From Blues to Bluegrass

Our discussion about the origins of the blues got me thinking about the origins of bluegrass, a genre I love but know little to nothing about.

Various websites cite different beginnings, but bluegrass seems to follow the lower-class to commercialization path of the blues.  Bluegrass is generally believed to have its roots in Scottish, Irish, and English ballads and work songs combined with African American gospel and blues, especially since the form of the banjo was actually brought over by slaves from Africa. [1]  Some claim that pioneer women in Appalachia adopted a somber, “high lonesome sound” for ballad singing that strongly influenced the later singing styles of bluegrass singers. [2]

Fiddlers, banjo players, and singers provided the main form of entertainment for lower-class mining and farming mountain towns in North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky (all areas distinctly outside of map of the blues region we saw in class).  This music was used for social dancing and known as clogging, buckdancing, and/or flatfooting.  This similarity to blues leaves me wondering: did the white middle class react as negatively against bluegrass as they did against the blues?  How much did race figure into those criticisms?

An English man named Cecil Sharp {“the founding father of the English folk revival”) journeyed around the Appalachian region in the 1910s collecting folk songs and ballads.  This video is a contemporary cover of one of those songs, “Swannanoa Tunnel”:

Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, formed in 1939, had the first successful commercial album, and so the genre was named for this band and Monroe is considered the “Father of Bluegrass.” [3] [4]  This 1955 performance of “Roanoke” was the oldest I could find:



Many contemporary folk groups still cover 18th and 19th century songs, such as Crooked Still’s version of “Shady Grove”:

Other musical genres also adapt these songs: Nirvana, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”

And just for fun, probably my favorite bluegrass song, “If Wishes Were Horses” sung by Claire Lynch:

[1] http://www.ibma.org/about.bluegrass/history/index.asp
[2] http://www.nativeground.com/originsofbluegrass.asp
[3] http://folkmusic.about.com/od/historyoffolk/a/Blugrass_Histor.htm
[4] http://www.bohemioradio.com/bluegrass-music/what-are-the-origins-of-bluegrass-music

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