to play his music until he died on February 7, 1971, his 73rd birthday.  He would be 117 this coming Saturday.

Further Info:


What Is Bluegrass?

Community is a big part of what makes bluegrass music what it is.  People from all areas come together to listen and to play bluegrass music.  A lot of diversity can be found in bluegrass music and an example of this is the Asian bluegrass band that was shown in High Lonsome: the Story of Bluegrass Music.  Bluegrass music so easily brings people together because everyone can relate to it and it creates a feeling of nostalgia.

“Bluegrass tells a sad, sad story, I’ll tell ya that.  If you don’t have no feeling, there’s no use to singing it.” -Jimmy Martin

Often times bluegrass tells a story from the past and how things have changed, usually for the worse since the singer was growing up.  In the song I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home, sung by Bill Monroe discusses how he felt when he returned home and the place where he grew up had changed and was very different.

“High in the hills of old Kentucky
Stands the fondest spot in my memory
I’m on my way back to the old home
The light in the window I long to see”

Bill Monroe – I’m On My Way Back To The Old Home

When defining bluegrass by the mechanics of how it is played and how it sounds, it typically includes only string instruments and the vocals usually have a higher sound the most refer to as high lonesome.  This high sound is usually created in harmony by brother duos, trios, or quartetsThe basic instruments of a bluegrass band are the acoustic guitar, banjo, dobro, fiddle, bass, and mandolin. Allison Krauss calls it “a natural kind of music” because no electricity is used to create an electric, autotuned, etc sound.