HISTORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC
Compiled by Pastor Fred Martie
My family heritage is Swiss. My great, great Grandfather immigrated to America with the French Huguenots in 1854. Penny's family heritage an be traced all the way back to the 1500's from England via Scotland. We took a trip a few years ago to Scotland and did a little investigating. She found that our mutual love of bluegrass music, especially Gospel bluegrass music, is part of both our heritages. Those Irish-Scot immigrants and the French Huguenots immigrated to America and then made their way through Virginia, some went north into Pennsylvania into Ohio and others went down the Appalachian Mountains and made their way to North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. In 1750 some of them found an opening called the Cumberland Gap which led them to the fertile bluegrass country of Kentucky. Along the way their beloved Anglo-Celtic folk ballads comforted them on their arduous journey. Wayne Erbsen says in his article on the history of bluegrass music.
"The earliest settlers in western North Carolina were the Scotts-Irish. These early pioneers brought with them a wealth of both vocal and instrumental music traditions.
It was mainly the pioneer women who carried on the strong vocal traditions. Often barred by local custom from playing the more raucous instruments like the banjo or the fiddle, most women preferred to sing. More often than not, they sang the old ballads that had been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. Most of these ballads originated in the British Isles. They were carefully preserved by a culture that was bent on keeping in tact the cultural traditions of their ancestors. They preserved these ancient ballads so well, in fact, that during the years 1916-1918 English folksong collector Cecil Sharp came to western North Carolina for the sole purpose of collecting English ballads in their purest form, because in England these ballads had long been forgotten.
Ballad singing in western North Carolina had a strong impact on what later became known as bluegrass music. The subject matter of most of the ballads was either murder or death. This leant a somber tone to the music. Today, this is referred to as Bluegrass music's "high lonesome sound." The manner in which the old ballads were sung also affected the singing styles of later bluegrass singers. The women who sang the old Scotts-Irish and English ballads normally sang with a tight voice that produced a high, shrill tone. In contrast, singers from African traditions sang with a looser voice that produced lower and more relaxed tones. While the women's musical role in early pioneer life in western North Carolina was in singing the old ballads and songs, the men favored playing instruments. In particular, the fiddle was among the few treasured possessions that Scotts-Irish immigrants brought with them when they first came to America. Even more important than the instrument itself, these fiddlers brought a deep well of ancient melodies from Scotland and Ireland. Many of these fiddlers could fiddle for days without repeating a tune. This was handy because fiddlers often provided the only music for the many all-night dances that took place in backwoods communities. Because of their ability to provide much needed entertainment in rural communities, fiddlers were often held in higher esteem than doctors, lawyers or politicians. The dance tunes as played by Scotts-Irish fiddlers certainly had a strong impact on the music of this area. "
Sounds like fun doesn't it, but I am certain their's was a hard life. Their music is what enabled them to endure the hardships of a new country. I am sure we all have watched old movies that represented some of those old time barn dances and Saturday night dances.
Along with these immigrants came their slaves, along with the slaves came their style of music and singing, and it had its influence on the Irish-Scots ballads.
"One of the greatest influences on Appalachian music, as well as many popular American music styles, was that of the African-American. The slaves brought a distinct tradition of group singing of community songs of work and worship, usually lined out by one person with a call and response action from a group. A joyous celebration of life and free sexuality was coupled with improvisation as lyrics were constantly updated and changed to keep up the groups' interest. The percussion of the African music began to change the rhythms of Appalachian singing and dancing. The introduction of the banjo to the Southern Mountains after the Civil War in the 1860s further hastened this process. Originally from Arabia, and brought to western Africa by the spread of Islam, the banjo then ended up in America. Mostly denigrated as a 'slave instrument' until the popularity of the Minstrel Show, starting in the 1840s, the banjo syncopation or 'bom-diddle-diddy' produced a different clog-dance and song rhythm by the turn of the century.
Many of the African-American spirituals were discovered by mainstream America, particularly with the collection Slave Songs from the Southern United States published in 1867 and popularized by a small choir of black students from Fisk University in Nashville. With emancipation, black music began to move outside the South. By the 1920s a whole body of parlour songs known as 'race music' became popular. Many Appalachian songs sung today that allude to 'children' in the fields or 'mother' have been changed from 'pickaninnies' or 'Mammys'."
(Excerpted for Appalachian Traditional Music by Debbie McClatchy)
Now we can see that the Irish-Scot Immigrants contributed the fiddles and that high lonesome nasal type of vocals, while the African American contributed the banjo thus the old time string band. The old time string band consisted of fiddle, and banjo with a little guitar. This was the music for most square dances. Black slaves and white indentured servants alike did much of the music making at these dances.
Most church singing was with out harmonies from the late 1700's. There were rarely any songbooks. The songs had to be powerful melodies with simple words so everyone could sing along.
"Religious music, including white Country gospel, was probably the most prevalent music heard in Appalachia. During the Colonial period the press was controlled by a clergy which had no interest in the spread of secular music, therefore, not much of the latter survived in written form. There were three types of religious music: ballads, hymns, and revival spiritual songs. The latter directly arose out of the call and response of the African song tradition. These were popularized among the white inhabitants after the revival circuit started in Kentucky in 1800. Their simpler, repetitious text of verse and refrain was easier to sing and learn and produced an emotional fervor in the congregation. Shape-note and revivalist gospel still flourished in the southern mountains after being eliminated in northern churches by the new 'scientific' music led by Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings."
