Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Bluegrass: A History" & Why People Say Bluegrass Isn't Dance Music (Part 1)

Exploring the contentious relationship between bluegrass music fans and dancing.

One of the things I love about the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) conference is how much it reminds me of a large family reunion. A large group of people who are, in many cases, seemingly involuntarily connected to this community of folks who are all connected by a deeply ingrained musical commonality. Everyone there loves "bluegrass" but what "bluegrass" "is" is different for each of them. Because of this, the bluegrass community is peppered with phrases that can trigger extremely contentious arguments in a matter of seconds.

It's difficult to not sound arrogant when making these broad generalizations. If I've learned anything from all of the research I've done it is that "bluegrass" is a moving target full of paradoxes and contradictions. While some people believe that bluegrass should be very rigidly defined and others believe that it should be a completely open definition, I sit somewhere in the middle. And with topics like the relationship between dance and bluegrass, I think there is a strong historical basis for opinions that are and always will be contradicted by exceptions. 

Hippies dancing at Smithfield, Virginia, Pickers' Convention in 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer

This post will summarize the first chapter of Neil Rosenberg's unparalleled Bluegrass: a History (Hillbilly Music and the Monroe Brothers) and present the first half of my discussion of the relationship between bluegrass music and dance. It is my opinion that, generally, bluegrass is not dance music.

Having said that, the second part of this discussion will talk about the various examples of bluegrass being dance music. As I said, everyone one of these arguments is full of exceptions and contradictions. The main reason for this, I think, is because "bluegrass" has always been more of a community than a musical genre and therefore defined more by expressions of values rather than expressions of art. But that's a discussion for another time.

For now, I'm going to argue that the dance traditions people often associate with bluegrass actually belong to either old time or country music and bluegrass instead, sits somewhere in between the two as a both a commercial and folk tradition, is distinctly a performance based music whose distinguishing factors include elements that imply no connection to dance traditions. Simply put: traditional bluegrass is played too fast to dance to because the focus of bluegrass was the technical ability of the musicians and which was specifically created as a departure from the communal old time music played specifically to dance to.

That being said, Monroe often referred to bluegrass as "dance music" and would dance on stage. We'll get to that in the second part.

Some other quick housekeeping: This post deals with the first chapter of Rosenberg's book and the subsequent post will deal with the second chapter. I use these largely as the basis of the argument that bluegrass isn't dance music but both of these chapters deal with music created before 1946, the largely accepted date of the "creation of bluegrass" (that's when Earl Scruggs join the Blue Grass Boys). That in and of itself is its own discussion which has played out in many books and forums already. I don't see a problem with it here because 1) I'm mostly using the events and music of this time to interpret the musical intentions of Bill Monroe, conscious or not, as they lead up to 1946 2)  the early music of the Blue Grass Boys still greatly influenced the musical landscape of the time and led to events that would eventually culminate in the the "creation of bluegrass" in a greater sense and 3) I think my point only gets stronger after 1946. Besides, this first post talks about Monroe's time as a duo with his brother Charlie having greatly influenced his musical and business decisions when he later started his own band. 

This assertion is based on what might be called "traditional bluegrass" as opposed to the more broad and open definition. This is the root of the more in-depth sociological issue associated with this question. When people say "bluegrass isn't dance music" they might be referring to the fact that traditional bluegrass isn't typically rhythmically suited to dancing but a lot of times they mean "that music that hippies dance to isn't bluegrass." As time has gone on, bluegrass has grown and changed a lot and while there are still bands that remain rhythmically and stylistically similar to 1st generation bluegrass bands, most bands are influenced, consciously or not, by rock and roll and other more "danceable" forms of music that became prominent after the "creation of bluegrass." In this way, bluegrass gains another unreasonable qualifier. If it's easier to dance to the music of Greensky or Front Country than say, Audie Blaylock and Redline, then they are sometimes unfairly dismissed from the genre. Often, this has to do more with prejudice towards the people doing the dancing rather than any sort of pedantic preservation effort. This social aspect of this argument will be touched on in the next post but not to the degree I'd like. It is a complex social issue about which I don't currently feel qualified to make assertions but intend to continue studying. 

