The Mandolin Sounds in the Roots of Bluegrass

By: Allen Newsom

Bluegrass music is traditionally played on acoustic instruments, which may include the banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, Dobro and bass.  For readers unfamiliar with this musical genre, bluegrass music is the sound produced with particular acoustic stringed instruments like the Mandolin and the Debro.  To understand bluegrass music is to realize and appreciate its musical roots.  Bluegrass is an original American music formed from a number of varied influences including the early Old Time ballads, fiddle tunes and string band music with its proven roots to the homeland musical heritage of the immigrants who pioneered America.

Above all, bluegrass music is acoustic, although there are plenty of vocal and instrumental microphones on the modern bluegrass stage.  Bluegrass tends to use both vocals and instruments as an ensemble.  It is distinctively acoustic, rarely using electric instruments.  In bluegrass, as in jazz, each instrument takes a turn playing the melody and improvising around it, while the others revert to backing the lead.  This is in contrast to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together or one instrument carries the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment.

The various types of music brought with the people who began migrating to America in the early 1600s are considered to be the roots of bluegrass music.  This would include the ballads from the Scots-Irish immigrants of Appalachia and England, as well as the African-American gospel music and blues which sprang up from rural America.  This “Mountain music” held on and grew into today’s bluegrass despite the pressures from more socially acceptable forms of popular music.  The rural people of the south and other parts of the country clung tenaciously to the music which has grown into an integral contribution to American culture.

Though its inception was influenced by Scottish and Irish folk music, bluegrass music is a distinctly American form.  And, its Scottish and Celtic connections mixed with its vibrant and undeniable American roots define a beloved genre of music.  Bluegrass music is more of a synthesis of American southern string band music, blues, English, Irish, and Scottish traditions, wrapped up in a sacred country music form.

It is important to note that bluegrass is not and never was simply folk music under a strict definition; however, the topical and narrative themes of many bluegrass songs are highly reminiscent of "folk music".  In fact many songs that are widely considered to be bluegrass are older works legitimately classified as folk or old-time performed in a bluegrass style. 

While bluegrass is not folk music in the strictest sense, the interplay between bluegrass music and other folk forms has been looked at by many music authorities and scholars.  And, it has since received separate genre recognition as a form of country music.  By in large its status as a genre is a credit to the talented artists, musicians and bands of the twentieth century as proof of their devotion and optimism toward a music style intrinsic to their heritage and prodigy.

Performing bluegrass bands have included instruments as diverse as the Dobro resonator guitar, accordion, harmonica, Jew's harp, piano, drums, electric guitar, and electric versions of all other common bluegrass instruments, though these are considered to be more progressive and are a departure from the traditional bluegrass style. 

Beyond instrumentation, the singing, which is central to bluegrass music genre, has become known as "the high lonesome sound," which gives the song, along with its typically sad lyrics, a haunting and mournful timbre.  This distinguishing characteristic of bluegrass is vocal harmony featuring two, three, or four parts, often featuring a dissonant, modal sound in the highest voice.  If you hear toe tapping music played mainly on a fiddle, mandolin, five string banjo, guitar or bass guitar followed by an emotionally compelling vocal solo, then it's probably bluegrass music.

The most famous contributor of the bluegrass genre was the legendary Bill Monroe.  His main instrument, of course, was the mandolin for which he has developed a distinctive and very influential style, but he has always played with a guitar back-up.  His earliest recordings were with his brother Charlie, and The Monroe Brothers, like other country groups, all of whom sang tight harmonies with Bill's mandolin taking the instrumental solos and Charlie's guitar keeping the rhythm and bass tones going behind him.

Today Bill Monroe is referred to as the "founding father" of bluegrass music.  The bluegrass style was named after his band, the Blue Grass Boys which was formed in 1939.  His singing and music was directly influenced by the mountain church singing and melodic harmonies of his youth in western Kentucky.  On October 28, 1939 Bill Monroe introduced the world to his style of music by playing "Muleskinner Blues" during the Grand Old Opry's Saturday night show. They became popular performers on the Grand Ole Opry with many appearances throughout the mid to late twentieth century. 

By some arguments, as long as the Blue Grass Boys were the only band playing this music, it was just their unique style.  Their music could not be considered a musical genre until other bands began performing the same style.   Debate rages among bluegrass musicians, fans, and scholars over what instrumentation constitutes a bluegrass band.  Monroe had a unique sound but wanted to fine tune the sound into more of an amalgam of old-time music, blues, ragtime and jazz accompanied by the acoustic instrumentals.  Early in the 1940s and not satisfied with their current sound, Monroe began searching for other musicians to give his band a fuller sound. 

He formed a new group which featured a young Earl Scruggs on 5-string banjo, and the unusually complex three-finger picking, combined with Monroe's driving mandolin.  Lester Flatt's guitar, and Chubby Wise's fiddle, gave the group a power and excitement not heard before in country music.  As one musician put it…”Ultimately, the elements of bluegrass came together in Monroe's band as sacred and secular, black and white, urban and rural combined to form an altogether new strain of American music”.  A significant portion of the content we hear in Bluegrass music today is original Bill Monroe material.

In addition to what might be considered "mainstream" bluegrass, which has gradually changed over the last 60 years, there have been several major subgenres which have existed almost since the music's beginning.  Although nearly all bluegrass artists regularly incorporate gospel music into their repertoire, "Bluegrass Gospel" has emerged as a major subgenre.  Distinctive elements of this style of bluegrass music include lyrics focused on Christian faith and theology and soulful three or four part harmony singing mixed with an occasionally subdued instrumental solo. 

In recent years, several modern country music artists have recorded bluegrass music albums.  More recently, artists such as Ricky Skaggs, groups such as the Lonesome River Band and Alison Krauss have continued to spearhead a kind of country crossover that puts more emphasis on blues over that of pure bluegrass.  Bluegrass music is now being played in venues all over the world.  For bluegrass music fans, there are many summer bluegrass music festivals held annually throughout the United States, including Colorado's Telluride Bluegrass Festival which draws mainstream country artists like Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton.

Additionally, the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival and the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, New York are budding annual festivals.  Today, bluegrass bands and concerts can be found in every state in America.  With the bands getting younger and the styles getting more hip and slick, there's also a wide range of bluegrass music available. Bluegrass music is experiencing some of the greatest success it’s had in the past 60 years.  Its pure acoustic sound with its down home appeal is winning new fans throughout the United States and abroad.  It is now performed and enjoyed around the world.  The International Bluegrass Music Association alone claims members in all 50 states and over 30 countries.

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Article Source:  eMusic Guides.com.  Author Allen Newsom operates an online musical accessory store at: http://www.topshelfaccessoriesonline.com.

Visit Allen's eBid.net store and his Guitar Information site. This article may be printed as long as the links stay active. 


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