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!