Oh dear, I hate to admit it but I'm running a parallel path at the moment:

--Classic banjo picking

--Robert Johnson-style blues banjo

Both fascinate me, and both seems to work well on my old Stewart.

Please feel to either commiserate with me, or rail against this ridiculous rail I'm balancing on. Oh, I'm also learning old time music on a banjo mandolin. 

This feels vaguely like a confession. Perhaps Ian will write me and ask me to confine all future remarks of mine to Banjo Hangout. :-)

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There are two things here I don't understand and one thing I partially disagree with. What pretense re bluegrass are you referring to?  And what are the popular mystified ideas of revivalists? 

I don't entirely agree about classic banjo being revivalism, at least not in the UK. It's true it nearly died out but of those still playing nearly all can trace a lineage of learning and teaching to late 19th and early 20th century American banjoists who visited the UK and took students.  This includes the Bohee Brothers who were not only Black, but —and this fascinates me — Canadians.

Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:

Well,  as a music historian particularly about the history of the banjo and African American history of the banjo in particular, it would be impossible for me to do a competent job without considering the issue of revivalism, and observing the attitudes that seem to issue from it, because most concern with the banjo and its history and what some call "folk" music stem from revivalist sources.  Even though Bluegrass is not actually a revivalist music, very huge portions of it especially its founding figures like Monroe and Scruggs and Stanley,  try to drape it with that pretense even though it is essentially a modernist progressive music.  The rest of the banjo world really flows out of the folk and old time and to a lesser extent blues revival.  Even the contemporary  "Classic Banjo" movement is really an example of revivalism.

So it would be pretty irresponsible for someone who claims to be concerned with the history of the banjo and the discourses about it, not to be conscious of what is revivalism, how it may reflect distorted visions and how revivalst practice is different from other practice, especially if you are concerned with the social, economic, historical, and ideological aspects of music history and its discussion.

I would say in my case as someone who came out of the folk and then old time and blues revivalists of the 60s, confronting the difference between the mystified ideas popular in those revivalists and objective understanding of the music history of the banjo was a task I needed to make in my own thinking to do useful work.  Unfortunately, so much of the discussion that we have to make doing objective research about the banjo often confronts such distortions.
 
Patrick Garner said:

Have to admit I'm not terribly concerned with what "revivalists" and others have done, and who they've elevated or spotlighted. It's now a huge world and virtually anyone who ever recorded is available (unlike 20-30 yrs ago). Popularity runs in cycles and it's rarely worth railing at the contemporary paradigms. They'll pass and something new will become important. Musicians will continue to select what they find relevant. And we are no longer dependant on historians to wander through back lands to research who recorded what. Perhaps it's important to burn time correcting errors of emphasis, and pulling up forgotten players. And Tony, that sort of effort is good. But as noted earlier, it's railing against the current tide, which I assure you will retreat to be replaced by some new emphasis. 

I am not being critical of where you're coming from. All well and good. I'm simply saying there's a smorgasbord of options available today. There was little perspective in the 60s about how the music was being used, the purposes and politics and ideology. No doubt what was highlighted was skewed to favor tastes and the strong counter cultural events happening. If you're functioning as a black-oriented, black conscious historian, you have little choice but to do what you're doing.

On the other hand, musicians today can go wherever we wish. I can download dozens of Gus Cannon pieces in moments, whereas two decades ago I would have been lucky to run across anything by the man.

History though, as I noted, runs in distinct cycles. What you're railing against now, that is, your critique that who we think is important may be distorted, could turn 180 degrees in the future.


Bluegrass in its explanations of itself particularly by Monroe and Scruggs, founding voices, tries to give itself the view as the continuation of the "ancient tones" as Monroe puts it, a continuation of older music, a kind of traditional music, when it is actually a radical departure from the older music, a progressive synthesis deeply interested by pop Jazz, and other innovative musical features.  Bluegrass "founders" are quick to talk about traditional sourcesm, but they are fairly dishonest or hiding their lineages from the developments in commercial professional hillbilly music becoming country music across the 1930s and 1940s.  Monroe will (sorry I think of big Mon as still  alive I meant would)  never talk about the Prairie Ramblers for example, and in private Scruggs would talk about how he was deeply influenced by South and North Carolina banjo pickers who applied classic banjo to old time and ragtime and could still play their pieces note for note in the 80s and 90s, but wants you to believe his style crystalized out of folk tradition.   But all of that is pretty much in the essay.

