Musical Interludes – Bluegrass

Earlier this year I attended a local weekly Bluegrass Jam. I only went once, as my choral commitments took over.  I hope to go again, I even bought the recommended book Amazon. The jam was not ideal for some one who only sings, perhaps that is bluegrass? I do not have time or desire to learn another instrument.  Attending the jam made me realize that I did not really know anything about this style of music. For example, what makes it bluegrass as opposed to folk or country? After all many of the musicians I enjoy, including Old School Freight Train, Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck and the Mammals [links on blogroll] are influenced by bluegrass music even that was not what they were only playing. So which bits were which? This goes back to my argument against music genres.

So I went about finding out more about bluegrass music. 

By reading the Wikipedia page on bluegrass, I found this history of bluegrass music. Did you know that there was International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA)? I was surprised to learn that bluegrass music has only been around since either just before or just after the Second World War.  As bluegrass fans will know the musical style was initiated by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. What a century for music was the twentieth century! Do you think that the twenty-first will be as exciting?

I recently borrowed the Bluegrass Reader edited by Thomas Goldstein Amazon from the local library.  It is very interesting, and breaks the blue grass era into:

1939-1959: The Big Bang

1960-1979: The Reseeding of Bluegrass

1980-2000: Another Roots Revival

It reprints articles and album liner notes written about bluegrass both at the time and from a historical perspective.  There was a very interesting article by Neil V. Rosenberg “Into Bluegrass: The History of the Word”. Rosenberg tried to find out when “bluegrass” was first used to describe a style of music. The article was written in 1974 and he started asking people when they first used or heard the word bluegrass about a decade before. He writes:

It was already a bit too late to start asking I found. Most of the older fans of the music, those who listened to Monroe on the Opry in the forties, knew exactly what the word meant when they first heard it. This instant identification (which accounts for the rapid spread of the word) led to a situation in which people confused the sound of the music with the name they has come to associate with it. So they answered my question by describing the first time they heard the music.

He pinpoints the first usage of bluegrass to describe a style of music to about 1953; by 1974 it was common enough knowledge to be in a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The introductory chapter in the Bluegrass Reader’s makes it worth reading.  I have an idea of which recordings I would like to listen to so that I can have a better understanding of bluegrass; obviously anything by Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs. There were these two compilations:

  • Mountain Music Bluegrass Style (Folkways 2318).  The liner notes, by Mike Seeger, are reproduced in this book.  He describes what bluegrass is from his understanding of it; discussing playing and singing styles, which confirms my fear that it is mostly for high male and low female voices.
  • American Banjo Tunes and Songs in Scruggs Style (Folkways 2314).

Unfortunately, I had to return the book to the library as it had been requested by another borrower. I did borrow a CD of Ricky Skaggs and Friends singing the Songs of Bill Monroe. They did not seem to have the two compilations that I wanted. 

I am very interested common elements between bluegrass and jazz; virtuosity and improvisation are considered important to both styles. Musicians from both styles are proud to be excellent performers (Perhaps it is only in pop and rock where the musicians are proud of being unable to play their instruments?) and they are very good at improvisation.  As I grew up listening to, and learning, classical music the idea of improvisation is very intriguing to me.  It is something I have to work on.

Since reading and listening to more blue grass I have a much better understanding of the history and the influences on bluegrass. The harmonies in bluegrass do seem to make it especially tough for a soprano. The Bluegrass Fakebook I bought for the jam session has some suggestions as to how to re-key the songs.  As most of the songs are presented in the key of G (that old standby) he suggests that women might be more comfortable in a key of C. I have to work on key transitions; I know I need to spend a lot of time ear training so that changing the key signature comes more naturally.  Would doing this be easier if I played the guitar/banjo rather than the piano?  I tried singing a couple of the songs and decided that a key of D or E might suit me better.  As all the songs are presented in a treble clef, I assume men would sing them down an octave.  So does that mean I am singing an octave plus higher than they are traditional sung? 

I obviously need to do more research, both on my voice and on the different styles of music!


