In Robert Cantwell’s article, Hillbilly Music, he goes into great detail about the beginning of Bill Monroe’s career along with how the radio influenced cultural identities. Cantwell is not shy to admit that he believes the way people listened to their music in the early 20th century did put a “dust” over the pureness of the sound. He credits this dust to ideas that quickly became associated with bluegrass and old-time music.
Throughout reading this article I continually questioned the idea of stereotypes associated with music. I pondered about the recent Grammy winning songs and what makes them gain their level of popularity in today’s world. To me, I use music to take me back to my childhood or bring back memories of my home; however, when listening to today’s “popular” music it is simply the same overused topics. I, unlike most, do not consider certain stereotypes to be negative. For example, many people characterize bluegrass music as hick or rural; yet, to me this just states that this genre has a sense of identity. This music is easily identifiable to some. While listening to Sam Smith’s music that has gained him much fame I cannot help to feel disconnected. He is a homosexual man from England who has been trained vocally for years, my life and his do not share many of the same roads. I would much rather listen to songs about my region that provoke conversation amongst my family and I about history or outlooks on life. Below is a song that I recently came across that is about a place about 20 minutes from my home in Bluefield, WV. I find much enjoyment listening to this song as it reminds of family as well as past and current hardships people are facing.
Also while reading Cantwell’s article I could not help to question the future of bluegrass music. As noted in his article and throughout much of our course, many bluegrass musicians also served as advertisements for certain products during the genre’s infancy. Then, the larger acts seemingly started touring and playing at the Grande Ole Opry in about the mid 20th century. Fast forwarding a bit, today it seems that bluegrass often plays second fiddle (pun intended) to country music on the radio. Where does bluegrass music belong today? In my opinion, bluegrass fits well outside the mainstream. Bluegrass flourishes in smaller communities throughout Appalachia whether it be at jams, festivals or competitions. This background personality gives the genre its substance. Helping bluegrass in this current world is technology. This has helped the genre that Bill Monroe start grow into a worldwide community. Defining the future for bluegrass is challenging, but it is my hope that the music continues to keep up with technology. It is my belief that if the genre keeps up with technology it will be able to continue and grow. The idea of keeping up with technology is seen through the websites listed below, these websites allow people worldwide to be informed about festivals:
To begin my research on Tommy Jarrell I thought it would be appropriate to see his most popular song on iTunes. I was shocked to find that his most sold song is “Cotton Eyed Joe,” however his version has much more instrumental works along with expanded lyrics from what is heard today. Lucky for me, Les Blank created a short documentary in 1983 about the life of Tommy Jarrell. While this is not a typical documentary that has a deep voice over, begins at the start of a person’s life and concludes with the death, Blank creates a more personal feeling for the viewer. During this documentary, Blank and Jarrell talk one-on-one, it is at these points that Jarrell reminisces and the viewer learns of his past. Also the film shows Jarrell playing his fiddle. He gained much fame for how quick he could play the fiddle and was notorious for singing and playing at the same time. This unique style is shown below:
While he is remembered mostly for his fiddle playing, Jarrell also played the banjo. Jarrell talks of how he was a farmer until it got too expensive. A recurring theme throughout the documentary is alcohol. It is mentioned that Jarrell would make moonshine during his young adult years, as it was more profitable than farming. Jarrell also talks how he and his family would go to other family’s houses and jam around a bottle of whiskey until the wee hours of the night. These jams may start as a corn shucking or some other type of farming game but would eventually end in a jam. It is also noticeable throughout the film how much family meant to Jarrell. Interestingly, Blank brings in Jarrell’s sisters to speak about him, but also speak about their lives during the in the early 20th century. While alcohol is prevalent throughout the film, Blank also shows that Jarrell was religious. To conclude the film, Blank follows Jarrell to a festival where he is a celebrity.
While Les Blank’s film was entertaining and put a voice and sound to a face, afterward I desired more factual information about Tommy Jarrell’s life. My search then led me to the Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame website to an article written by Thomas Reavis Lyons. The author was very interested in Jarrell so he traveled to his hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina to interview surviving family members about Jarrell’s life and legacy. He found that Jarrell was born in 1901 and passed away in 1985. During his childhood Jarrell would often work in the fields with his parents where they would sing songs and tell stories. Jarrell bought his first fiddle when he was 14 for $10, that fiddle now resides in the Smithsonian Museum. Pertinent to Blacksburg, Jarrell married his wife Nina in Hillsville, Virginia. Jarrell recorded seven albums and was even selected for the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship. It is also noteworthy that he was an amateur fiddle player; he worked 41 years for the Department of Transportation. Today, Tommy Jarrell is buried beside his late wife in Mount Airy. To keep his tradition alive, there is a Tommy Jarrell Festival each year in Mount Airy that last a couple of days and has events ranging from a youth competition to workshops and has numerous concerts. The website for this festival is shown below:
According to Goldsmith, bluegrass is expansive 20th century acoustic string-band music based in traditional styles. Rosenburg tends to agree with Goldsmith as he writes, bluegrass is a music where people accompany themselves with acoustic instruments, rapid tempos, high-pitch and lonesome vocals. While this definitions tend to overlap, the Encyclopedia of Appalachia and Merriam-Webster correspondence tightly. These sources are more simply put that bluegrass is an American music played on stringed instruments with harmony singing and gospel. The film, High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass, puts a more specific example to define bluegrass. The film reads bluegrass as Bill Monroe’s sound composed of hillbilly style, high pitch, fast tempos and religion. To me, I combine these definitions. I phrase bluegrass as 20th century American music with fast tempo, harmony, lonesome sound with high-pitch and acoustic instruments. This sound is best shown thrown Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, and to the ear registers as a fast folk.