I like and play a lot of bluegrass especially on guitar, nothing wrong with it, but it is a progressive movement even though it tries to claim it is traditional,


Jody Stecher said:

There are two things here I don't understand and one thing I partially disagree with. What pretense re bluegrass are you referring to?  And what are the popular mystified ideas of revivalists? 

I don't entirely agree about classic banjo being revivalism, at least not in the UK. It's true it nearly died out but of those still playing nearly all can trace a lineage of learning and teaching to late 19th and early 20th century American banjoists who visited the UK and took students.  This includes the Bohee Brothers who were not only Black, but —and this fascinates me — Canadians.

Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:

Well,  as a music historian particularly about the history of the banjo and African American history of the banjo in particular, it would be impossible for me to do a competent job without considering the issue of revivalism, and observing the attitudes that seem to issue from it, because most concern with the banjo and its history and what some call "folk" music stem from revivalist sources.  Even though Bluegrass is not actually a revivalist music, very huge portions of it especially its founding figures like Monroe and Scruggs and Stanley,  try to drape it with that pretense even though it is essentially a modernist progressive music.  The rest of the banjo world really flows out of the folk and old time and to a lesser extent blues revival.  Even the contemporary  "Classic Banjo" movement is really an example of revivalism.

So it would be pretty irresponsible for someone who claims to be concerned with the history of the banjo and the discourses about it, not to be conscious of what is revivalism, how it may reflect distorted visions and how revivalst practice is different from other practice, especially if you are concerned with the social, economic, historical, and ideological aspects of music history and its discussion.

I would say in my case as someone who came out of the folk and then old time and blues revivalists of the 60s, confronting the difference between the mystified ideas popular in those revivalists and objective understanding of the music history of the banjo was a task I needed to make in my own thinking to do useful work.  Unfortunately, so much of the discussion that we have to make doing objective research about the banjo often confronts such distortions.
 
Patrick Garner said:

Have to admit I'm not terribly concerned with what "revivalists" and others have done, and who they've elevated or spotlighted. It's now a huge world and virtually anyone who ever recorded is available (unlike 20-30 yrs ago). Popularity runs in cycles and it's rarely worth railing at the contemporary paradigms. They'll pass and something new will become important. Musicians will continue to select what they find relevant. And we are no longer dependant on historians to wander through back lands to research who recorded what. Perhaps it's important to burn time correcting errors of emphasis, and pulling up forgotten players. And Tony, that sort of effort is good. But as noted earlier, it's railing against the current tide, which I assure you will retreat to be replaced by some new emphasis. 

I hate any kind of discussions where people are talking about what anyone, musicians included should do.  I barely know what I should do.  But that isn't what I am talking about.

But if one is trying to objectively discuss music history and different kinds of music, then revivalism is a useful term to describe a great variety of music played on the banjo, and itself produces a great number of the attitudes and ideas about the banjo  Since I have chosen to spend much of my life trying to answer questions posed in these discussions, then I cannot deny the usefulness of that category, nor the usefulness of what those who have looked into the characteristics of revivalism have explained, the usefulness of that to understanding the banjo world,'

I am not talking about what anyone should or should not play, just where and how ideas and methods of playing are situated and come from,  That is what music historians are supposed to do


 
Patrick Garner said:

I am not being critical of where you're coming from. All well and good. I'm simply saying there's a smorgasbord of options available today. There was little perspective in the 60s about how the music was being used, the purposes and politics and ideology. No doubt what was highlighted was skewed to favor tastes and the strong counter cultural events happening. If you're functioning as a black-oriented, black conscious historian, you have little choice but to do what you're doing.

On the other hand, musicians today can go wherever we wish. I can download dozens of Gus Cannon pieces in moments, whereas two decades ago I would have been lucky to run across anything by the man.

History though, as I noted, runs in distinct cycles. What you're railing against now, that is, your critique that who we think is important may be distorted, could turn 180 degrees in the future.

I don't want to extend this point, but  actually as someone who spend years researching Cannon,  the selection of music available about Cannon and what is said, and particularly things like the film supposedly made about Cannon, reflect revivalist concerns, rather than the reality of Cannon's life and music.  Cannon had a rather conscious approach to playing folk revivalists who came around  who he collectively called "white folks" regardless of whether they were white or black.  

