Styles & Forms | Bluegrass | Country
The temptation is to think of bluegrass as an ancient music, for its repertoire and instrumentation stretch back into the shadowy mists of the nineteenth century. But in many ways bluegrass was a radical innovation, a music of the modern world, a sound invented just a decade before rock’n’roll. It was a new/old music, and that central paradox has shaped the music ever since.
Emergence Of A New Style
When Bill Monroe (1911–96) and The Blue Grass Boys made their debut at the Grand Ole Opry on 28 October 1939, the quartet played ‘Mule Skinner Blues’, a swaggering working-man’s boast, first made famous by Jimmie Rodgers (1897–1933), the ‘Father of Country Music’. It was an old song, but it had never been played like this.
The band not only sped up the tempo but also punched out the beat so emphatically that the song developed a momentum Rodgers had never imagined. Fiddler Art Wooten added quicksilver single-note runs, and Monroe himself cried out the lead vocal with a high-pitched urgency. The effect was so unprecedented – so modern – that fellow performers such as Roy Acuff (1903–92) and Uncle Dave Macon (1870–1952) gasped in astonishment and the audience demanded three encores.
When Monroe recorded his first sides for Victor the following year, he drew from old folk songs and material by Rodgers and Bob Wills (1905–75), but he rearranged everything so his well-rehearsed band could play fast, hard and in unison. The lyrics may have referred nostalgically to the old homestead, but this was commercial music made by professionals willing to go anywhere and do anything to grasp their ambitions.
But the music they adapted was imbued with what Monroe called ‘ancient tones’. The same geographic isolation that had cut off the upper South from the modern economy had also allowed the region to preserve a strain of eighteenth-century Anglo-Celtic music that had died out everywhere else, even in the British Isles. With its modal harmonies and stories of death and desperation, this musical heritage – modified by African-American neighbours and the hard life of the mountains – came from a different world than the Tin Pan Alley show tunes of Broadway and Hollywood.
Those ‘ancient tones’ benefited from a raw spontaneity on the early recordings by The Carter Family, the old-time string bands, the brother duos and the fiddle contests. Monroe wanted to prove that the sound could be turned into performances as brisk, snappy and polished as those of the latest jazz band.
He didn’t fully realize that goal until September 1945 when he auditioned a 21-year-old moon-faced kid from North Carolina. Earl Scruggs (b. 1924) had perfected the new Carolina technique of playing the banjo with a three-finger roll (thumb, index and middle) that created tumbling arpeggios that lent a terrific momentum to the music. Combined with Monroe’s mandolin chop and the guitar ‘G run’ that Monroe had taught to Lester Flatt (1914–79), this string-band music had an unprecedented drive. Within a...
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