A Narrow Sea - Episode 58
Bluegrass: ‘played from my heart to your heart’
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
Every September more than 5,000 people gather for the annual Bluegrass Festival at the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh. This is the most respected and usually the largest festival of its kind in Europe which showcases such world-famous bands such as Michael Cleveland & Flamethrower and Dan Paisley and The Southern Grass.
The venue is highly appropriate: Bluegrass has its roots in Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas, states which were densely settled from the early 1700s by Ulster-Scots.
North America was, and continues to be, a melting pot. Ulster Scots, known in America as the Scotch-Irish, intermarried with other neighbouring immigrants from the rest of the British Isles, with Germans and, indeed, with the native American Cherokee.
Scotch-Irish speech, customs, traditions and music, enriched and altered by this blending, remained strong and distinctive. The Appalachian mountain range was the heartland of this unique culture. The people who farmed and hunted in this high country became known as ‘hillbillies’, because, it is thought, they were eager to celebrate the deliverance of their forebears in Ulster by William of Orange.
On Saturday evenings neighbours would come together, often at some distance from isolated farms, to exchange news, find partners and drink moonshine. They danced to the fiddle and listened to ballads freshly composed to ancient melodies brought across the Atlantic.
In the eighteenth century the Presbyterian Church and some other strict sects disapproved of too much emotion and forbade the playing of musical instruments in the House of the Lord. Music in church was restricted to the plain singing of versified psalms.
Most Ulster Scots arrived as Presbyterians but in time the majority chose to join the Baptists. Enthusiasm characterised the worship of Baptists, Methodists and other evangelical sects, and this included rousing singing in harmony.
To this blend of gospel music and traditional melodies brought over from the Old World was added the music of the African slaves on the tobacco plantations of Kentucky and the cotton fields of the Carolina lowlands.
The banjo evolved on the plantations as a stringed instrument brought over in its original form from West Africa. African American music here and in the Deep South became known as jazz and the blues which, together with black gospel music, made their impression on the ‘mountain music’ or ‘country music’ of the Appalachians.
The invention of the phonograph and the spread of radio broadcasting in the early 1900s brought this old-time music to people all over the United States and beyond. Few people in the mountains had access to electricity and so music here continued to depend on traditional acoustic instruments.
From this country music emerged Bluegrass during the Second World War. The founding father was Bill Monroe: the Bluegrass style was named for his band formed in 1939, the Blue Grass Boys – Kentucky being often referred to as the Blue Grass state.
As in some forms of jazz, in Bluegrass each instrument takes its turn in playing the melody and improvising around it, while the others perform accompaniment – a style most typically heard in tunes called ‘breakdowns’.
This is in contrast with old-time music, in which all the instruments play the melody together or one instrument carries the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment.
Bluegrass, unlike mainstream country music, relies on acoustic stringed instruments: the fiddle, five-string banjo, mandolin, upright bass and acoustic guitar played with either a flatpick or a thumb-and-finger pick.
Soon after, a new instrument was added to the ensemble, the Dobro, the brand name of a resophonic or resonator guitar invented by a Slovak immigrant family.
Another distinguishing characteristic of bluegrass is vocal harmony composed of two, three, or four parts, often with a dissonant sound delivered in a high-pitch vocal style. The layering of this harmony is called the ‘stack’.
Bill Monroe, the solo lead singer and mandolin player, described his Bluegrass as Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It’s plain music that tells a good story. It’s played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you. Bluegrass is music that matters.
In 1945 banjo player Earl Scruggs joined Monroe’s ‘Blue Grass Boys’. He added a three-finger roll, universally known as ‘Scruggs style’ which immediately became a key feature of Bluegrass.
At first bluegrass was used for dancing in the rural areas, a dancing style known as ‘buckdancing’, ‘flatfooting’, or ‘clogging’. Soon broadcasting spread its popularity and new bands emerged including the Foggy Mountain Boys, Hilo Brown and the Timberliners, and Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers.
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, both former members of Bill Monroe’s band, gave Bluegrass music an enormous boost when they played the soundtrack for the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde and for the television show The Beverley Hillbillies.