Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Bluegrass: A History" & Why People Say Bluegrass Isn't Dance Music (Part 2)

Welcome back. This month we will conclude our two-part discussion about the relationship between bluegrass music and dancing with a review of chapter 2 of Bluegrass: a History and an essay discussing the many ways in which Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, considered bluegrass dance music. We'll also lightly touch on the social aspects and history of dancing at bluegrass festivals. This month's playlist features an auditory analysis of early Blue Grass Boys musical influences and distinctions from other styles of music as the groundwork for a new genre is laid. I'm working on a bit of an analysis of the playlist that will hopefully appear soon but if you read this post, it shouldn't need much extra information.

I didn't make a timeline for this month as there wasn't a whole lot of significant moving around and most of the interesting information was the tenure of band members which can be found here. I usually include a lot links in these posts but blogger keeps crashing my computer so here's my favorite one I was going to link.

Also, I forgot to post my works cited last month so I rolled it into this month's. As always, I owe a huge, huge thank you to my editors Megan Lynch, Ellie Hakanson, and Martha Trachtenberg who patiently sifted through what I managed to write between two international tours last month. Speaking of, I'm still working on scaling back post sizes. Partly out of a desire to be more accessible (at the request of Ellie Hakanson) and partly because I'm getting much busier as we approach the summer. Being in-depth matters a lot to me but being concise is also a goal. These posts are currently hovering around 5000 words but hopefully, we can get it down to a 10th of that sometime in the near future. Thanks for checking back. I hope you enjoy this post. Please tell me what you think in the comments and be sure to share this with your friends!

Bluegrass: a History

Chapter 2: No One Was Calling it Bluegrass

When the Monroe Brothers split up, Bill and Charlie were each left with very different problems. Charlie, the charming lead singer and bandleader, needed to find someone to sing tenor to him, preferably while playing mandolin. And it didn’t take long for Charlie to hire veteran musician Zeke Morris. These two ended up sounding so much like the original Monroe Brothers that the recording company, Victor, included three cuts from their 1938 recording session on a 1962 Monroe Brothers reissue album. [Rosenberg, 40]

Bill, on the other hand, had never recorded an instrumental or vocal solo and was put in the position of needing to find someone that he could sing tenor to who could also accompany his mandolin playing. At age twenty-seven, he moved to Little Rock, AR, where he put together a very short-lived band called "The Kentuckians," named after his home state.

After a few months in Arkansas, Bill moved to Atlanta and in August of 1938 put out an ad in the newspaper for a guitarist and singer. He hired Cleo Davis, an amature musician who was all but forced by his friend to go to the audition. Bill's wife Carolyn (whom I haven't talked about, but I'll hopefully get the chance to in a future post), said that Cleo "sounded more like Charlie than any man she ever heard not to be Charlie Monroe." [Rosenberg, 41]

It was no accident that Cleo sounded so much like Charlie. The Monroe Brothers were Cleo's favorite country act and Cleo, not knowing who he was playing for, auditioned with their most popular number: "What Would You Give (in Exchange for Your Soul)." When Bill began singing tenor, Cleo realized who he was and got so scared that he claims he lost his voice and had to quit playing. [Rosenberg, 41]

Bill and Cleo rehearsed vigorously in the following weeks and auditioned for a variety of radio station positions. They were turned away at every station, as there was steep competition with other duet acts. Eventually though, they settle in Asheville, NC, at WWNC, back in the Carolinas, an area familiar to Bill.  Despite being billed as "Bill Monroe and Cleo Davis," WWNC started to receive letters addressed to the Monroe Brothers. Their rehearsals had paid off and together they sounded like a tight, professional group. However, at this point they were only doing the old Monroe Brothers material that Bill had taught Cleo. They gradually began to expand their repertoire and find their own sound and while doing this, Bill started to hire new musicians.

