The Lowdown on the High Lonesome: A Brief History of Bluegrass Music

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Music is one of the most celebrated and ethereal components of the human experience. By definition, music is the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.[1]But in reality, it is so much more. Music is the soul of a people, it is the sound of time, it is the melodical projection of human emotion. We have used music to grieve losses and commemorate victories, to remember our ancestors and homes, to hope for a better future and express our devotions. While each culture possesses its’ own unique music, one of the most distinctive sounds to come out of the modern era is Bluegrass – believe it or not. With its foot-stomping rhythms and iconic old-timey, stringed sound, Bluegrass music has now almost become synonymous with Appalachia and can be recognized in practically all corners of the globe. The genre has garnered an almost cult following in the past few decades, which makes some of us question what it is about the music that attracts so many followers? Or more importantly, how did it originate?

Bill Monroe

Born in the Western foothills of Kentucky on September 13, 1911, William Smith Monroe was the youngest of eight children to James Buchanan and Malissa Vandiver Monroe. Born with crossed eyes and poor vision, Bill, as he came to be known, suffered ridicule and bullying for most of his young life. His vision was corrected as a teenager, but the years of mockery and isolation from his busy parents and siblings forced Bill to turn inward for personal motivation and mental engagement: “For many years, I had nobody to play with or nobody to work under. You just had to kindly grow up. Just like a little dog outside, tryin’ to make his own way, trying to make out the best way he can.”[2]This sensitivity would influence Bill’s life in ways he never imagined.

Despite his sense of neglect growing up, the time afforded Bill to develop a keen ear for music. His mother Malissa reportedly possessed an almost never-ending gift for music – she sang, she danced, and she played the fiddle, accordion, harmonica, plus many other instruments.[3]Malissa’s brother Pendleton would often visit the Monroe farm. Pen was just as musically inclined as his sister, and would bring his fiddle along with him to play folk tunes such as “Soldier’s Joy,” “Methodist Preacher,” “Pretty Betty Martin,” and “Jenny Lynn.”[4]From Pen, Bill learned the basics of timing and instrumentation.

Tragedy struck the Monroe family on October 31, 1921 when Malissa died from an excruciating and debilitating condition. Ten-year-old Bill vaguely understood the meaning of death and what happened to his mother, but he and the rest of his family felt the effect of Malissa’s absence from the house. Bill later wrote a song about his misfortune called “Memories of Mother and Dad,” which begins with the line: “Mother left this world of sorrow, our home was silent and so sad.”[5]To escape the deafening silence of the house, Bill began wandering around outside on the farm and singing as loud as he could. It was during these years that Bill developed his famously unique voice.

Bill soon quit school and started working on the farm with his brothers Charlie and Birch, growing close with them both. All three brothers inherited the musical gene from their mother and played at every opportunity. Since his two brothers refused to share the fiddle or guitar with him, Bill was forced to learn the mandolin from one of his father’s farmhands.

Sometime before he turned sixteen, Bill happened upon a fellow named Arnold Shultz. Shultz was an African American musician and roving laborer who was reportedly one of the greatest Blues guitarists in history.[6]During 1927, Bill and Shultz played together in segregated square dances, which was an uncommon sight during the later half of the 1920s. From Shultz, Bill absorbed the rhythms and fingerpicking techniques of the Blues genre and began integrating these new skills, such as licks and slides, into his mandolin repertoire. It was from Schultz and the African American musical heritage that Bill picked up his signature sound, later influencing the direction of mainstream music forever.

James Buchanan Monroe died from pneumonia on January 14, 1928. Sixteen-year-old Bill went to live with his Uncle Pen and the two traveled around the community playing at square dances. It was during his time performing with Uncle Pen that Bill really understood the power of music.