In addition, I make a lot of assertions about dance and "dance music." I'm no expert on dance but I've done some research on it for this post and tried to succinctly explain what I've learned. I'm considering "dance music" to be music specifically created to be danced to. Disco is dance music; Simon & Garfunkel is not dance music. I realize this is rather ambiguous but I can't write multiple novels to contextualize ultimately benign bluegrass arguments. 

That being said, I've split this argument into two parts partly in an attempt to make these posts more accessible and partly because now that it's spring, I'm on tour again and have been extremely busy. I'm still dedicated to being as detailed oriented as possible but I don't have the luxury of researching in my own room until five in the morning. I've been lucky in this case though because I'm actually currently on tour with Mark Schatz who knows a thing or two about dance and bluegrass and I'm hoping to get both his and his wife's opinion in the next post. To further the contradictions, Mark has danced on stage at every single one of our shows. 

Here's this month's playlist. The first chapter of Rosenberg's book talks about the early life of Bill Monroe and the history of the duet he originally played in with his brother Charlie. This playlist includes mostly music that Bill would have heard and been influenced by before he started his own band. It's from different bands and musicians during his time in various shows at different radio stations across the country. We also have a couple of tracks from the Monroe Brothers themselves.

If you're a regular reader of this blog then you should own Bluegrass: a History. It is unparalleled and essential for anyone with an interest in bluegrass history. As you have seen, I tend to quote from it a lot no matter what I'm talking about. You can purchase it here:

Thanks again as always to Ellie Hakanson, Martha Trachtenberg, and Megan Lynch for explaining what dangling participles are while patiently removing excessive commas. And thanks to you for checking back in. Be sure to sign up for the email list and share this with people that might be interested.

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Bluegrass: A History Chapter One

Hillbilly Music and the Monroe Brothers

In a time when playing music was just as good a job to have as any, Bill and Charlie Monroe didn't leave their home in Kentucky hoping to become musicians. Like many other rural families of the time, the Monroe brothers migrated to a city center looking for work. But rather than keeping their steady jobs, Bill and Charlie pursued their creative aspirations and went on to form one of the most influential country duets of all time.

Early Life
Bill Monroe was born in 1911, near Rosine, KY. He was the youngest of the six children of J.B. and Malissa Monroe. The Monroes were a relatively well-off family of educated individuals. While they weren't rich, they had enough time and money for leisure activities. Bill's father, J.B., danced and his mother, Malissa, played a variety of instruments.

Both of Bill's parents died by the time Bill was sixteen and he ended up in the care of his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver. Pendleton (Pen for short) was a popular old-time fiddler in demand for local dances. He would often recruit Bill to accompany him on guitar. Uncle Pen was a major role model and musical influence on Bill, who immortalized him later in his life with the song "Uncle Pen" as well as recording an album of tunes he had learned from him. Bill was also heavily influenced by a local black guitarist named Arnold Schultz. Schultz also played at dances with Uncle Pen where his virtuosic guitar playing would inspire many young musicians in the region, including a young Bill Monroe.

Bill was first drawn to the guitar and fiddle, but his older brothers Birch and Charlie had already started to learn these instruments and Bill was left to play the mandolin. Bill would always tell the story of how they made him play with only four strings (rather than the usual double-coursed eight) so he wouldn't make too much noise.

Bill and his brothers were surrounded by folk music and singing at home but they would also learn the finer points of singing from traveling "singing schools." These singing teachers would often travel to small towns and teach a simplified version of notated song (often hymns) called "shape note." Shape note singing made complex harmony singing a much more obtainable goal in these rural community settings. [qtd. in Willard]

The devastating effects of the Great Depression hit rural areas sooner than the rest of the country. In the 1930s, fewer people migrated from the country to the city than at any other time in the century. Still, the wage of city workers was 30 percent higher than rural workers in 1930 and some rural workers did migrate at this time. [Smith] "Branch migration" was popular at this time as well.  Family members would migrate to the city and send money back to the family in the country. The Monroes were one such family.

