Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"That Half Barbaric Twang" and Why Your Friends Think That Only Hillbillies Play the Banjo

There's a lot I didn't know about the banjo. Or about writing a blog post. This being my first post, I don't really have my bloglegs yet and this one kind of got away from me. It's a bit, um. Long. If you read it, you'll probably understand what the book was talking about pretty well but skimming it and looking at the timeline will also be educating without taking you an hour. Again, with this being the first post I'm still kind of experimenting with everything but, for now, the order for this will be:

What I Thought of the Book
A Summary of the Book
A Timeline of Dates from the Book
Lingering Questions
Conclusions Drawn as they Relate to Bluegrass

If you only read one thing read the conclusion. That's the whole point of this blog. For the next post, I'll try to make the conclusion longer and the summary brief. The timeline is also pretty neat and it took me a long time so it would make me feel better to know someone looked at it. Please feel free to comment on this post and tell me how right or wrong you think I am. I also highly encourage you to please share this with anyone who you think will enjoy it. I'm low key trying to build a network of people who will correct me all of the time but its in your best interest to help me because then you'll know too (see "jam nuggets"). Also, it was just or will soon be my birthday! Consider donating as a way to support this blog if you like what your read!

Thanks so much for checking this out I'm excited to share this stuff with you!

The Book

That Half-Barbaric Twang is a book about the history of the banjo in American pop culture. Written by Karen Linn, an archivist in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, this book was published in 1994 so I think some of the information in the book has become a little more common knowledge since it was published. I knew about Joel Walker Sweeney adding a string but not the short string, I was aware of the banjo's tie to minstrelsy, and I had seen Throw Down Your Heart so I was aware of its African roots but I really had no idea how point A connected to point B. This is a very thorough and well-researched book that went to great effort to really trace the path of the banjo through American history and pop culture. It provides really wonderfully thought-provoking and well-documented arguments for why certain feelings about the banjo exist today which was exactly what I was looking for. Reading this book I was hoping to find some sort of reasoning behind people's prejudices and common reactions to the banjo today and I think the book presents some interesting information on this topic.

How Bluegrass Music Changed My Life and Why You Should Read My Blog

Hello, my name is Tristan Scroggins and I want to know more about Bluegrass Music. 

Doesn't that seem stilted and weird? Like, if I just walked up to you and said that? Well, I guess technically in this situation it'd be like you walking into my house and me saying that but still. I'm going to try to be a little more casual and I hope that's gonna work for you. 

Hey! Hi, I'm Tristan. I play the mandolin mostly but I also like to pretend I know how to cook and take pictures of sunsets. I play music professionally and tour about 3/4th of the year in a band I started with my dad called Jeff Scroggins & Colorado. I also do some side project work and at the moment am working a lot with Alisa Rose on an improvised acoustic duet project (if you're interested in my professional accomplishments and whatnot, check out my website). I am also a pretty huge nerd and am extremely obsessive (but I guess technically those two things are the same thing). This obsessiveness in the last year - as anybody who has been around me can attest to - has driven me mad. I've begun to try to know literally everything about bluegrass music. I've been hoping to use this knowledge, or lack thereof, for a variety of vague projects, including this one. 

Specifically, my goal with this project is to try to piece together why it is that I and so many other people not only love but feel so connected to bluegrass music. 

"But Tristan," you ask, "what even is this project"? 

Well, we'll get to that. First, some brief exposition! 

"No, I don't have time for that. What is this?"

Oh. Ok. Well, this is a blog where I analyze books I've read and cross reference them to my personal experiences as a bluegrass musician and occasionally write essays about super nerdy bluegrass related stuff in an attempt to, as previously mentioned, unravel the mystery of why people become so obsessed with bluegrass. There's a link to the first post at the end.

I hope that's informative enough because I'm gonna tell my emotionally reverent story now. You can skip it if you want but I wouldn't have written it if I didn't think it was important.

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When I was eight, my life changed in an instant. It changed in a way that I am still generally confused about. It's confusing because this wasn't a choice that I made or a moment of experiencing something new for the first time. When I was eight I fell in love with music. And not really music so much as the banjo. And not really the banjo so much as my dad's banjo playing. Let's back up a little. 