Fiddler Art Wooten and comedian Tommy Millard soon joined the band. With this expanded unit they started using the name "Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys." Bill had once again decided to pay homage to his home state of Kentucky (which was referred to as the "Blue Grass State." Blue grass is a variety of grass that grows abundantly in the area.). Soon after, Bill learned that the Delmore Brothers had left WFBC in Greenville, SC, so he and the new band quickly auditioned and were hired for their position.

Millard decided to remain in Asheville so Monroe, likely in a quest to distinguish his sound from Charlie's, hired upright bass player and comedian, Amos Garen. At this point, Charlie's band still sounded fairly similar to the old Monroe Brothers sound. With the addition of upright bass, Bill now had a broader harmonic range and a solid rhythmic foundation that contrasted with Charlie's tendency to constantly increase the tempo. [Rosenberg 42]

Bill also added gospel quartet singing to his sound at this time and increased his emphasis on fiddle playing. Gospel quartets were then popular and often found on "race" recordings, but more and more white gospel groups had begun to form.  Bill would have been familiar with groups like Claude Sharpe's Old Hickory Singers due to their popularity in the country genre and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet from the time they shared playing on WBT and WIS in South Carolina. [Rosenberg, 43]

Bill was also aware of and inspired by virtuosic fiddlers like Arthur Smith and Clayton McMichen. Bill's time with his Uncle Pen had left him with a taste for old-time fiddle music and he incorporated this into his sound along with fast, technical mandolin playing that mimicked the fiddle. This, along with high singing and close harmonies, started to set a musical standard for Monroe's sidemen. He was going to sing high and fast in difficult (and just generally unusual for the time) keys like Bb and B and he expected his sidemen to keep up.

Bill's mandolin playing was also progressing as he started incorporating more and more of Uncle Pen and Arthur Smith's influence into his playing. In adding this complex playing to his sound, Monroe also began to carve out a place for the mandolin as a solo instrument. The improvised mandolin and fiddle solos between verses created a jazz-like energy that was unique within this style of string band music. Their flashy fiddle showpieces, comedy routines, and somber gospel numbers distinguished them from similar string bands who were often playing dance music.

It is with this well-rehearsed showpiece unit that Bill auditioned for the Grand Ol' Opry in 1939. The Grand Ol' Opry was started in 1925 by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company of Nashville and got its call letters, WSM, from the company's motto: "we shield millions." They quickly hired George D. Hay, a former announcer from Chicago's WLS, who, after discovering that listeners enjoyed hearing old-time music (just like in Chicago), instituted a Saturday evening barn dance. The name "Grand Ol' Opry" came from a joke made as part of the show's self-consciously down-home attitude as it followed a program known to play "grand opera." When Monroe auditioned for the Opry, Hay liked the act so much that he said, "If you ever leave the Opry, it'll be because you've fired yourself." [Rosenberg, 46-47]

On Bill's first night on the Opry the band tore into the Jimmie Rodgers classic "Mule Skinner Blues" and the crowd loved it. This was supposedly the first time that anyone had ever received an encore at the Opry. It was this moment that Bill Monroe considered the birth of what would later be referred to as "bluegrass." For Bill, this represented the point where he had finally achieved his own unique sound, uninfluenced by his brothers. And it was unique. Rosenberg explains that by changing the feeling of the song from its original "country" feeling, "Monroe had done to Rodgers's song what Elvis Presley would later do to his 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' in 1954: he rhythmically reshaped it to fit a new genre." In this, "Monroe had found a way to fuse the popular hillbilly songs of the time with the older string band music. No one had ever conceived of singing a newfangled Jimmie Rodgers blue yodel to the same beat as an old folksong like 'John Henry' so that it could incorporate driving country fiddle." [Rosenberg, 47]