7 thoughts on “Musical Interludes – Bluegrass

  1. You might also be interested in Old Time music. This, to zeroth order, is what bluegrass evolved from– it is bluegrass without the mike (early bluegrass was dudes in a row, on stage, playing into a mike), and with less value placed upon sheer virtuosity. I got into bluegrass via similar influences as you note (eg, Bela), and recently lived in a place which was a hotbed of both bluegrass and old time, but more of the latter. Friends in the county got me into old time. The nice thing about old time for me as a professional scientist is I can play it with other folks even when I haven’t had time to work on my chops for a month or two…

  2. Hi Brian I could only find the Bluegrass Jam in my local town. I would have to travel further for other jams. I’m not worried about virtuosity but more that my voice part (high soprano) might not be suitable. I intend to go back to the local bluegrass jam when I am less busy; whenever that is 😉 to get a better feel for it.

    Tony Trischka’s Double Banjo Bluegrass Extravaganza concert local was with one mike. It was quite amusing watching them push each other out of the way when they were doing solos.

  3. Cat,

    I’m always glad to see new people interested in bluegrass music. It’s a wonderfully fun and exciting music.

    Let me say this, the men do sing high in bluegrass. Listen to Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers, Ralph Stanley or Del McCoury. They all sing high. But that’s all traditional bluegrass. Del still innovates, even at this age, but I would suggest you listen to some of the newer sounds in the genre. It is good to listen to the foundations, but this is not a music that is stagnating, it is continuing to grow and evolve. Give a listen to The Infamous String Dusters, Mountain Heart, Blue Highway, or Rhonda Vincent to get an idea what is happening in the music at this time.

    When you are thinking about learning some songs and going back to the jam keep this in mind when choosing keys. Bluegrass musicians will not appreciate having to play a song they are familiar with in an odd key. Right or wrong, that’s just the way it is. I’d say you’re safe if you stick to G, A, B flat, B C, D, and maybe E depending on the song and the group of musicians. If you come in wanting to sing in C# or E flat, you might not get asked to sing very often. 🙂

    You’ve mentioned singing soprano, bluegrass people don’t think that way. There is lead, which is the melody, and that is wherever it is high or low, doesn’t matter, it’s called lead. Tenor is the part that resides a third above the melody, and baritone is the part that is a third below the melody. Sometimes when the lead is really high, like Bobby Osborne, the tenor will be placed a third under the baritone and called “low tenor”, at other times if the lead is low, the baritone will be placed a third above the tenor and called “high baritone”. that is the way we think of the parts, not in the classical terms of bass, baritone, tenor, soprano and alto. Those don’t mean anything in bluegrass. It’s about building the chord with the harmonies, and it’s not always a major chord!

    I suggest you listen to Rhonda Vincent to get a feel for how it is done with a female lead singer.

    Have fun learning the style and most of all just enjoy it, that’s what bluegrass is really all about.

  4. Brance

    Thanks. This is very useful information.

    The musicians at the jam were more interested in playing their instruments rather than singing. They did sing, but there didn’t seem to be any harmonies being built. I’ll listen to the bands you recommend and see what I can do.

    Thanks again.

  5. Pingback: Musical Interludes – Joys of Chorus - A Book Review « Lab Cat

  6. Hi Cat,
    This is Thomas Goldsmith, editor of the Bluegrass Reader. Thanks for your kind comments about the book.
    Re pitching bluegrass songs for women, one thing to remember is that certain tunes are played in certain keys (for men) because there’s a characteristic instrumental sound associated with the original version. An example would be the fiddle part on Bill Monroe’s recording of Uncle Pen, which owes its sound to use of open strings and a specific style of bowing.
    There’s some degree of churlishness associated with guys’ being unwilling to change keys for a familiar song, but some of it is just that they have to figure out how to get the sound in a different key.
    Re piano in bluegrass, I have heard from Ricky Skaggs that Monroe loved to have Buck White play along with him using the honky-tonk piano style that Buck grew up playing in Texas. There’s no recording of this that I know of.

  7. Hi Thomas

    Thank you for stopping by my blog. I finally have my own copy of the Bluegrass reader and dip into it now and again.

    The guys at my bluegrass jam are quite understanding about me wanting to sing in my voice range but obviously concerned that I only sing! I even got lent a double bass for a while, but never really got round to learning to play it.

    I would love to hear the piano in bluegrass music. I could do that. I would have to learn honky-tonk style as I have only ever learnt classical music on the piano.

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