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Bluegrass Connection - May 2017 Bluegrass and the United States: both steeped in the history and influences of immigrants
Saint Patrick’s Day has come and gone, but not the fiddle tunes the fiddlers gave a workout. It left me with wondering how long it took for us all to embrace the Irish immigrants and their influence on our culture. If you pay attention to the news today you might notice the topic of immigration. It is a very loaded subject right now and can get a lot of bluegrass fans in a political debate. And a political debate is not a bad thing but it can take a wrong turn quickly during election season.
That is exactly why I am not going to talk about “the wall” and how that would affect our nation. I do want to talk about bluegrass music, one of the United States’ greatest treasures.
We know the Father of Bluegrass Music is Bill Monroe and the “King” of Bluegrass Music is Jimmy Martin. Most folks also have the knowledge that the beginning of this music originated in the state of Kentucky. I think that is where things start to get complicated.
Kentucky had the right conditions and people for this music to slowly become the genre it is today, but we all know the banjo is not native to Kentucky, just like the fiddle, and the list goes on. I like to believe that a stork dropped them off on Uncle Pen’s farm because the rest is just too much to think about.
Okay everyone knows immigrants brought instruments over here and they also played the music from whatever region or culture they came from. They played a lot and that was one of their primary sources of entertainment. Some folks played frequently and at gatherings of all kinds.
I am not a musicologist, so I am not going to give you all the history of each of the bluegrass instruments we claim as part of the bluegrass ensemble. The part of this creation that I have the most fascination with is the recipe and the diversity with ingredients. Like a good chef, Bill tried different recipes before he settled on what became his final list of instruments and sound.
I think the important ingredients that started to set it apart from others would be the fast-paced drive of the banjo and fiddle, then the addition of the blues or blue notes. Irish fiddle tunes or Irish influenced fiddle tunes and the blues in the same genre. Maybe not something you would expect?
Bill’s vocal tunes helped create a fiddle style where soloists follow the vocal melody line and add blue notes when taking a “break.” Chubby Wise and Bill would take time when Bill was writing or learning a song to ensure the fiddle had that right feeling. Chubby (one of Bill’s fiddlers during his famous Grand Ole Opry show in 1945) talked a lot about the blues influence that Bill had from playing with Arnold Shultz. Bill also credited Shultz, the son of a former slave, with introducing him to the blues via fiddle and guitar. That would have been in a time when civil rights issues were not something everyone observed. A relationship Bill clearly benefited from. I love bluegrass music and I love our country. I love that both our country and bluegrass music formed inadvertently by combining cultures and musical styles. Bill Monroe drew upon these cultures when trying different configurations of groups and instruments. All or most of those instruments are not native to our land. They became part of us, and our land, and we can claim bluegrass as part of our heritage, but I think it is important to recognize the instruments and songs that influenced our music came from somewhere else. The fiddle tunes that are written here today are influenced by other cultures and now bluegrass over the years is gaining popularity in Europe and beyond, so the pendulum swings both ways. Music and the arts, as well as our quality of life, benefit from having an open mind about cultures we don’t completely understand. I think it is important to remember that when coveting our space.