In addition to bringing this new sound to the Opry, Bill also brought a new look. The Opry, like other radio barn dances, played into hillbilly stereotypes. Judge Hay had a deep respect for these musicians and their music and tried to respect their dignity by not referring to it or them as "hillbilly." Still, Hay very purposefully made the show more commercial by playing up the theatrics and having the acts dress in "hillbilly" attire. Hay tried to toe the line between authenticity and commercial viability. He tried to "keep it close to the ground" by resisting the growing popularity of electric instruments for years while still reinforcing this dramatized "hillbilly theater." [Rosenberg, 46] When Bill arrived at the Opry, his self-consciously "down-home" values made him perfect for the show, but Bill refused to wear costumes that played into stereotypes he didn't agree with: "They were not cowboys, and they did not want to look like or be called hillbillies. Just as they took their music seriously, so they took the image seriously." [Rosenberg, 48] Bill would wear suits and ties onstage at the Opry alongside acts like Stringbean wearing long saggy overalls and Minnie Pearl wearing a price tag on her hat.

The success and perpetuation of bluegrass music is partially tied to Bill Monroe's loyalty to the Opry. The exposure of playing the Opry brought people to Monroe's shows and the broadcasts introduced bluegrass music to people all over the country.

After joining the Opry, Bill had steady work and money and could afford to hire more experienced musicians as others left. For the rest of his career, Bill would keep a pattern of having at least one if not two "veterans" in his band at all times to train the newer members.

After some personnel changes the Blue Grass Boys recorded their first record for Victor in October of 1940. The band now featured Clyde Moody (guitar), Willie Egbert "Cousin Wilbur"  Wesbrooks (bass and comedy), and Tommy Magnes (fiddle). This first record is representative of their stage show at this time with an emphasis on showcase fiddling (“Orange Blossom Special”) and comedy (“The Coupon Song”). Once again we see a difference in the coming "bluegrass" sound with this emphasis on fiddle rather than the highly popular steel guitar. This record is also the first recorded instance of the band tuning their instruments higher than standard tuning, which made them sound brighter, matching the tone of the singing. [Rosenberg, 50]

As World War II started at the end of the '30s, band member turnover increased as the draft was implemented. It was during this time that Monroe added the first banjo sound to his band. Dave "Stringbean" Akeman was a frailing (clawhammer or old-time style) banjo player and comedian who joined the Blue Grass Boys in 1942. It was also at this time that Wilene "Sally Ann" Forrester joined the band playing the accordion. Sally was the wife of Howdy Forrester, who played fiddle for Monroe before being drafted for the war. People have hypothesized that she was holding Howdy's place in the band, but this unfairly discredits her musical talent. According to bluegrass historian Murphy Henry, there's no indication that Sally was playing accordion before she started with the Blue Grass Boys. [Henry, 17] It's possible that Monroe wanted an accordion in the band due to the success of accordion-based dance bands and artists like Pee Wee King. Roy Acuff also had an accordion in his band at this time. It's also possible that Monroe simply liked the sound because his mother had played the accordion.

While touring in the Opry tent shows, Bill saw how much money could be made by putting on a live show and in 1943 started organizing his own tent show. Tent shows, as previously discussed, were large outdoor events that brought music to rural communities in the Southeast. Monroe had a huge amount of drawing power at this time and his tent shows were very successful.

As Monroe's success grew, he became much busier and more confident and began to loosen up the band's practice regimen. Whereas he and Clyde Moody had been working up a tight show and had come to the Opry with a polished, rehearsed unit, Monroe now began letting the veterans in the band take up the slack of training new musicians. New musicians kept flowing in and out of the band despite the relatively low pay because, similar to the benefits of being on the Opry, the musical training and exposure was invaluable.

During the war, factory jobs brought more people from the country into city centers and once the war was over these rural migrants had disposable income to spend on leisure activities like attending concerts and buying records. Country music experienced a growth in popularity at this time. Bill continued to expand his full band sound and likely sacrificed becoming more popular himself. Unlike artists like Roy Acuff, who would became more of a lead singer and bandleader as his career expanded, Bill Monroe shared the spotlight to concentrate more on creating a band sound that focused on group dynamics as well as emphasizing individual ability, to create an overall sound.

