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Breaking Down Bluegrass:
The Invention of a Genre from Mountain Ballads to Bill Monroe

(Released September 2011)

  by Lorna Dries  


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Resources News Articles
Historical Newspapers

News Articles

  1. The New Old-Timers

    Davis, Wes, Southwest Review, 01-01-2010

    If there is a human race here in a hundred years, banjo is going to be one of the main reasons.

    – Pete Seeger

    A gentleman is a man who knows how to play the banjo, but chooses not to.

    – Mark Twain

    The five-string banjo has never gotten a lot of respect in mainstream America. In the half century since Pete Seeger strummed the instrument back to life in the run-up to the folk revival of the 1960s, a series of popular figures from Jerry Garcia to Steve Martin have come out of the closet as banjo players. But the attention they've received hasn't done much to improve the banjo's boondocks reputation. The most familiar image of a banjo player in popular culture is still the mute, backwoods Georgia boy in John Boorman's 1972 film Deliverance.

    (I know this because every time I mention that I've started playing the banjo someone in the room is guaranteed to make a crack about the movie's most famous scene, a dark-hollow nightmare in which two sexually deprived hillbillies force a rotund Ned Beatty to "squeal like a pig.")

    In the novel on which the film is based, James Dickey describes the young banjo player as a "demented country kid" who "don't know nothin' but banjo-pickin'." An albino with eyes pointing in opposite directions, he is as broadly drawn a caricature of rural impoverishment as American literature has to offer. "He ain't never been to school," the old man who introduces him reports; "when he was little, he used to sit out in the yard and beat on a lard can with a stick."

    And Deliverance is just the most famous instance of a bias that crops up almost unconsciously when talk turns to the banjo. As the country edges toward acceptance of other minority groups, banjo players have become the butt of a genre of humor that must be the last frontier of the politically incorrect joke. Some of these jibes are directed at the peculiarities of the instrument itself: "How long does it take to tune a banjo? . . . No one knows yet" ...

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's eLibrary


    GATES, DAVID, New Yorker, The, 08-20-2001

    L ooked at from the world's point of view, it was a triumphant day for Ralph Stanley. Looked at from his own, it was a long wait to sing three songs. He hadn't slept well—"I must've turned over a hundred times"—partly because his two-year-old grandson was in the hospital back home, in Virginia, with pneumonia, and partly because no normal person could sleep in New York. His description of the hotel where he and his wife, Jimmi, were staying made it sound like an S.R.O. in Hell's Kitchen. (In fact, it was the aggressively fashionable Hudson, on West Fifty-eighth Street.) And Carnegie Hall's Dressing Room D, where he'd been hanging out behind a closed door since one-thirty in the afternoon for an evening performance, had just about everything a man didn't need: an upright piano, plates of fruit and cold cuts, and air-conditioning that wouldn't go off.

    Stanley had come here during a hot spell in June as the culminating attraction of a sold-out concert featuring music on the best-selling soundtrack album from the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," for which he had joined such roots-music loyalists as the late John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the Cox Family, and three sweet-and-sour-voiced little girls from Tennessee called the Peasall Sisters. Since May of last year, when these people were last onstage together, at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, they had had occasion to reflect on the truisms about mortality and mutability in the songs they sing. Just a few days before the Carnegie Hall concert, Hartford had died of cancer. Several months earlier, the fiddler Willard Cox had broken his back in a car wreck; tonight he was playing in a wheelchair.

    As the concert began, Stanley changed into his stage clothes, remarking--not without a certain sly satisfaction—that they made him look like "an undertaker": black suit with a blacker stripe; black shirt; busy tie in muted red; and a tiepin with a tiny clockface. His physical presence is not commanding. He's a short, owlish-looking man with wire-rimmed glasses and tightly curled, meticulously styled gray hair; when he's not playing the banjo, he often does his hell-harrowing singing with his hands in his pockets. And since he had come here only to sing and not perform with his own band, he had left his custom-made Stanleytone five-string and his trademark white Stetson at home. He stood in the wings with Jimmi, listening to the others, until it was time for him to go on and close the show. A few performers respectfully approached him, but he glad-handed no one. At last, he squared his shoulders and strode onto the stage to a standing ovation.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's eLibrary

  3. IBMA is helping more people Discover Bluegrass

    Price, Deborah Evans, Billboard, 03-29-2003

    NASHVILLE-With its relocation to Nashville and the implementation of the Discover Bluegrass campaign, the International Bluegrass Music Assn. (IBMA) is looking to further propel interest in the bluegrass genre among both consumers and music business professionals. Utilizing brochures, a new promotional Web site, public-service announcements (PSAs), and a heightened presence at the recent National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) convention, IBMA is out to increase awareness of what makes bluegrass so unique.