But this discussion really exceeds the purpose of this list or my own priorities to get to work on several due projects an dpresentations
 
Patrick Garner said:

I am not being critical of where you're coming from. All well and good. I'm simply saying there's a smorgasbord of options available today. There was little perspective in the 60s about how the music was being used, the purposes and politics and ideology. No doubt what was highlighted was skewed to favor tastes and the strong counter cultural events happening. If you're functioning as a black-oriented, black conscious historian, you have little choice but to do what you're doing.

On the other hand, musicians today can go wherever we wish. I can download dozens of Gus Cannon pieces in moments, whereas two decades ago I would have been lucky to run across anything by the man.

History though, as I noted, runs in distinct cycles. What you're railing against now, that is, your critique that who we think is important may be distorted, could turn 180 degrees in the future.

I would say that you are mostly correct. When I first started listening to bluegrass music as a boy in the 1950s it was a young man's music played by young innovative musicians who were proud of their innovation and who played up their originality, especially to distinguish themselves from other bands and other innovators. This was to make a living. They all wanted their music to be distinct and distinctive and recognizable as only available from them. Not the imagined Demotika, People's Music attitude some may ascribe to them. The ties to older music were played up much later because it brought in a new, higher paying audience.  But these first generation bluegrass professionals, most of em, anyway, grew up hearing genuine traditional music. And that informed their approach, especially in the song lyrics, but also in the choice of instruments. There is no doubt in my mind that all the first bluegrass bands were at first framing their music to have appeal for rural people with a similar background to themselves, and also to those who had moved to the cities for somewhat higher paying work. It wasn't until the 1960s that the "folk" element was played up. But on the other hand their programs in the rural south always included fiddle and banjo duets, old time fiddling and other things that were very close to rural trad music. The Stanley Brothers even had Fiiddlin (Conan) Powers in their early band as a special treat (and maybe as a magnet) for their rural audience. So maybe it's going too far to call them "dishonest". I'd say they were being selective and would frame their description of their music according to whom they were talking to. They had to make a living.

 I think your characterization of bluegrass is also selective (and also not dishonest) and since I'm not a historian I have nothing to lose by going out on a limb and saying as I've said for the last 30 years or more,  that bluegrass music  is  – or I should say *was*….. because most 21st century "bluegrass" , especially the singing, is unrecognizable to me as bluegrass –  basically a stylized version of a type of black string band music, 

I'll say it again in a shorter sentence: Bluegrass is stylized Black string band music.

It's been re-packaged, and slightly disguised. I've heard descriptions from older white rural musicians with good ears and good memories  (in their 80s now)  of how the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar were used in some string ensembles by Black musicians in the rural south, from West Virginia, right down to the Carolinas and Georgia and it's very similar to the bluegrass format.  The banjo didn't play the melody along with the fiddle, the banjo played an arpeggiated counterpoint. The guitar played punchy explosive bass runs (and anyone who thinks the basic flat picking vocabulary of lead guitar in bluegrass in G position was invented by White Southerners needs to hear "How You Want It Done" either by Bill Broonzy or Louis Lasky. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mhnht5j_PbY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvfRpvwUl70 

And where did that bluesy lead fiddle style come from, if not from direct imitation of Black fiddlers?  

I think the mandolin offbeat "chop" comes from Bill Monroe hearing Slavic tamburitza bands when he worked the oil refineries in southern Indiana. 

On the other hand, genuine "ancient tones" *were *present in early bluegrass music. But they are not what they are generally taken to be. But that is a topic for another time and place. 

Nice to see it lively around here these days.



Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:


Bluegrass in its explanations of itself particularly by Monroe and Scruggs, founding voices, tries to give itself the view as the continuation of the "ancient tones" as Monroe puts it, a continuation of older music, a kind of traditional music, when it is actually a radical departure from the older music, a progressive synthesis deeply interested by pop Jazz, and other innovative musical features.  Bluegrass "founders" are quick to talk about traditional sourcesm, but they are fairly dishonest or hiding their lineages from the developments in commercial professional hillbilly music becoming country music across the 1930s and 1940s.  Monroe will (sorry I think of big Mon as still  alive I meant would)  never talk about the Prairie Ramblers for example, and in private Scruggs would talk about how he was deeply influenced by South and North Carolina banjo pickers who applied classic banjo to old time and ragtime and could still play their pieces note for note in the 80s and 90s, but wants you to believe his style crystalized out of folk tradition.   But all of that is pretty much in the essay.