Bill Monroe had created a new musical sound. Unlike country music, which was frequently a sentimental expression of pop music trends, bluegrass was a unique musical style that used new sounds while maintaining ties with the past. Despite this innovation, Monroe was perpetually seen as a regressive because of his insistence on keeping his music acoustic.

Why People Say Bluegrass Isn't Dance Music Part 2

More than any historical or practical argument against dancing to bluegrass, contention about the subject often stems from a difference in what people value and how they express enjoyment. Regardless of any historical and contemporary emphasis on bluegrass as a performance-based music, the growth of the genre both musically and in crowd configuration has led to a diversity that can accommodate a wide range of tastes, styles, and expressions.

It is difficult to argue that bluegrass definitely isn't dance music when the "father of bluegrass" called it good music to dance to, danced to it on stage, and said his favorite part of playing shows was when people danced [Big Book of Bluegrass]. Dance did play a major role in the development of bluegrass. Bill was a talented dancer himself who was likely taught by his equally gifted parents. In addition, the old-time tunes Bill played with his Uncle Pen for community square dances would help lay down the foundations of bluegrass rhythm and repertoire. The blues influence on Bill's playing especially encouraged dance.

But Monroe's stylistic choices, which would later become the foundation of bluegrass, reveal a desire for performance-based expression conflicting with a desire for commercial growth. When Monroe recorded the popular old-time dance tune “Katy Hill” in [1940], he played it nearly 20 percent faster than contemporary versions. This changed the function of the tune from a song to facilitate dancing to one that showcased the technical virtuosity of Monroe's mandolin playing and his highly-coached fiddle players.

While subtle, the rhythmic emphasis on songs written for dancing is noticeably different from bluegrass. Take, for example, “Blue Grass Breakdown,” which Monroe described as a good number to dance to, and compare it to songs from old-time or cajun music. Notably, the emphasis of the backbeat is much more forward in bluegrass than the more laid-back drive and groove of the other two genres.

Still, Monroe enjoyed when people danced to his shows. The only time he was known to discourage dancing was during gospel songs. For Monroe and many others, playing gospel music was more of a statement of values than a statement of religion. Gospel music occupies a large percentage of the performance material in bluegrass and Bill in particular played at least one gospel song at almost every show he did. But unlike bands like The Lewis Family who were specifically playing gospel music as a service to the religion (even Little Roy's solo banjo album is all gospel tunes), Monroe and his followers likely played religious songs simply because they would have been familiar with them. And the fact that they'd stand up straighter and refrain from showy antics was likely just out of respect for the traditions that they represented. Monroe's desire to keep people from dancing comes from a desire for respect for older traditions that he held in high regard. This sentiment is still alive today and is seen at venues such as the Carter Family Fold, which holds bluegrass and old-time concerts where people are known to flatfoot and dance all night. Except during gospel songs.

The Carter Family Fold also represents another nail pried out of the coffin for bluegrass dancing. Since 1974, descendants of Sarah and A. P. Carter have been presenting bluegrass and old-time shows every Saturday night in Southwest Virginia. Shows are very traditional and family oriented. No alcohol, home-baked snacks, only acoustic instruments. [Carter Family Fold] People often dance during the shows, but refrain during hymns.

But the dancing at the Carter Family Fold is likely more organized than the freeform solo dance styles with which bluegrass fans might be more familiar. Rather than traditional flatfooting and buck dancing, the "noodle dance" associated strongly with hippies is much more prevalent at bluegrass events, along with imitative knee slapping and do-si-do-ing likely learned from hillbilly caricatures in popular media. Bluegrass festivals seem to be full of people who want to move to the music but can't find the "proper" steps associated and therefore turn to their own imaginations.

Many festivals (like the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme festival, which brings a wooden dance floor out into the Canadian wilderness and puts it directly in front of the stage) pride themselves in having a prominent dance floor while others (like the CBA Father's Day Festival, which once kicked someone out for dancing in front of the stage before apologizing with a lifetime pass) seem to begrudgingly rope off a dance "area" to the side or back of the audience viewing area. But the more "traditional" festivals I've played back East (like Red, White and Bluegrass or Graves Mountain) do not offer any sort of accommodation for dancers.