    "What we are trying to do is to capitalize on a surge of interest in bluegrass and roots music in general that has really been going on for the last five to 10 years," IBMA president Dan Hays says. "We are all aware of what's been happening with the whole 0 Brother development, but it's much broader than 0 Brother," he says, referring to the runaway success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack that was released in 2000 and went on to win the Grammy Award for album of the year. "It actually preceded all that."

    According to IBMA marketing/ public-relations director Shari Lacy, the Discover Bluegrass campaign "was created to inform the bluegrass consumer about the music and where to find it and to help broadcasters and retailers identify those consumers and convey the values of the genre."

    To educate both consumers and industry professionals, IBMA launched a Web site, The organization also produced PSAs for TV that featured Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, and others. The spots began running on Country Music Television last summer, and IBMA is targeting other TV outlets in addition to issuing PSAs for radio broadcast.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's eLibrary

Historical Newspapers
  1. English and Scottish Folk Songs in America—Cecil Sharp PublishesHis Finds in the South.

    New York Times, Dec 2, 1917.

    Abstract (Summary) ONE of the recent and interesting discoveries made by the seekers after folk songs in this country is the fact that in a large district in the United States there is a rich field for the collection of English and Scottish songs and ballads surviving in the minds and hearts of the people.

    Original Newspaper Image (PDF)

  2. Traveler Hears Mountain Music Where It's Sung; Bluegrass Country of Kentucky Snoozes in Winter Biggest Event Is a Radio Show

    Hunter S Thompson, Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 18, 1962.

    Abstract (Summary) The Bluegrass country is cold and brown in the winter. Night comes early and the horses are taken inside to sleep in heated barns. The farmers sit around pot bellied stoves and pass the time with a banjo and a jug and sometimes a bit of talk.

    Original Newspaper Image (PDF)

  3. COUNTRY SINGERS PRESENT CONCERT; Doc Watson and Bill Monroe Win Applause of 1,000

    New York Times, Nov 30, 1963.

    Abstract (Summary) Two of the leading names in traditional country music, Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, made their Town Hall debuts last night.

    Original Newspaper Image (PDF)

Taken from ProQuest's Historical Newspapers.


  1. "From the top of the mountain": Traditional music and the politics of place in the Central Appalachian Coalfields

    by Noakes, Jennie, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 2008

    Abstract (Summary)
    For residents of the Central Appalachian coalfields, the connection between music and the mountains is emotional, intangible and inextricable. When asked, they often struggle to locate the connection in physical things–a musical embodiment of the hard times and backbreaking work of generations of mountain residents. But the thread connecting traditional music to these hills is sensory and inexpressible. It is located on mountaintops and in family, in the change of season and in the concept of home. In the words of one Kentucky resident, "to me, the music is so much more than the music. It's the place ." In this dissertation, I address the connection between music and place in contemporary Appalachia. I examine the performance of bluegrass and old time music in the Central Appalachian Coalfields, focusing on the multiple roles music plays in contemporary life. To some mountain residents, the performance of music is a tradition-bearing act, one that strengthens stressed communities, fosters a meaningful connection to ancestry, and brings together friends and family. To others, mountain music is political-a tool of cultural, economic and environmental reclamation in a region threatened by extensive mining, exploitation and apathy. I explore the range of meanings in these interpretations, examining the tension between the musical and the political, the dimensions of revivalism and activism, and the intimate connection between place, music, and power in the Coalfields.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database

  2. High lonesome gospel: The role of evangelicalism in shaping an American music culture

    by Andrus, Erica Hurwitz, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2006