Moving to the Big City
In the late ’20s, Charlie and Birch moved North to find work in the auto industry. They eventually found steady work at a Sinclair oil refinery near Chicago in Whiting, IL. Charlie was able to secure a job for Bill and around 1929, Bill moved North to join his brothers. While Charlie’s social skills helped land Bill a job, his temper made him lose his own job when a fight at the refinery got Charlie fired. Work was scarce and at one point, Bill was supporting Charlie, Birch, and other Monroe family members who had moved North, while still sending money back home to the rest of the family in Kentucky, keeping only enough to get a haircut each week. [Smith, 32]

Show Business
In the early days of radio, music was performed live. “Hillbilly music” (early country music) was popular though many station programmers looked down on the musicians and their music. Despite generally finding hillbilly music to be beneath their dignity, playing it was seen as a necessity and by the by the midthirties, "barn dances" became common on bigger radio stations. Barn dances were broadcasts held usually on Saturday night that would feature all of the hillbilly performers who played fifteen-minute slots during the week.

These shows didn't usually pay anything, as their inherent value was the advertising for the bands' personal appearances. Some stations charged advertising fees for these slots, which were usually sponsored by companies selling products through the hillbilly acts. This was a cost-effective way to advertise their products and offered a great symbiotic relationship.

One of the most popular of these barn dances was hosted by WLS in Chicago. The National Barn Dance was broadcasted at 50,000 watts (the highest legal limit) clear channel, meaning no one else could use their frequency to broadcast. In 1932, the National Barn Dance became the first of its kind to broadcast in front of a live studio audience each week.

In 1932, Bill, Birch, Charlie, and their friend Larry Moore were relaxing after a long work week like a lot of other displaced rural workers dancing at a local square dance. The Monroe's were all skilled dancers and had attracted attention over the course of the night. They were approached by Tom Owens, a square dance caller and producer of country music programs. Owens wanted the Monroes to perform as dancers as part of an exhibition square dance team. Unlike the more informal, social version of square dancing that the Monroes would have been doing that night, exhibition dances were highly choreographed, well rehearsed, and meant to showcase dancing for other people's entertainment. (The implications of this are very interesting to me but I find it particularly intriguing that radio audiences would have presumably just been hearing the dance music while the studio audience would both see the dance and hear the music.) [Smith, 34]

The three Monroe brothers joined the troupe and toured as part of package shows with the dance team for nearly two years. While dancing, the brothers would have the opportunity to spend time meeting and watching big hillbilly stars such as members of the Prairie Ramblers, or Clayton McMichen and his Georgia Wildcats. Charlie, Birch, and sometimes Bill would also perform music together locally at places including at the Palace Theatre in downtown Chicago and WJKS radio in nearby Gary, Indiana. [Smith, 35]

It was here in Gary that the brothers, particularly the front man Charlie, caught the attention of Texas Crystals, a big sponsor of hillbilly radio performances. Charlie was offered a job on a Texas Crystals program on KFNF in Shenandoah, Iowa. "Charlie didn't want to play as a solo, but Birch opted to keep his refinery job ... so Bill got the nod [to join Charlie in Iowa]." [Smith, 35] Thus, in 1934, the Monroe Brothers as we know them today were formed.

The Monroe Brothers

After about three months, the brothers were transferred to a bigger Texas Crystals venue at WAAW in Omaha, Nebraska. It was here that they would meet Byron Parker, who would become a major part of their act. Parker had performed, and with the Monroe Brothers would continue to perform, gospel songs on the radio, but his main talent was sales. Selling products was an important part of country music due to the sponsorship nature of the radio programs. In addition to selling products, radio salesmen like Parker would “sell” the band. (This confused me for a while, but they were essentially just country hype-men). Byron Parker was an exceptional radio salesman and his infectious charm contributed greatly to the Monroe Brothers' success. The Monroe Brothers continued working in Omaha for six months until they were transferred in 1935 to WIS in Columbia, South Carolina. The brothers were well received in this part of the country and would spend the rest of their short career there.
They were transferred again from WIS to WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina. Here, Texas Crystals had competition with a similar product called Crazy Crystals (It may seem like crystals were a big deal back then but they were actually both laxatives which were a big deal). Crazy Crystals "won" and Texas Crystals backed out, leaving the Monroes stranded in North Carolina, where they were quickly picked up by Crazy Crystals and became part of the "Crazy Crystals Barn Dance" on the same station. While this show didn't have the broadcast power of WLS's National Barn Dance, it was still widely distributed and played all over the region, giving broad exposure to the Monroe Brothers.