The reasons for this contention are multifaceted, but the main one is fairly obvious for bluegrass fans. People want to pay attention to the music. A year after Bill Monroe started his own festival in 1967, he added a dance as one of multiple attempts to make the event more than just concert after concert. But the dance was seen as a failure because rather than dancing, fans just wanted to sit and listen to the band.

Bluegrass has always partly been defined by the fanaticism of its followers. This is arguably what helped turn bluegrass from a style of music to a genre as fans of Bill Monroe, such as the Stanley Brothers, started to systematically copy his sound. Later, when bluegrass was introduced to folk audiences, a similarly religious following of Earl Scruggs's banjo playing began to appear. This trend has continued into the present and followers of Monroe, or Flatt and Scruggs, or the Stanleys will argue about who's better (or more authentic or more "lonesome") with the same fervor of my Jehovah's Witness grandmother that time a couple of Mormons approached her in the Target parking lot.

This fanaticism brought fans to events who, more than wishing to simply enjoy a performance, were hoping to learn from it. The folk revival helped perpetuate this trend by bringing "tapers" to bluegrass. A "taper" is someone who brings recording equipment to preserve live shows (not the weird looking animal, which is a tapir). Tapers have their own community within the folk and bluegrass scene these days, where people will compare gear and follow bands around, but in the ’60s and ’70s these recordings were made out of a compelling need for learning material. In a time when out-of-print recordings were even more difficult to track down, live recordings offered the only chance for some people to learn their favorite new (or old) bluegrass tune. Along with your average fans there were many notable musicians such as Mike Seeger or David Grisman and Jerry Garcia who were known for taping shows and sharing them with other bluegrass fans.

Many tapers were, and still are, also musicians. This could just be a consequence of the fact that in bluegrass, most audience members are likely musicians themselves who also perform. But more likely, being a musician with a desire to learn more about this music and try to understand it was likely the driving force behind taping shows. This mindset, taper or not, means that for a lot of musicians, going to watch their favorite artist is less of an enjoyable aesthetic activity as it is an active listening and learning exercise (source: I am one of these musicians).

I think that it's because of this that when focus is broken, say by a group of dancers right in front of the stage, it can be annoying for these people who are zeroing in on the performance. In addition, from the perspective of a fanatic, not only could dancing seem disrespectful of the highly technical show, that lack of hyper focus and reverence represented therein goes against their fundamental values. A Bluegrass Unlimited review of the first annual Indian Summer Bluegrass Festival, 1969, in Callaway, Maryland, mentioned the drunken dancing of two hippies in front of the stage during the Country Gentlemen's portion of the show. The review read that "we feel this display of exhibition shows ignorance on the part of a few individuals who seemed intent on spoiling the quality of bluegrass music." [Rosenberg, 284] For the reviewers, part of enjoying the show meant politely sitting in the crowd.

However, dancers are, from their perspective, often expressing their reverence for the music through their dance. For the dancer, good music makes them want to dance and whether or not bluegrass is "good music to dance to" or "meant to be danced to" is irrelevant. Their enjoyment of the music is no less passionate or valid than that of the fanatic in both value and expression.

Though it's worth mentioning that while the folk revival might have brought tapers to bluegrass, it likely also brought the very notion of dancing to bluegrass as we know it today. The short version of this explanation is that bluegrass festivals came about in the '60s and were modeled loosely off of folk festivals like the Newport Folk Festival, which was started in 1959. For perspective, the first bluegrass festival (as we know them today) was in 1965 and Woodstock was in 1969. Dancing was becoming more common at folk festivals, partly due to the invention of rock and roll festivals. Up to this point, bluegrass had mostly been played in very obvious performance spaces (performance as in something to watch). Theaters and theater shows, like the Grand Ol' Opry, emphasized the performance quality of a show in many ways, including that there isn't any sort of room to dance. Bluegrass festivals, on the other hand, had lots of open space to dance and when bluegrass festivals became popular outside of dedicated fans, they attracted both families on vacation and hippies looking for more peace, love, and music.