My dad, Jeff Scroggins, is a really, really good banjo player. And while I'm sure everyone whose dad plays the banjo says that, you're going to have to take my word for it (or click some of these subtle links). By the time I'd turned eight I'd been listening to him play banjo for about eight years and nine months. I had also been going to bluegrass festivals for essentially as long. My father's playing is also fairly distinct. So much so that when I'd get lost at a festival I could just listen and hear him on the other side of the campground and find him through toddler Doppler radar. (The only time that didn't work was when this guy, who my dad spent a lot of time around in Texas, happened to be playing at the festival). All of this is to say, I'd been hearing music, and bluegrass, and banjo, and my Dad for my whole life up to this point. 

Now let's return to me being eight. The extent of my fine arts interest or education at this point was limited. Two weeks of piano and one week of tap dancing (which I'm more disappointed about not following up with). At this point, I liked video games and I begrudgingly show up to baseball practice. My father had stopped touring (except for a brief respite) to raise a family and was just gigging occasionally with a local band. They were playing the Santa Fe Bluegrass and Old Time Music Festival which I had been to many times before (meaning anywhere between one and eight times). I was particularly excited to play on the bleachers at this festival and here's where it gets real. I'm sitting at the top of the bleachers and am looking behind them where the stage is (it was a small festival. Having people sit in those bleachers would have not made a lot of sense so there was a small stage set up behind them). I was looking down at the tent where they were playing their set and they start playing an original tune of my Dad's called JalapeƱo Flashback. And as I sit there and listen, I feel something that I've felt many times since but up to that point I had never experienced. I now recognize it as a mixture of being overwhelmed emotionally by music and an intense feeling of pride. In that moment I was completely shaken up by how this music was making me feel and immensely proud of my father I was for being able to do something so powerful. It was very beautiful. But to an eight-year-old, it was moderately terrifying. I had never felt something so strongly so I half-composed myself and walked down to where they were standing after the set and between sobs asked my dad if he'd teach me how to play the banjo. 

This took pretty much everyone by surprise. I had previously expressed no interest in this music I had grown up around. People often assume that my father pushed my family to learn but that couldn't be further from the truth. It had never occurred to either of my parents that one of their kids would want to play bluegrass and suddenly it was all I wanted to do. But I didn't know it was bluegrass. I didn't know anything about it at all except for that I needed to know how to do it.

I would have other moments like this one in the following years that would shape who I was as a person and musician but none quite as striking or powerful or as random as this one. And none of them would really make me question the significance of all of it until I was in my late teens and I heard the story about the first time Bela Fleck heard the banjo. And It reminded me not of my story but a story from an art documentary I had recently seen where one of the people being interviewed, a very famous artist, was talking about being on a school field trip to a modern art museum as a teenager. At this point in his life, he had not ever had any interest in art, much less modern art. But then he described walking into one of the rooms and getting a chill down his spine and, knowing how crazy it sounded, insisting that he could feel one of the paintings in the room before he saw it and in that moment his life was changed by a passion and love and obsession for art. 

This sounded like a few experiences I'd had so I started to wonder if everybody had had a moment like this and I started to investigate only to find… that not everybody was like that. Some people had striking life changing moments like this but others just casually enjoyed the music, or grew up doing it, or just happened to be playing it.  

Many years later I'd hear a similar story about the first time John Hartford heard the banjo coming out of the radio next to his neighbor's window and knocking on the door to find out what it was. Well here was a new lead. Both the Bela and Hartford stories involved the banjo playing of Earl Scruggs and mine also had to do with the banjo so maybe that was the key! But then soon after, Billy Strings would tell me an incredibly powerful story about hearing Ralph Stanley sing that really blew that theory out of the water. 

Currently, I'm very lucky to get to travel all over playing bluegrass and one of my favorite things about traveling is that I've met people in completely random places who also just love bluegrass. It seems crazy that there could be kids in the middle of nowhere in Saskatchewan who are into bluegrass but no more crazy than all the kids in San Francisco who love it. And come to think of it, my falling in love with bluegrass while growing up in New Mexico seems completely unlikely. 

There was a very striking moment where I was jamming at the European World of Bluegrass festival in The Netherlands with a little over a half a dozen people from almost as many countries, all around my age who all loved bluegrass. And yet another moment when I started to read High Lonesome Below Sea Level a book about the history of bluegrass in the Netherlands (that came about as the result of a thesis paper on whether or not bluegrass in the Netherlands could be considered "Americanization" the conclusion of which was that these people didn't care where the music came from, they just loved the music). People an ocean away were hearing this obscure American Folk music and falling in love with it. There are people who barely speak English who love bluegrass. So what is it about this music that connects all of these people? Is it unique in any way? Does any of it hold any greater significance? Or do people just happen to like different types of music just because?