I like and play a lot of bluegrass especially on guitar, nothing wrong with it, but it is a progressive movement even though it tries to claim it is traditional,


Jody Stecher said:

There are two things here I don't understand and one thing I partially disagree with. What pretense re bluegrass are you referring to?  And what are the popular mystified ideas of revivalists? 

I don't entirely agree about classic banjo being revivalism, at least not in the UK. It's true it nearly died out but of those still playing nearly all can trace a lineage of learning and teaching to late 19th and early 20th century American banjoists who visited the UK and took students.  This includes the Bohee Brothers who were not only Black, but —and this fascinates me — Canadians.

Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:

Well,  as a music historian particularly about the history of the banjo and African American history of the banjo in particular, it would be impossible for me to do a competent job without considering the issue of revivalism, and observing the attitudes that seem to issue from it, because most concern with the banjo and its history and what some call "folk" music stem from revivalist sources.  Even though Bluegrass is not actually a revivalist music, very huge portions of it especially its founding figures like Monroe and Scruggs and Stanley,  try to drape it with that pretense even though it is essentially a modernist progressive music.  The rest of the banjo world really flows out of the folk and old time and to a lesser extent blues revival.  Even the contemporary  "Classic Banjo" movement is really an example of revivalism.

So it would be pretty irresponsible for someone who claims to be concerned with the history of the banjo and the discourses about it, not to be conscious of what is revivalism, how it may reflect distorted visions and how revivalst practice is different from other practice, especially if you are concerned with the social, economic, historical, and ideological aspects of music history and its discussion.

I would say in my case as someone who came out of the folk and then old time and blues revivalists of the 60s, confronting the difference between the mystified ideas popular in those revivalists and objective understanding of the music history of the banjo was a task I needed to make in my own thinking to do useful work.  Unfortunately, so much of the discussion that we have to make doing objective research about the banjo often confronts such distortions.
 
Patrick Garner said:

Have to admit I'm not terribly concerned with what "revivalists" and others have done, and who they've elevated or spotlighted. It's now a huge world and virtually anyone who ever recorded is available (unlike 20-30 yrs ago). Popularity runs in cycles and it's rarely worth railing at the contemporary paradigms. They'll pass and something new will become important. Musicians will continue to select what they find relevant. And we are no longer dependant on historians to wander through back lands to research who recorded what. Perhaps it's important to burn time correcting errors of emphasis, and pulling up forgotten players. And Tony, that sort of effort is good. But as noted earlier, it's railing against the current tide, which I assure you will retreat to be replaced by some new emphasis. 

I am floored that in 2015 we still have this debate. The answers to all these questions are on the device you are now viewing. Look at it like this- Guitar(Spanish),fiddle(Asian),harmonica(Vienna),piano(Italy).banjo is the confusing one. there are several similar instruments from different countries, yes Africa being one.Point? American music is as "mixed" as most of us are.Whites heard music that the blacks played and took from it . Slaves heard music that whites played and took from it. Most popular blues players had  "white dance" songs in their bag. Thats not what reserchers wanted to record,so most didn't but it was there.Old time,bluegrass,string band,blues is are as much African as they are Scotch-Irish. Honestly the banjo that Gus Cannon played  owes more to Joel Walker Sweeny than an akonting. And to hear the real Robert Johnson go listen to Son House because most of what Robert did was him trying to sound like Son.

Agreed, agreed. 5 stars.

Chad, we are having this friendly discussion, hardly a debate, because the things we are discussing are not common knowledge at all in 2015. Information on the internet is rarely reliable.  You are right that whites and blacks always learned from each other. But it is interesting, to me anyway, to discern what specifically was learned by who from whom. It is easy to tell if you have the decoder ring. (see below).  We are having this "debate" because reliable information is not well disseminated.

We are having this discussion because the instrument we call the fiddle is the Italian violin. There are asian bowed instruments and violins are now made in China, but this is an instrument of Italian origin.