The Monroe Brothers’ Sound

"The impact of the Monroe Brothers on the music scene in the Carolinas cannot be overstated." [34] The brothers fit into a very popular country archetype of the time: the brother duet. With close harmonies and sparse instrumentation, various similar duets such as the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys were also very popular at the time.

But the Monroe Brothers were different. Their unique sound made a distinct impact on the upcoming generation of musicians. They played faster and sang higher than anyone. Charlie was a powerful singer with a high but clear voice and his guitar runs were snappy and attention-grabbing. Bill's tenor singing blended well with Charlie's high voice. A lot of the high, piercing harmony sound associated with Bill Monroe (and therefore eventually bluegrass) was forged and perfected during this time. In an interview with future manager, Ralph Rinzler, Bill would talk about how Charlie loved to sing high notes. While Bill could sing high, he'd often have to quickly switch to a falsetto to save his voice from too much strain as he would sing the part above his brother. Richard Smith explains that "sometimes Charlie would sing notes that were more tenor than original melody, forcing Bill to sing a high baritone-style line. Sometimes Charlie would unexpectedly jump up and double Bill's notes forcing him to quickly find an even higher harmony part. This aggravated Bill but was superb training for his tenor." [Smith, 37] (A quick for anyone unfamiliar with this jargon, in bluegrass the words tenor and baritone refer to the harmony part above or below the lead line. They aren't related at all to their usual choral definitions. For more information see here).

Bill's mandolin playing was also unlike anything people had heard. At this time, the mandolin fad had come and gone. People knew what the mandolin was, but it was no longer a particularly popular instrument, especially in country music. Bill's mandolin playing was unbelievably fast and clean. (This statement is all about context. If you listen to Adam Steffey, Chris Thile, Sam Bush, etc., and then put a Bill Monroe record on the turntable, you might not agree with me. Keep in mind we're talking about the ’30s, and the sort of mandolin playing people were used to hearing.)  Monroe was the first in a long line of mandolin players to push the bar of mandolin playing  (in country music) to previously unknown levels. There were actually some incredibly talented and virtuosic black, ragtime, and string band mandolin players around and before this time, but they were not (and still aren't) very well known. Record companies had started to draw genre lines commercially and race records were separate from hillbilly records. Personally, I find Bill's earlier playing a little cleaner, if not simpler, in early Monroe Brothers recordings. Bill was essentially imitating the fiddle style of playing he learned from Uncle Pen and adding the blues sounds of Arnold Shultz to the mandolin. And then playing it unbelievably quickly and cleanly.

Recording Hillbilly Music

During the Depression, record labels started to create budget labels producing cheaper records and selling them for less money. Decca started this trend in 1934 by selling their records for thirty-five cents rather than the industry standard of seventy-five cents. The American Record Company (ARC) and RCA Victor soon responded by creating various budget labels as well. ARC and Decca mostly focused on cowboy songs of the Southwest, but RCA Victor focused on the growing country market in the Southeast. Many early hillbilly acts and string bands were recorded by their budget brand, called "Bluebird" at this time. [Rosenberg, 26]

In 1936, the Monroe Brothers were broadcasting from both Greenville, SC, and Charlotte, NC, when Eli Oberstein, an A&R man ("artists and repertoire" — a combination talent scout and producer) from Victor records happened to hear them and reached out in an attempt to get them on record. At this time, records were largely used to promote personal appearances and the Monroe Brothers already had decent work and exposure on the radio. Unconvinced of the commercial benefits of recording, they turned down the offer. Oberstein, desperate and convinced of their potential, sent them a telegram:


Oberstein followed up with a phone call to Charlie and convinced the duo to come and record in Charlotte. On February 7, 1936, during a session that, due to their tight touring schedule, had to be scheduled to interrupt a session with Arthur Smith and the Delmore Brothers, the Monroe Brothers recorded ten songs including what would be their biggest hit: “What Would You Give in Exchange.” The Monroe Brothers would be included in regular Bluebird sessions every five or six months for the next two years. [Rosenberg, 34]

In 1937, Byron Parker left the Monroe Brothers to lead his own band, Byron Parker and His Mountaineers. Due in part to disagreements about how the band should be run, the Monroe Brothers parted ways a year later in 1938. They would both go on to try to prove that they did not need the other to be successful. This was a greater challenge for Bill. Up to this point he had never led a band or sung lead on a song, but I don't think it would be unfair to say he was more determined than Charlie. Bill moved West and tried to start a band, taking with him the experience of being around bands like the Prairie Ramblers and hearing the unique three-finger banjo style popular in North Carolina.

