The Usefulness of Definitions.

January 28, 2014

Christiansburg, VA

We are presented with the task of attempting to define Bluegrass music as we begin our journey of exploring the genre’s roots and influences. The readings (the introduction to Rosenberg’s history, Goldsmith’s collection, Ted Olson’s Encyclopedia of Appalachia introduction, and the film, “High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music”) were collections of names and band formations, anecdotes and song clips, but together… a picture began to form; the constellation of this genre is slowly emerging.

The task of studying bluegrass is (for me, at least) an incredibly challenging one. As Rosenberg writes of his own experience, “I was hesitant about studying something in which I was so deeply involved, and my teachers and most of my fellow students gave me little encouragement in this direction. . . Folklore department head Dorson had built his reputation by opposing what he termed “fakelore”—the inauthentic and commercial material palmed off in popular culture as the real folklore, for big bucks” (4). Unlike Rosenberg, I have found┬áthe study of Appalachian music and bluegrass is supported by the University, however the personal difficulties of dis-entangling oneself from the topic remains. How do we remain objective while being so moved by the music? How can we critique (read: deeply engage with) a culture with which we identify or feel strongly about? This is the challenge not only of defining bluegrass but of place-based and cultural studies as well (and the two should not be mistaken as synonymous).

I am not going to focus on the technical or historical definition of the genre– that is being done beautifully by others on this blog. But I would like to reflect on the function of bluegrass or offer other ways for exploring. Perhaps, rather than ask, “what is bluegrass?” I should have posited the following:

1. Where is bluegrass?

2. Why is bluegrass?

3. Who is bluegrass?

I believe the beloved quote of Saburo Watanabe sums up nicely an entrance into this conversation when he said (something akin to), “I have bluegrass in me and you have bluegrass in you.” This is touched on in bluegrass songwriting, as the late Glen Laney (Knoxville Grass, Buddy’s BBQ) shares:

Bluegrass has been said to be class-based, commercial, capital-driven, regional, rural, urban, a diaspora in it’s identity, communal, and an imagined community (I argued this through Benedict Anderson’s use of the term). Perhaps we can begin to dig deeper in this discussion by attempting to answer the following: what would be lost in a world without bluegrass?