These Ideas were percolating in my head for awhile and each time I'd get a new piece of information I'd get some new bits of information. Then about a year ago, I started working on a project, that required me to know a little more about bluegrass history than I currently knew. As I started to read I started to see similar stories and other completely dissimilar stories not just in bluegrass but across genres I started to come up with more questions. it wasn't just What's the history of bluegrass? All of a sudden it was what is bluegrass? and why do people care?  and on from there. Now I have notebooks full of questions and a list with every book having anything to do with bluegrass or anything related. I know there's a way to piece this together with a broad enough perspective and I'm working to achieve just that.

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"But Tristan!" you continue to ask because you've been reading intently this whole time, "That's a very nice story and sounds cool but why even bother? Like, seriously, who cares?" 

Well, reader, that's a good question. Who does care? Well, I care, for one. And that's about all I can say. Maybe you care about that sort of stuff and maybe you don't. Either way is fine. I don't think that people need an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of a music to be considered credible when they play (even though that's what it feels like sometimes in bluegrass). I do, however, think that as a community, as a country, and as a world we're all experiencing a lot of rapid changes and hardship and things are more partisan than ever. Only from learning from both our past and the history of similar events can we really rise up in a confident, educated, and communal way and come together to make a stronger community that protects the heritage of bluegrass and welcomes new creations into the folk tradition. 

This blog is much more of a personal project than any of the other things I plan to do with this information. Partially because I hope to use this as a place to essentially write reviews of the information I get from these books and compare my notes in a passively public forum in the hopes that someone says "Hey, actually, it's not that way it's like this". I also, as mentioned, do literally have notebooks full of questions and I've come up with answers for some of them so I might occasionally write an essay on like "The Different Ways to cover a Song in Bluegrass" or "Can You Play Bluegrass with a Bowl Back Mandolin?". By putting out all of this information, I'm hoping that we can all learn together. No one has all of the answers but together we can learn more than we ever would on our own. I thought this was a quote from either Bill Monroe or a Sam Bush but it turns out I was way off. It's actually Bill Nye, the Science Guy who said: "Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don't." Maybe Bill or Sam said something like that too. If someone does know, you should leave a comment and then we'll all know!

If you're into really esoteric, pedantic bluegrass nit picking I think you'll enjoy what I plan to post and if you just want to passively glean some information nuggets to bust out at the next weekly jam session, this will probably be a good place for that too. Hey, did you know that the Victor record label executives were unimpressed by Jimmie Rodgers' recordings at the now famed Bristol Sessions and it wasn't until he took a trip up to New York and demanded a second shot that he was signed and recorded the chart-topping "T for Texas"? Or that there is actually a historical difference between the violin and the fiddle? Pretty neat, huh? I'm posting this introduction simultaneously with a review of the book That Half-Barbaric Twang, a book about the history of the banjo in American pop-culture so you can get a feel for what that will be like. If you're into it, then you should subscribe to the newsletter and have it sent right to your email. Or if you're not into email clutter than maybe just subscribe to the RSS feed. Or just check back occasionally. I'll also post links from my Facebook page. Like I said, I'm on the road a lot and have a lot of projects so my goal starting out is 1 post a month with a stretch goal of two a month. Maybe once I get a little more comfortable with it I can do something once a week but for now, you're going to have to ration out those jam info nuggets.

If you happen to totally love this idea, there are several ways to donate money which I will use to buy more books or maybe DVDs of documentaries. Maybe if people start to give me a lot I'll use it to actually go to a couple of really important historical places. Currently, that's all on me and that's just fine; like I said this is a personal project, but the button is there in case you want to help out. Your support is tremendously appreciated and very encouraging. If you think I'm just going to spend your money on cookies and red wine then consider just sending me something on my Amazon Wish List labeled Ethnomusicological Wishlist. Paperback is preferred and used copies are plenty fine as I'm going to just be writing notes all over them. Unless they're super old. This isn't necessary in any way but it's a really great way to show your support and it would really help me out. 

If spending money isn't an option then telling some of your friends about it is almost better! Share this blog on Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter, Friendster and let those bluegrass nerds in your life bask in a small oasis of over-analyzation. although then all of your jam buddies will know where you're getting those delicious info nuggets from and your nugget mine will run dry and you'll have to email me asking for an early scoop. Early scoop of nuggets.

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Thanks so much for reading this post, I'm really excited to finally start working on this project and putting some of what I've been working on out there! I really hope you'll enjoy it and I know I'll enjoy learning together with you.

-Tristan Scroggins