Why People Say Bluegrass Isn't Dance Music (Part 1)

Is bluegrass music "dance music"? For some, the sound of the banjo does invoke a vision of joyfully dancing hillbillies and while their imitative knee-slapping might be meant as a sign of approval, watching someone "dance like a hillbilly" can be seen an embarrassing misrepresentation of their culture. But if good music supposedly makes us want to dance, then why would some bluegrass fans bristle at the idea of dancing at shows and festivals? Here’s what I think. While America has unique folk dance traditions that grew in conjunction with what is now referred to as old-time music, bluegrass music was created as a distinctly performance-based music that differed stylistically from the rural music originally written to accompany dance. The genre has repeatedly been defined by a fanaticism focused on the virtuosic nature of the performance and dance can often be seen as disrespectful or a sign of a listener "not getting it" to the more performance-focused audience.

American folk dance traditions are largely tied to the traditional music found in the Southeastern United States. Square dancing, contra dancing, round dancing, flat footing, buck dancing, and clogging are among the variety of American dances that, like the music that accompanies them, combined cultural traditions from various immigrant groups with native and slave traditions to create something uniquely "American." (It should go without saying that Native Americans have a variety of much more authentically "American" dances in the literal sense. It's a touchy subject and the wording can get confusing, but for the rest of this post, just know that "America" refers to the Union rather than the continent.)

Dances can be categorized as individual dances, partner dances, or team dances. Square dances, contra dances, and round dances are all team dances where multiple people complete choreographed actions together. These all, essentially, grew out of English cotillion dances that came to New England when America was colonized. As time went on, these dances changed to fit the needs of the dancers until they became a unique expression.

This style of dance doesn’t require any particular instruments or style of music beyond demanding that they be rhythmic. Pianos and accordions were and still are often used for accompaniment. Though when discussing the instrumentation necessary for a square dance in his book Cowboy Dances: a collection of western square dances, Lloyd Shaw (often considered the father of the square dance revival) says that "a modern jazz orchestra with its saxophones and clarinets, somehow cannot supply the authentic flavor." [36] Whether it’s the timbre of the instruments or the rhythmic quality of the notes the produce that doesn’t feel authentic is hard to say.

"Clogging" is a term that does refer to a specific style of dance, but it is also often used as an umbrella term for rhythmic solo folk dance. This more general definition of clogging refers a type of step dance that is unique in that the heel is often keeping the rhythm rather than the toes. It was likely developed after the eventual combination of Irish step dancing, Cherokee Stomp dances, and dances brought from Africa. From what I understand, flat footing is the earliest incarnation of this. Flat footing is a soft shoe dance that is mostly improvised, with the feet staying as close to the ground as possible.

Buck dancing is more flashy than flat footing with acrobatic kicks and with metal taps often applied to the shoe to emphasize the rhythms. The knees stay bent and the moves are based more on using the heels rather than the toes.

Clogging, in the specific sense, is like buck dancing, but more showy with straight knees and an extra tap attached to the shoe to further emphasize the rhythm. The creation of clogging, in my mind, represents the point at which dancing became the focus of a performance. Music became supplemental to the performance that was clogging. Part of the evidence for this lies in the fact that clogging partially developed out of competitions where the dancing, rather than music, was definitively the focus of the performance.

Since all of these dances evolved from each other, there is no definitive "start" date for any of them, but clogging does have two important dates associated with it. The idea of clogging as it's known today began to be standardized in 1938, when Sam Queen's Soco Gap Dance Team won the team dance competition at Bascom Lamar Lunsford's Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Lunsford was a musician and dancer who started the Folk Festival and its competitions to preserve mountain culture and encourage its perpetuation. Team dancing had been performed at the festival since 1927 and had its own competition category by 1938. It was in that first year that the Soco Gap Dancers won. Rather than the more common choreographed low-to-the-ground flat footing, the Soco Gap Dancers performed more complex, high-energy buck dancing steps while continuously square dancing to the calls of Sam Queen. This, in effect, also made them the first exhibition square dance team.