When the Great Depression tore through the nation, very few escaped the sting of economic struggle. Charlie and Birch Monroe followed thousands of others from Appalachia on the Hillbilly Highway and moved north to Chicago. The two Monroe brothers found work in the Sinclair Oil Refinery; Bill moved north to join his brothers in the refinery about a year later. The Appalachian transplants living in the rust belt retained many cultural practices, such as their musical traditions. The introduction of radio and music records helped preserve the Appalachian string band music. The Monroe brothers were no exception to that, and often performed at square dances in various neighborhoods around Chicago.

One night at a square dance, the Monroe brothers were observed dancing by Tom Owens, a country music producer. Owens approached the brothers and inquired if they would be interested in dancing for a country music exhibition. The brothers soon found themselves on the radio, first on WWAE in Hammond, IL then on WJKS in Gary, IN. The Monroe brothers even booked a gig at the Palace Theatre in downtown Chicago. But the big break for the Monroes happened in Shenandoah, Iowa. Texas Crystals, a new laxative manufacturer, asked the brothers to perform on their radio program in Shenandoah to help promote the laxative. Birch Monroe chose to keep his factory job, so that meant Charlie and Bill traveled together as The Monroe Brothers duo.

After a few successful months of gaining a serious fan base, the Monroe Brothers returned East in 1936 and settled in Charlotte, North Carolina. A lot happened during that year. The Monroe Brothers signed a record contract with the RCA Victor Recording Company and produced an album. The next two years for the Monroe Brothers put a strain on their relationship, despite their success. They had no public relations person, no manager, and no official bookkeeper to maintain proper functioning of the duo. Charlie left Bill for Tennessee in 1938.

Despite forming a new band called Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys by 1939, and even performing at the Grand Ole Opry, the signature bluegrass sound did not occur until 1945 when Earl Scruggs joined the band. Scruggs was a gifted 21-year-old banjo player from the mountains of North Carolina, he brought to the band a unique and lively three-finger picking style that is now known as “Scruggs Style.” With Scruggs on the banjo, Lester Flatt on the guitar, Chubby Wise on the fiddle, Howard Watts on the acoustic bass, and Bill Monroe on the mandolin, the instrumentation and style of this formidable ensemble continues to be the standard for all bluegrass music today.

How or when the music became known as Bluegrass has been lost to time, though it is likely a reference to Bill’s Bluegrass Boys. Many believe that it was in 1947 that Bluegrass music first became an official genre when the Stanley Brothers recorded a track in the same fashion as Bill and his band. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs then left the band to form their own duo as Flatt & Scruggs in 1948. By 1950, a whole slew of Bluegrass bands had emerged onto mainstream music, thus cementing the genre in the musical collective. With its up-beat tempo, heavy hitting string, and borrowed African American licks, Bill Monroe essentially created a new sound for the old music. Bluegrass set the tone for the future of music and became the precursor to the new up-and-coming rock-and-roll movement that exploded onto the scene in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

Instruments

Banjo

Perhaps the most famous bluegrass instrument today, the banjo – despite its connection to hillbilly music – is not a European-based instrument. West African slaves in the Western Hemisphere recreated their banjar, an instrument that consisted of a drum through which ran a primitive guitar neck with strings. The basic strumming pattern for this historic instrument is known as frailing, a simple down stroke on the fingernails and a second down stroke on the top string by the thumb. The banjar was first documented in the New World in 1678 on the island of Martinique. Thomas Jefferson later observed the banjo in 1781: “The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa, and which is the original of the guitar, its chords being precisely the four lower chords of the guitar.”[7]While it is now synonymous with white hillbilly music and culture, the banjo spread into Anglo society through traveling blackface minstrel troupes and circuses of the nineteenth-century.[8]Throughout the Civil War, soldiers on both sides formed minstrel troupes for entertainment; soldiers then carried their love of the banjo home after the end of the war.[9]The isolationism around the time of World War I gave rise to the development of Jazz music, which relied heavily on the banjo at that time. But when the Great Depression struck, the hype over the banjo disappeared from popular culture. That did not stop the isolated and rural communities in the Southern region from continuing to integrate the banjo into their music culture.