 The first pianos were Italian, that's true. But today's "pianoforte" is the result of the work of innovators from many places. France, Germany, Austria, England, Scotland, all played a well-documented role in the development of the modern piano.  The first recorded 'blues" singers were white, but show me the Scots-Irish musical influence on blues. You can't because there is none. Sweeny's early banjos were made of vegetables. His famous banjo was a simple wood hoop and neck affair and has little in common with what Gus Gannon played.  Gus Cannon played a factory instrument with machined metal parts. In my opinion the more interesting  question is not what instrument he played but what and how he played.  As for Robert Johnson's music being an attempt at Son House's music, where is the similarity?  The touch, the timing, the technique are entirely different. The singing is utterly different. Johnson is intimate and House is declamatory. Different music for different situations. 

The "decoder ring" is careful listening and careful observation over a long period of time.

Actually,  I have done comparisons of repertoire of Southern white and Southern black five-string players of the twentieth century and you find much fewer blues in the active repertoires of  the Black players, although a greater familiarity with blues which they deem appropriate to be played on other instruments like the guitar and piano.  The differences involved also have to do with different styles and approaches to dancing by Southern whites and Blacks which diverged more across the twentieth century with African Americans evolving the blues toward the needs of the slow drag and other dances that evolved with it, and European Americans trying to adapt the blues to the old time dances, with marked musical differences made in how they are played,  all of this is discussed in my Duke UP chapter.   

It is not that people didn't try to play the blues on five string banjos, field recordings I have of visits of folklorists or banjo enthusiasts to the last remaining Black five-string banjoists are replete with attempts of the musicians to doodle and play blues , but  by and large their efforts are not satisfying to meet the needs of any African American dancers.   Such  banjoists often either were clear that the music they were making was properly made with the guitar, and often described some personal failing in attempting to learn the guitar properly as why they still played the banjo.

The potential find for blues banjo playing would be in published sheet music for show-business blues published in the first two decades of the twentieth century when much popular much was published with banjo arrangements.  In years past on the Yahoo classic banjo groups, members have exchanged music for published blues numbers, oriented to the classic or guitar banjo approach

Nice post  Jody.   I don't disagree with anything you said, in fact I am copying downt he whole post to a file I keep called musical wisdiom.

I diont deny that the founding leaders of bluegrass were people who heard and processed what people call old time music and very much of their music channels that forward.  Neither do I deny that much of the differences comes from the influence of Black music writ large.  However, I don't think the direct influence was African American string band music, because although I find similarities with African American string band music in bluegrass, and frankly I find it easier to play with friends who are bluegrass players than old time players when I am working up Black banjo tunes for performance or presentations,  I do not think the influence was Black string bands because bluegrass just doesn't sound like Black string bands and there isn't much of a trace of reference to Black string bands in the discussion, largely because black string bands pretty much died out by the 1920s.

The Black influence in bluegrass came from the general advance across the 20th Century of African American influenced music, ragtime, jazz, and blues.  The string band as such was dying out even in Country music in the face of the advance of these musics, along the advance of new forms of dancing, and along the transformation of Hillbilly music being transformed in to Country, focusing on bands being the support for crooning singers, and string bands being relegated to a kind of token representation often of stereotypical "Hillbillies", something Monroe never would do.

Very much of the forms in bluegrass that do make it sound more like Black music come out of other forms of Black music.  Scruggs once told a friend of mine a well known banjoist who everyone here would know that he worked out the Dixie Breakdown based on ideas he had on one of Blind Boy Fuller Blues.  Kenny Baker is pretty famous for saying that to play bluegrass fiddle you have to have a Jazz approach and before he got hired by Monroe, he was a Jazz lounge violin player.  The earlier guys  like our (Florida's) Chubby Wise essentially came out of Western Swing.  If you look at the way bluegrass works, it is pretty much like what Jazz had become in the 1940s and much since, someone starts the tune straight close to the melody, and then a variety of soloists do their improvisations on it, nothing like what you would have seen in either black or white old time bands before that.  The genius involved was providing a space for a string band as exhibition, show, music, as the old time dances yielded  to other forms of dancing, and the space for an acoustic string band died out.  Nothing but genius really can be used to describe either Monroe or Scruggs and many of their collaborators.

But I have hundreds of hours of black string band music much of it not published, and it certainly doesn't sound like Bluegrass.  I also think if you follow the progression of white hillbilly recordings across the 1930s and early 1940s, you can see a rising use of styles that would surface in postwar bluegrass.