In 1939, the Soco Gap Dancers were invited to the White House to perform for the visiting King and Queen of England. (Fun fact: this was the first time a reigning British monarch had ever visited the United States.) Legend has it that after the performance, the Queen Mother remarked that the performance reminded her of an English dance that is performed while wearing wooden clogs. The name "clogging" stuck and American cloggers still have to explain that they don't wear wooden shoes.

When Bill and Charlie Monroe join WLS as dancers, they would have been doing exhibition dances similar to Queen's Soco Gap Dance Team. Whether they were clogging during the square dances is unknown, but they would have been participating in highly choreographed square dancing meant to be a performance spectacle.

The significance of this type of dancing is the difference between performance and participation. Authentic expressions of these dance traditions were community events where bands provided music for people who wanted to dance. These theatrical performances were meant to represent the dances that would have been familiar to the displaced rural workers (like the Monroes) living in the city, while providing an entertaining show for others. The music being played by the musicians on stage was being made for people to dance to, but participation was limited to the dancers on stage who were also a part of a show.

Commercial country music has frequently (if not always) been a theatrical representation of rural life and people. This "hillbilly theater," as Neil Rosenberg calls it, has been used to represent a variety of romanticized expressions from down-home nostalgia to the freedom of the open road. This isn't unique to country music, but the genre has historically been partially characterized by its lack of subtlety.

These expressions come from country music’s ties to vaudeville. The radio Barn Dances of the ’30s and ’40s often blatantly presented this idea of "hillbilly theater." By the time Monroe started to play with the Grand Ole Opry in the ’40s, the idea and expression of the hillbilly as a character was in full swing and the Opry played it up as much as anyone. Opry stars like Uncle Dave Macon, a former vaudeville star, had bridged the gap between a dying style American pop art (vaudeville) and a newer style (country music). In her book about class in America, Nancy Isenberg recalls that in the ’40s, Minnie Pearl became hugely popular on the Opry (and later the television show Hee Haw) with her country vaudeville persona that was crafted to appeal to this new popular interest in the idea of hillbillies. Minnie "was by no means an authentic mountain gal. [She] was born into a wealthy family, was well educated, and crafted a naive persona that made her vaudeville act a success." [Isenberg, 257]

These country characters who theoretically represent what it means to "be country" have been a staple of the genre since its creation. Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry weren't real cowboys, Johnny Cash hadn't been to prison when he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues,” and Keith Urban has probably never driven a tractor in his life. But authenticity isn't as big an issue in a theatrical sense as believability. And the quiet, respectable life and culture of rural, working-class people was not as believable (not to mention as entertaining) as the dramatized version presented on stage.

Bill Monroe actively refused to play into this stereotype by dressing his band and suits and ties rather than the cornpone image of other Opry stars, but he was no stranger to the theatrics of country music and would incorporate it in other areas of his show. How conscious these decisions were is debatable, but their existence is undeniable.

When Monroe joined the Opry in 1939, the WSM Artists' Services Department had already been created. According to Rosenberg, this department "helped Opry performers promote their careers effectively by booking newcomers like Monroe in traveling tent shows." [50]

Tent shows packaged various radio artists together and took them on the road, presenting the shows in literal tents to accommodate the lack of large venues found out in the country.  They were usually well attended both because of the lineups and also because they were advertised heavily by the radio station. The Opry, in this case, had a lot of broadcasting power and wide listenership that would often pack these traveling shows. This is part of what made playing at the Opry so appealing to young musicians like Monroe.

By 1943, Monroe had pulled together the resources to organize his own tent show. These shows usually had other performers, but always featured the Blue Grass Boys. At the peak of the efficiency of Bill’s show, a crew would travel in advance of the band and get everything set up for the show, including getting permits, hanging flyers, and setting up the tent. Then a challenge would be issued to the local baseball club (which nearly every town had). The band would arrive and play a baseball game (which blows my mind not because it seems so absurd for the band to double as a baseball team, but because Monroe was practically blind and never wore glasses in those days). After the game, they would quickly set up a mic to play a bit for the crowd before they left and invite them to come to the show that evening.

The use of the word "show" in this sense is meant to be distinct from the word "concert." With these tent shows, Monroe was putting on a show that featured multiple diverse acts. This format would have been very familiar to Monroe at this point from his time as a dancer on WLS and his then-current job on the Opry. These shows were more examples of "hillbilly theater" that represented exaggerated and metaphorical versions of rural life and, as Rosenberg says, were "best thought of as the dramatic equivalent of an idealized family 'get-together.'"