(Excerpted for Appalachian Traditional Music by Debbie McClatchy)
Thus these Immigrants, now many of them Bible believing Christians incorporated the songs of the Second Great Awakening with the old time sting band instruments to develop what was called Mountain Gospel Music which was the forerunner to Bluegrass Gospel music.
"The term Gospel Music applies to a body of music that was developed in the United States during the twentieth century primary in the south-eastern part of the country and in portions of the Midwest and east. It is a Christian music that was not necessarily developed by the body of Churches, but independently. In other words, the singers and performers where church going people but their music wasn't directly an outgrowth of a Church organization.
There are three styles of Gospel music that were developed. These styles where developed independently of each other because of racial and physical separation. One style was Mountain Gospel and it was developed in the Southern Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, southwest Virginia, north-eastern Tennessee and north-western North Carolina. This music (in the past called "hillbilly music") sprang forth from a people living deep in the hills. Bible believing and devoted, religious music formed a major part in the life of these rural peoples not only in their worship services, but as a part of their daily existence as well. The other two styles developed are Black Gospel and Southern (White) Gospel.
The innovation in music that led directly to the emergence of Gospel music is the introduction of "shape-note" musical notation (a form of icon-based, easy to read notation meant to simplify church singing). A driving force behind the system, among rural singers, arose during the 1870's in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Publishing companies, musical periodicals, and schools dedicated to the furtherance of "seven-shape note singing" sprang up throughout the south. Publishers promoted their songbooks by organizing quartets to travel around singing the publishers songs and selling the songbooks in which the songs appeared."
(excerpted from http://bluegrassgospel.ca/history.php)
Mountain Gospel Music brought the addition of mandolin, bass fiddle to those old time string band instruments of fiddle, banjo and guitar. Thus changing the strong fiddle influence in the string band into a band in which no instrument dominates. Instead the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar and bass take turns playing breaks while the other instruments play back up.
"In North Carolina, it seemed that practically everyone played string music. Thus it is not surprising that many bands that performed in western North Carolina consisted of many brother duets. Local musicians like Wiley and Zeke Morris, Wade and J.E. Mainer, Jack and Curly Shelton, Homer and Callahan and Bill and Earl Bolick are but few of the best-known brother acts from western North Carolina. These men established a strong tradition of instrumental virtuosity mixed with closely blended harmony singing.
In the mid 1930s, two brothers from Kentucky came to North Carolina to actively participate in the vibrant musical scene here. Calling themselves The Monroe Brothers, Bill and Charlie Monroe maintained a hectic schedule of performing nearly every night in venues that ranged from the proverbial one-room school houses to county fairs. To promote their shows, they performed on numerous radio stations including Asheville's WWNC, Charlotte's WBT and Raleigh's WPTF. They were so busy performing and burning up the rubber on their Hudson Terraplane to get to their show-dates that they dismissed the idea of recording for RCA Victor records because they didn't have time for it. They also didn't realize the impact that being on a major record label could have on their performing career. At last, RCA Victor's Eli Oberstein convinced them to record, which they did in a make-shift studio in 1936 in Charlotte, North Carolina. In a crowded warehouse rented by RCA records, the Monroe Brothers waxed ten sides, which included "Long Journey Home." On these first recordings, they established the style that would mark their entire recorded efforts on Victor's Blue Bird records: tight vocal harmonies often played at lightening speeds with spell-binding instrumental virtuosity.
The professional musical partnership of the Monroe Brothers was not to last. The brothers' notorious fiery tempers doomed them to go their separate ways in 1938. Both went on to form their own bands. Charlie moved to the Winston-Salem area and formed The Kentucky Partners. Bill Monroe first formed a band in Arkansas and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia. There he placed an ad in the local newspaper, looking for someone to sing old folk songs. Answering the ad was a young Cleo Davis, who played guitar and sang. Monroe hired Davis on the spot and spent several months teaching him his brother Charlie's guitar runs and vocal stylings. By the time Monroe had finished training Davis, their sound was practically identical to that of the Monroe Brothers.
After unsuccessfully auditioning at several radio stations, Bill Monroe and Cleo Davis landed a radio program on Asheville's WWNC radio. While Monroe and his wife lived out of a small travel trailer, Davis stayed nearby at a boarding house. Not satisfied with their current sound, Monroe began searching for other musicians to give his band a fuller sound. He eventually hired Art Wooten from Piney Creek, North Carolina to play fiddle, Amos Garren to play bass and Tommy "Snowball" Millard to do black-faced comedy and play jug. Seeking greener pastures, before long, the band moved to Greenville, South Carolina. Monroe tirelessly rehearsed the band in a converted gas station until Monroe thought them ready. In 1939, with the departure of Millard, the band successfully auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry. The rest, as they say, is "history." Monroe's band was now known as "the Bluegrass Boys." Members came and went, but the sound was evolving to become what we now called Bluegrass Music."
(From Wayne Erbsen's article on the history of bluegrass music).
Here we have it friends the combination of lyrics about our Savior and Lord with the bluegrass band and we have Gospel Bluegrass Music. A music genre contrary to traditional bluegrass in that, it maintains the spirited and upbeat style of the Old Time String Band of the immigrants, leaving out the lyrics of misery while adding lyrics that can uplift the soul of man. Lyrics that can remind a person that their journey may be long and their load may be heavy here on earth. Fortunately they do not trod this earth alone, King Jesus is right here beside us helping us along the way. They also remind us that at the end of life's journey there is a crown awaiting us and entry into God's Heaven.