I also think the key thing in it had to do with time, and the use of Earl's banjo and Monroe's mandolin and Lester's guitar in making the time fit together the way it does.  Even in the first few recordings, you can seem them getting it right, although airchecks from the Opry I have of the band at the same time seem better.   I think and this is apropos to this forum, that a lot of that had to do with the ragtime approaches that Earl  had developed on the banjo as well as his blues influences.

What I call a bit dishonest is the transformation of Bluegrass's image AFTER the folk boom descended on it.  Before around 1960, Monroe was insistent that Bluegrass was not a special music and his band was just another Country band.  Repertoire of songs before say 1960-2 was pretty much similar to the kind of songs other Country musicians were doing, tunes very much oriented to modern romantic relationships, with a few of the older sentimental and religious songs thrown in (though much much much fewer of them than in the post 1960s bluegrass).  Very, very, few traditional songs were part of the repertoire and a much smaller number of traditional fiddle or banjo tunes were performed.

To be sure these bands often had a feature of fiddle and banjo, but in this regard this was also done by a lot of the older non-bluegrass country groups that had a fiddler or a banjoist too,  In the band she had with her three daughters with Chet Atkins on guitar in the 1940s and early 50s,  Maybelle Carter would put down the A-5 and the electric guitars and accordion would be silenced and Maybelle would play banjo behind Chester's fiddle.

Pretty much the idea that bluegrass was simply the continuation of the old string band music, that it reflected only its ancient and traditional aspects, which are certainly there and what makes it good about it, became more and more what the face of bluegrass was across the 1960s with the adherence of the folk boomers to it, and the influsion of musicians, managers (thinking of Ralph here), and others deeply innured to what you label nicely "the imagined Demotika, People's Music" and a new face of bluegrass was developed.

What I do find is that there was a very strong insistent on this ancient tones position as part of the public face of bluegrass starting in the 1960s, and a disingenuous approach to their actual roots in more modern forms of music contemporary with bluegrass, a tendency for someone like Earl to talk in private about ragtime classic banjo playing and blind boy fuller in private but not at all in public,

To me the sad thing is that the massive creative innovations that the founders of bluegrass brought to music and above all the synthesis of them that Monroe created as a band leader and Earl and Lester as well, gets lost in attempts to show derivation from older stuff.  They were modern creators taking from the music of their times, bringing the string band up to date, taking things out of various other kinds of music and creating something they had never existed before.

Too much music history can be a dead, unreasonable hunt for derivation, that ignores the massive creativity that musicians and people in general are making as products of every changing life.
 
Jody Stecher said:

I would say that you are mostly correct. When I first started listening to bluegrass music as a boy in the 1950s it was a young man's music played by young innovative musicians who were proud of their innovation and who played up their originality, especially to distinguish themselves from other bands and other innovators. This was to make a living. They all wanted their music to be distinct and distinctive and recognizable as only available from them. Not the imagined Demotika, People's Music attitude some may ascribe to them. The ties to older music were played up much later because it brought in a new, higher paying audience.  But these first generation bluegrass professionals, most of em, anyway, grew up hearing genuine traditional music. And that informed their approach, especially in the song lyrics, but also in the choice of instruments. There is no doubt in my mind that all the first bluegrass bands were at first framing their music to have appeal for rural people with a similar background to themselves, and also to those who had moved to the cities for somewhat higher paying work. It wasn't until the 1960s that the "folk" element was played up. But on the other hand their programs in the rural south always included fiddle and banjo duets, old time fiddling and other things that were very close to rural trad music. The Stanley Brothers even had Fiiddlin (Conan) Powers in their early band as a special treat (and maybe as a magnet) for their rural audience. So maybe it's going too far to call them "dishonest". I'd say they were being selective and would frame their description of their music according to whom they were talking to. They had to make a living.

 I think your characterization of bluegrass is also selective (and also not dishonest) and since I'm not a historian I have nothing to lose by going out on a limb and saying as I've said for the last 30 years or more,  that bluegrass music  is  – or I should say *was*….. because most 21st century "bluegrass" , especially the singing, is unrecognizable to me as bluegrass –  basically a stylized version of a type of black string band music, 

I'll say it again in a shorter sentence: Bluegrass is stylized Black string band music.

