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Saturday, January 03, 2004

Bluegrass 

I'm listening to some bluegrass music on the internet music service Rhapsody. These are two interesting topic. Bluegrass first. Rhapsody some other time.

When you love a kind of music you get used to the pain of encountering people who don't see your beloved in the same light. There's no music that everyone likes, so we get used to having some lonely tastes. But among the people I know, which is not an overly narrow slice of American society even if it is far from a random sample, my taste for bluegrass music is especially lonely. This is not just because it is not equally beloved by others, but they go farther than that. They find it hard to believe that anybody likes it. This raises some questions in my mind.

First, and foremost, what on earth is wrong with them? Or putting it more politely, what explains this strong difference of opinion? Two possibilities are, first, they are biased against the initial impression of the music, judging it guilty by association. One association with bluegrass music, of course, is Country and Western music, which is a much more sensible thing to dislike. Country music on pop radio stations is very glitzy and maudlin, with the hypocrisy of pretending to be down home. Some of it's fun, just as some of the pop top-40 is fun. But as genres, neither is worth deep devotion. So, I think some people hate bluegrass before they ever really listen because they know it's some kind of country music and they know they don't like country music.

But the thing about bluegrass music is that it is relatively free of the main vices of radio-style country music. First, it is not slick and glitzy. It is played on traditional acoustic instruments with jaw dropping virtuosity and heart, and sung with simple and straightforward feeling. So, second, it is not pretending to be down home. It IS down home.

A genuine folk music always runs the risk of seeming too simple for urbane tastes. But there is no shortage of enthusiasm for the blues these days, or for Dylan. Or, in what I think is a good analogy, early jazz. Early jazz is simple in some ways, compared to the great harmonic and other innovations of later jazz, especially in the bebop years. But the style of Louis Armstrong, and the later jazz of the early Swing years has great virtues that many urbane sophisticates can still appreciate. Bluegrass, with it's genuine emotional roots, its unschooled sources, it's free flowing but dazzling musicianship, and often its distinctive compelling rhythmic drive, has plenty of resources to appeal to these listeners. Still, I think it often gets dismissed. Lovers of early jazz often share stories of how a particular group, or a particular performance, could "swing." Hard to translate if you haven't felt it, this refers to a kind of drive that a tune can accumulate that feels like it will sweep the listener away like a passing train. Listen: bluegrass has it.

The early interest in jazz was driven by a natural fascination with the segregated and insular ways of African American or Black society and culture. I don't mean that that interest was condescending or patronizing. It was just an extra draw, that kept people listening, and then they liked what they heard. There's no similar fascination with the disappearing but insular life and culture of people in the hills of Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, etc. Not being as badly oppressed (which is not to say there isn't great and unjust poverty in Appalachia) maybe bluegrass doesn't offer a way to make amends for previous wrongs the way the valorization of the treasures of Black culture does. I suppose movies like "Deliverance," despite the great music, hardly inspire sympathy for the mountain people.

I have a bit of this fascination, which might help explain why the music draws me in beyond the first country-sounding strains. I don't know where the interest stems from, though I have one idea. Music of a very homegrown sort was important in my family, and had a big influence on my views about what's valuable in music (all kinds of things including humble down home music). Some of the lovliest music I have heard in my life has been at unrehearsed social occasions with a few guitars and some people who know how to sing, though it has not usually been bluegrass music. My father and his siblings, who had sung professionally as teenagers, used to get the guitar and accordion out late at night when I was very young, and the spirit and the harmonies I heard when I was supposed to be sleeping sank very deep. Later I took up guitar, and aspired to nothing so much as my the ability of my father--who was renowned in the family and more widely for his singing--to accompany the willing singers of all ages (roughly 7 to 70 years old at one point) sitting around the living room. (I've got it now too.) I think I hear in Bluegrass music all that spirit and humility, along with musicianship to die for.

Still, even if you don't come by a taste for it psychoanalytically like me, I don't see why you wouldn't love Bluegrass if you give it a chance.

I admit, this rant is a bit late, since there is some new interest in Bluegrass after the movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" In case anyone actually stumbles on to this and reads it, I should provide some references to music to try. But, to keep it simple, the CD from that movie is an excellent place to start, including a variety of styles, some real originators, and some innovators too. If you like anything there, you can easily follow it up. Here's another idea. Go to Amazon to this record by Dan Tyminski, and scroll down to where there's a button "Listen to All." Clicking there brings up a very cool sampler with 30 second cuts, and a string of similar albums you can choose to listen from as well. For a third listening idea, click on the pic above of the banjo duo (or here). The ensuing site streams songs like a radio station. The audio quality isn't great, but the tunes are.

If you can get to an outdoor concert at a bluegrass festival where visitors can camp, make sure to wander around the camper-trailer portion of the parking lot around 11pm. Too much.

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