I've quoted part of this section before and I couldn't possibly explain this better myself. Here is how Rosenberg describes the theatrics of these shows:

"The total ensemble was symbolic of a small community or an extended family.... most of the shows of the thirties featured [all of the performers] on stage whether they were actively performing or not. They constituted an audience within an audience, a kind of framing device which suggested that the audience was viewing an oldtime corn-shucking or evening of parlor entertainment. this emphasized the communal aspects of the show, projecting a feeling of onstage group solidarity.... [and] within this communal or extended-family aggregation were smaller identifiable units… [such as] the brother duet, symbolizing in its very form the children of the nuclear family unit [or] the religious quartet reflected the close ties between church, family, and community in most of the towns where the show appeared, as well as the affirmation of coordinated small-group activities (like sports) by men."

This theme of country "shows" has continued into the present. Shows like Hee Haw would bring this "audience within an audience" to television (a device still used today). The folk revival of the ’60s and massive country crossover appeal found in the last fifty years has arguably brought more of this "theater" to the country audience as more and more nonrural fans imitate what they perceive to be "country."

Whether or not the Blue Grass Boys of the early ’40s are considered bluegrass, the theatrical nature of country music was carried over into bluegrass. Bill Monroe continued to put on his own tent shows even after Earl Scruggs joined the band and their essential nature is part of what would inspire the first bluegrass festivals in the ’60s. These first festivals were partially characterized by the highly theatrical Story of Bluegrass (which we talked about last month), the highly theatrical historical reenactment of various Blue Grass Boys' tenure in the band.

Despite its folk music roots, bluegrass was birthed out of the necessity to be unique in a commercial industry that endeavored to create a popular show for people to watch. It is part of the entertainment industry. The emphasis on performance rather than participation in bluegrass makes dancing seem nonviable in most settings. But dance has never explicitly been associated with bluegrass. Bluegrass was created after all common forms of folk dance (some having already become performance-oriented themselves) had become standardized and was created in a way that distanced itself from the communal music associated with dancing.  


Try this if you're having trouble viewing the timeline:

Lingering Questions

  • What is the history of the purpose of records in bluegrass music (as they shift from being used for advertising to being the main source of income of musicians)?
  • Did the cheap records of the '30s cause the Monroe Brothers to become a cult classic (a la the Clue movie)?
  • Why would religious organizations be more trusting of string bands than schoolmasters and movie theater owners?
  • When did harmony singing first appear in folk music?
  • When/how did song books come into fashion?


  1. "Bluegrass is not dance music" continued in the 70's and 80's at Bluegrass festivals. Woodstock and The Grateful Dead of the 60's associated "Hippy dancing" (which was similar to "Hillbilly dancing" in style) with sex and drugs which was common at the rock concerts/festival of the time. Bluegrass Festivals in contrast were "Family Friendly" with the use of alcohol and drugs prohibited.

  2. And now, some Bluegrass festivals are moving away from their "Family Friendly" roots by including jam bands like Leftover Salmon. This brings in the "hippies" who annoy the traditional audience by doing thing like moving chairs away from the front of the stage so they can "swoop" to the music in what I've seen described as a "drug-induced trance." Massive stages, with rock-concert amplification, lighting, smoke machines, etc. further drive a wedge and alienate the traditional audience.

  3. Another great read. You are doing a good job with this. I can't think of anything to add. We played a BBQ birthday party about 25 years ago for a local politician and alcohol was served there. We played off to the side of the event mostly for background noise. Some of the folks that drank to much came over to dance. It was the first time I saw anyone dance (or attempt to dance) to bluegrass. It was very strange seeing people hopping around, holding their beers, to Remington Ride and My Brown Eyed Darling!

  4. Another great read. You are doing a good job with this, Tristan. I can't think of anything to add, criticize or comment about. We played a BBQ birthday party about 25 years ago for a local politician and alcohol was served there. We played off to the side of the event mostly for background noise. Some of the folks that drank to much came over to dance. It was the first time I saw anyone dance (or attempt to dance) to bluegrass. It was very strange seeing people hopping around, holding their beers, to Remington Ride and My Brown Eyed Darling!