It's been re-packaged, and slightly disguised. I've heard descriptions from older white rural musicians with good ears and good memories  (in their 80s now)  of how the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar were used in some string ensembles by Black musicians in the rural south, from West Virginia, right down to the Carolinas and Georgia and it's very similar to the bluegrass format.  The banjo didn't play the melody along with the fiddle, the banjo played an arpeggiated counterpoint. The guitar played punchy explosive bass runs (and anyone who thinks the basic flat picking vocabulary of lead guitar in bluegrass in G position was invented by White Southerners needs to hear "How You Want It Done" either by Bill Broonzy or Louis Lasky. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mhnht5j_PbY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvfRpvwUl70 

And where did that bluesy lead fiddle style come from, if not from direct imitation of Black fiddlers?  

I think the mandolin offbeat "chop" comes from Bill Monroe hearing Slavic tamburitza bands when he worked the oil refineries in southern Indiana. 

On the other hand, genuine "ancient tones" *were *present in early bluegrass music. But they are not what they are generally taken to be. But that is a topic for another time and place. 

Nice to see it lively around here these days.



Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:


Bluegrass in its explanations of itself particularly by Monroe and Scruggs, founding voices, tries to give itself the view as the continuation of the "ancient tones" as Monroe puts it, a continuation of older music, a kind of traditional music, when it is actually a radical departure from the older music, a progressive synthesis deeply interested by pop Jazz, and other innovative musical features.  Bluegrass "founders" are quick to talk about traditional sourcesm, but they are fairly dishonest or hiding their lineages from the developments in commercial professional hillbilly music becoming country music across the 1930s and 1940s.  Monroe will (sorry I think of big Mon as still  alive I meant would)  never talk about the Prairie Ramblers for example, and in private Scruggs would talk about how he was deeply influenced by South and North Carolina banjo pickers who applied classic banjo to old time and ragtime and could still play their pieces note for note in the 80s and 90s, but wants you to believe his style crystalized out of folk tradition.   But all of that is pretty much in the essay.

I like and play a lot of bluegrass especially on guitar, nothing wrong with it, but it is a progressive movement even though it tries to claim it is traditional,


Jody Stecher said:

There are two things here I don't understand and one thing I partially disagree with. What pretense re bluegrass are you referring to?  And what are the popular mystified ideas of revivalists? 

I don't entirely agree about classic banjo being revivalism, at least not in the UK. It's true it nearly died out but of those still playing nearly all can trace a lineage of learning and teaching to late 19th and early 20th century American banjoists who visited the UK and took students.  This includes the Bohee Brothers who were not only Black, but —and this fascinates me — Canadians.

Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:

Well,  as a music historian particularly about the history of the banjo and African American history of the banjo in particular, it would be impossible for me to do a competent job without considering the issue of revivalism, and observing the attitudes that seem to issue from it, because most concern with the banjo and its history and what some call "folk" music stem from revivalist sources.  Even though Bluegrass is not actually a revivalist music, very huge portions of it especially its founding figures like Monroe and Scruggs and Stanley,  try to drape it with that pretense even though it is essentially a modernist progressive music.  The rest of the banjo world really flows out of the folk and old time and to a lesser extent blues revival.  Even the contemporary  "Classic Banjo" movement is really an example of revivalism.

So it would be pretty irresponsible for someone who claims to be concerned with the history of the banjo and the discourses about it, not to be conscious of what is revivalism, how it may reflect distorted visions and how revivalst practice is different from other practice, especially if you are concerned with the social, economic, historical, and ideological aspects of music history and its discussion.

I would say in my case as someone who came out of the folk and then old time and blues revivalists of the 60s, confronting the difference between the mystified ideas popular in those revivalists and objective understanding of the music history of the banjo was a task I needed to make in my own thinking to do useful work.  Unfortunately, so much of the discussion that we have to make doing objective research about the banjo often confronts such distortions.
 
Patrick Garner said:

Have to admit I'm not terribly concerned with what "revivalists" and others have done, and who they've elevated or spotlighted. It's now a huge world and virtually anyone who ever recorded is available (unlike 20-30 yrs ago). Popularity runs in cycles and it's rarely worth railing at the contemporary paradigms. They'll pass and something new will become important. Musicians will continue to select what they find relevant. And we are no longer dependant on historians to wander through back lands to research who recorded what. Perhaps it's important to burn time correcting errors of emphasis, and pulling up forgotten players. And Tony, that sort of effort is good. But as noted earlier, it's railing against the current tide, which I assure you will retreat to be replaced by some new emphasis. 

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