7 Facts about Bluegrass Music

Firebox-Group-1080w

Bluegrass Music has been running round in the United States a lot in the past century and has reemerged due to the Bluegrass Revival that has been happening over the last couple of decades. So what should you know about Bluegrass music? Here are some facts.

mary p and friends daytime 2015

  1. Bluegrass is a form of American roots music. American roots musicians do not like being lumped in with folk musicians, but they do have a lot of overlap. Bluegrass falls under the American roots category and is related to country music.
  2. Bluegrass is heavy in British tradition. While we think of Bluegrass as strictly American music, its origins are from the United Kingdom. As immigrants came over from the British Isles during the 18th century, landing in the Appalachia territory, the musical traditions from Britain came with them. The traditions included English and Scottish ballads, Irish reels, and songs directly from the British Isles.
  3. Bluegrass music has three primary subgroups: Traditional, Progressive, and Gospel. Traditional bluegrass includes musicians playing folk songs and has simple chord progressions. They also only use acoustic instruments. Progressive bluegrass will use electric instruments and has some elements of rock and roll. Gospel is a Christian-based type of bluegrass, with harmony singing and some instrumentals.
  4. Bluegrass music is usually played completely on acoustic string instruments, including the guitar, mandolin, bass, banjo, and fiddle. Banjo players usually use a three-finger picking method while the guitar players use flatpicking. The fiddle players stick with the third and fifth, which is how bluegrass fiddle music gets its very distinct sound. There is an internal controversy among bluegrass musicians who believe that it needs to have traditional instrumentation to be considered true bluegrass music and departures from the traditional should be called “newgrass” instead of bluegrass.
  5. The voice is its own instrument in bluegrass music. Part of its identifying feature is that there is specific harmonics between two, three, or four different singers. The singing style is defined as high and lonesome and is very identifiable in music genres because it is drawn out and in harmony. The harmony is called “the stack,” where there is usually a high octave singer combined with a low octave singer. It is usually the middle singer that is the main melody, but that does not have to be the case if there are two male singers with a female. Regardless of the stacking order, that is how bluegrass is identifiable.
  6. The themes involved in bluegrass music usually are a narrative on the daily lives of everyday people and a first person story from the lead singer. There is, as is common among all folk, country, and roots music, a steady theme about lost loves, but there are also a lot of themes about living the hard life, coal mining, and railroading. As a result, there have been a number of protests regarding bluegrass music over the years as it was shedding light on aspects of the coal mining industry that the mining industry did not want made public. It also made the mining industry look bad, which could have put harm on not just the Appalachian coal mining industry, but the communities that are built around it. Who knew bluegrass was so controversial?

the-best-bluegrass-bands-and-artists-u2

7.The name “bluegrass” is thought to refer to the band Blue Grass Boys that formed in 1939 by Bill Monroe. Monroe is typically referred to as the father of bluegrass as a result. The band’s name is in reference to a type of grass that grows in Kentucky that is referred to as blue grass. But the category bluegrass was not really used until the 1960s since previously it was lumped in with country or hillbilly music.

The History of American Roots Music

brittany-music

Many American roots musicians do not like to be considered in the same category as folk musicians. American folk music and American roots music are often lumped together in the same category, but it seems that the real difference between the two is that American roots music includes blues and country, which folk music does not.

The Beginning of Roots Music

Roots music took hold in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. We saw the most diverse expressions and stylings in the early twentieth century, right up until World War II. The stylings broke into subgroups during the Great Depression as well as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The impact of the impoverished and hard times were reflected greatly in the music.

The subgroups created included honky tonk, Latino music, Cajun music, Delta Blues, and more, spreading in major cities across the country. The popularity of the different types depended greatly on the location and the population in the area.

cajuncountryrevival_wide-f99fd3fc49f0d01c817598c2e876d47a68866c83-s900-c85

The Transition Period

Following the Second World War, American roots music experienced a transition. Pop music was born, changing the scene of music as we know it. Musicians who were previously considered folk musicians were moved into being pop stars. There was a mixture of styles, resulting in completely new sounds that expanded music as we knew it across the music industry of the United States. Part of this was driven by the increase in music recordings becoming more and more popular, making there be a desire for more records on the market.

Because of the expansion of roots music, certain genres became associated to specific locations throughout the United States. The music began to reflect the local creative images and communities, keeping up with genealogy and demographics of the areas in question.

The Regional Breakdowns

The music was broken down into a few regional subgroups.

  • Appalachian music: This is what is most commonly associated with the movie Deliverance and as a result has been given a poor reputation in modern times. But historically, it is the music that came out of the Appalachian Mountain Range. The typical instruments are the banjo, the fiddle, the dulcimer, and the guitar. It was popularized by the Carter Family, which was a group from 1927 to 1956. Their music impacted bluegrass, gospel, pop, rock, and country.

20130629Caramoor_4921-1024x682

  • Cajun music: Cajun styles came out of Louisiana, combining ballads of the French speaking Creoles and American popular music.
  • Plains Music: This is referring to the music in Oklahoma and the surrounding area. The music was heavily influenced by Native Americans, and it has been around for a long time, though we do not know how long because there was not a written history. But the roots musicians combined aspects of the Native American sounds with the folk music elements. One piece of its core is the “stomp dance” as well as the “call and response” form which is where the instruments used are rattles. A quintessential piece to plains music is the drum, representing the heartbeat for Plains Indians and was then transferred to the plains music.
  • Jazz: Jazz music also emerged around this time as a combination of ragtime, gospel, and the blues.

This is only a sampling of all of the roots music that exists in the United States today. There are so many different genres born out of the same areas, which it is amazing, but also nearly impossible to list all of the different types of American music that is out there. Just remember the next time you think that you hear folk music, it could be something else.