While I'm no moralist, the open nature of bluegrass did attract more of what bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg describes as "uncommitted" individuals looking for a good time and while a good time can certainly be had at a bluegrass festival, the commitment, dedication, and reverence for the music is a major part of the experience for a large number of festival-goers. The sentiment of the 1969 festival reviewers has been echoed by certain fans since then: dancing doesn't express the appropriate level of respect for the music.

But to the credit of those new, then "uncommitted," bluegrass fans, they stumbled into bluegrass just as younger bands were starting to shape a new sound. Bands like the Dillards, the Country Gentlemen, the Bluegrass Alliance, and the New Deal String Band had started to take some of the popular rock and folk music of the day and add elements of them to their music, which made it downright danceable. When the New Grass Revival's debut album was released in 1972, in addition to various bluegrass songs, many other sorts of songs appear including Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire."

Reactions to this evolution were (and continue to be) very mixed. Regardless, the evolution continued and "bluegrass" now often refers to a sizable sonic spectrum rather than a specific genre of music. In the '60s and '70s it might have been easier to distinguish between "bluegrass," "new grass," and "country," but today, as sounds continue to grow, evolve, and intertwine, the line between these styles is much more ambiguous. Bluegrass has always had deep roots, but the tree that sprang from those roots is, at this point, defined by a thick trunk made up of many styles from which various branches spring forth.

What this means for this discussion is that even if we can disregard the variety of dance traditions that Bill Monroe associated with his music, we're still left with the fact that bluegrass has grown beyond Bill Monroe and now even more "traditional" sounding bluegrass might have more elements of dance music than before. The slightly delayed bass beat,  rhythmic emphases, and long non-lyrical interludes of bands like Mountain Heart certainly makes their music more danceable than the music of Bill Monroe, but does that make it dance music? What about a slightly less traditional but still generally “bluegrass” sounding band like Cadillac Sky? My wager is that with both bands, it would be a mixed response based on the values of who you asked. Some fans value technical proficiency and express their enjoyment through giving their attention while others value music that makes them feel like moving and express their enjoyment through their movement.

And it's not that these fanatics don't like dancing. A lot of bluegrass events do have dances. But unlike the unsuccessful dance at an early incarnation of Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom festival, it's telling that dances at bluegrass festivals are often led by honky-tonk, old-time, cajun, or country bands.

As with most things in bluegrass, the answer to the question "is bluegrass dance music?" is multifaceted and paradoxical. Bluegrass is intrinsically tied to traditional American music, which is heavily associated with dance. But the circumstances that shaped bluegrass and distinguished it from other styles of music also specifically distinguish it from dance music, despite the heavy role that dance played in the values invoked by bluegrass. Despite this, as bluegrass continued to grow, audiences, musical influences, and bluegrass venues diversified, creating an environment in which it wasn't so unlikely to see someone dance to bluegrass. The generally open and inviting nature of bluegrass has brought together groups of people who equally enjoyed the music but disagreed on how that enjoyment should be expressed. Ultimately, (and predictably) the question isn't about who's right, but about how we can compromise to continue to all enjoy and support bluegrass music.

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  1. another excellent article, Tristan. I remember hearing a story about Bill Monroe playing a festival and when they played a gospel number he would holler from the stage to the dancers. "NO Dancing to the Gospel! NO Dancing to the Gospel!" I can see Bill doing that just like he tells that kid "Get your self around there, too" in the video you shared. LOL!

  2. Great reading, Tristan! I had not seen the video before, either. What a treat. Thanks for posting, and keep up the good work. Cheers!

  3. Truly enjoy your insights and the research that went into it. Thank you.

  4. That's a great video. Best bluegrass dancing video I've ever seen.