    Abstract (Summary)
    The influence of evangelicalism pervades American culture, including popular culture forms. Bluegrass music and the culture of its festivals provide an excellent model for understanding how evangelical mores shape popular culture. By attending the bluegrass festivals in Bean Blossom, Indiana, participating in online discussion groups, hosting a radio program, and doing archival research I established a connection between evangelicalism and the culture of bluegrass in several spheres. These include attitudes toward gender and the family, work, food, alcohol, and dancing. These connections are evident in the ritualized retelling of the history of the genre (as embodied in the life story of Bill Monroe), the lyrics of the songs, and the customs of fans and performers at bluegrass festivals. Following Catherine L. Albanese and Robin Sylvan, I explore the type of spirituality represented by this community of music lovers. In terms of Albanese's four types—ritualized/body, prophetic/will, conversion oriented/heart, and metaphysical/mind—bluegrass falls into the categories of ritual and conversion. Unlike Sylvan's model of popular music exhibiting characteristics of African spirit possession religions, bluegrass emphasizes the heart aspect over the body aspect of the experience of music. Understanding how bluegrass displays a certain type of spirituality led me to formulate the relationship between evangelicalism and bluegrass in terms of an analogy. Noncharismatic forms of Protestantism are compared to traditional bluegrass and charismatic or Pentecostal forms of Protestantism are compared to forms of bluegrass that are considered to be on the boundaries of bluegrass music. Making this analogy shows how bluegrass represents a type of spirituality that values an emotional response to religion that is not understood as transcending normal consciousness, but is enhanced by learning and intellect. In contrast, as shown by Sylvan, many forms of American popular music value an experience of music that resembles religious trance states. Thus bluegrass allows scholars of religion to examine another model of spirituality in the realm of American popular culture.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database

  3. Conjuring utopia: The Appalachian string band revival

    by Wooley, Amy Suzanne, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles, 2003

    Abstract (Summary)
    There has been scholarly concern about the decline of traditional community in the last half of the twentieth century. Concurrently, the folk revival movement has become a dynamic worldwide phenomenon. The Appalachian string band or old-time revival is one such movement. While traditional American community may be on the decline, groups such as old-time have transformed themselves from mere cultural revivals into actual communities. These diasporic affinity group communities are often the primary community with which the members identify themselves, eclipsing other associations based on more traditional criteria such as kinship, ethnicity, religious affiliation and geographic proximity, and are models of 21 st century utopian community. This ethnographic study of the community based on the revival of Appalachian-American folk tradition referred to as old-tune explores these issues: (1) the nature of revival; (2) the reevaluation of oral tradition in the 21 st century; (3) the role of technology in musical tradition and community; and (4) the construction of a new utopian community in 21 st century America. The old-time community is based on a shared love of its adopted musical tradition, and also a reverence for the ethos of the parent tradition. A child of the social upheaval of the 1960s, the old-time community was born of the folk music revival and tied to a 1970s utopian social movement that was both revolutionary and revivalist in nature. The rejection of current popular forms of music in favor of a return to earlier pre-industrial folk forms is rooted in a mixture of retrospective utopianism and rebellion against mass media hegemony. However, it has also been the very technologies of mass media that have enabled these communities to form and grow. The old-time community maintains itself through (1) ritual enactment of the sacred texts (musical repertoire), preserved primarily on recordings and shared communally through jamming, most especially at festivals; and (2) resistance to commodification and therefore corruption of the sacred texts.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database

  4. Reshaping American music: The quotation of shape-note hymns by twentieth-century composers

    by Smolko, Joanna Ruth, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 2009

    Abstract (Summary)
    Throughout the twentieth century, American composers have quoted nineteenth-century shape-note hymns in their concert works, including instrumental and vocal works and film scores. When referenced in other works the hymns become lenses into the shifting web of American musical and national identity. This study reveals these complex interactions using cultural and musical analyses of six compositions from the 1930s to the present as case studies. The works presented are Virgil Thomson's film score to The River (1937), Aaron Copland's arrangement of "Zion's Walls" (1952), Samuel Jones's symphonic poem Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1974), Alice Parker's opera Singers Glen (1978), William Duckworth's choral work Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1980-81), and the score compiled by T Bone Burnett for the film Cold Mountain (2003). Utilizing archival sources and interviews with composers, this study draws from a number of methodologies and disciplines in order to present a kaleidoscopic view of the meanings and contexts of these compositions, including cultural, religious, American, and music history, as well as musical and textual analysis. Through this thick-history approach, the study demonstrates the ways in which shape-note quotations evoke American regional and national history, and the composers' personal memories and identities.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database