Fiddle

The oldest and most revered instrument in bluegrass is by and large the fiddle. Considered the foundational bluegrass instrument, and the only instrument not modified to modern standards, the fiddle immigrated into the American colonies with the British and Irish alongside their historical ballads. By the time Bluegrass came into existence, elements of Blues, Jazz, Classical, and traditional Southern fiddle influenced the way these new musicians handled the instrument. The old-timey fiddling of shuffling notes and open-stringed droning shifted to more sophisticated concert tones and swift multitudinous notes.[10]Having a home in many other genres, the fiddle dances around in the periphery of Bluegrass with a revered respect.[11]

Mandolin

The mandolin is the oldest youngest instrument in the Bluegrass lineup. The instrument is essentially a short, eight-stringed lute, (or a fiddle with frets) minimized in size sometime during the early medieval period to accompany lute ensembles. The mandolin arrived in America with the wave of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe during the middle of the nineteenth-century. The Victorian Era popularized all things exotic, especially musical instruments. These novelties became known as “parlor instruments” for the more affluent. With its connection to the warm, romantic Latin world, the mandolin thus became the middle class amateur’s instrument.[12]In the isolated mountain region, the mandolin became the instrument of the youngest child – the one who wanted to participate in family music but could not handle the more advanced instruments.[13]Bill Monroe is the prime example of this phenomenon.

Guitar

The guitar is quite possibly the most iconic American musical instrument, lending its sound to almost every genre. As is the case with the more traditional instruments, the guitar in its earlier forms arrived in North America by way of European immigrants and found a home in the parlors of wealthy homes. Ironically, the guitar also became a fundamental instrument in the slave population of the Mississippi River delta, which set the foundation for the later Delta Blues tradition.[14]By the turn of the twentieth-century, guitars were being mass-produced with steel string and sold through mail order catalogues. The sounds of the new guitar complimented those of the traditional string bands, so the guitar found a home in the rhythmic background.[15]Until the mid-twentieth-century, the guitar occupied the background in Bluegrass. Four North Carolinians brought the guitar to the forefront of the music genre through innovative fingerpicking techniques: Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, George Shuffler, and Doc Watson.

Acoustic Bass

Originating in sixteenth-century Europe, the acoustic bass (also known as the bass fiddle and stand-up bass) became an essential companion to the organ in colonial era churches.[16]In more secular settings like Appalachia and other rural regions where string bands were common, the acoustic bass became the unsung hero to all musical groups. The deep rhythmic abilities of the bass means that it compliments other stringed instruments and serves as a steady timekeeping device.[17]The function and fundamental use of the acoustic bass has changed very little since its incorporation in string bands and Bluegrass.


[1]Merriam-Webster, “Music,” Merriam-Webster, Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/music(accessed March 3, 2018).

[2]Richard D. Smith, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass(New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000), 4.

[3]Ibid., 10.

[4]Ibid., 15; Like many old-time fiddlers, Uncle Pen allegedly kept a rattlesnake tail in his instrument to improve the sound and keep mice from nesting.

[5]Bradley Klein and Stephanie Coleman, “Bill Monroe: Celebrating The Father of Bluegrass at 100,” https://www.npr.org/2011/09/12/140366232/bill-monroe-celebrating-the-father-of-bluegrass-at-100(accessed March 2, 2018).

[6]Smith, 24.

[7]Robert Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 91.

[8]Bill Reese, “Thumbnail History of the Banjo,” Bluegrass Banjo.org, http://bluegrassbanjo.org/banhist.html(accessed March 13, 2018).

[9]Ibid.

[10]Cantwell, 169.

[11]Cantwell, 219.

[12]Cantwell, 222.

[13]Cantwell, 222-223.

[14]WETA, “Instruments and Innovation: The Guitar,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/americanrootsmusic/pbs_arm_ii_guitar.html(accessed May 25, 2018).

[15]Ibid.

[16]Peter B. Olson, “Bass,” Encyclopedia of Appalachia, http://encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=34(accessed June 8, 2018).

[17]Ibid.

© K. Martin-Gross, 2018

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