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

(Released September 2011)

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  by Lorna Dries  

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Mountain Ballads

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An analysis of bluegrass music generally starts with an examination of the folk music played by the British settlers who populated the Appalachian Mountains during the 18th century. At this time, the Appalachian Mountain region was a place difficult to traverse and even more difficult to populate: “Two hundred million years of erosion turned the Appalachians from high, Alp-like peaks into rounded hills, but ridges of hard quartz sandstone survived, forming long valleys of softer shale.  This produced a long range of accordion-like steep ridges, full of foliage entanglements like mountain laurel, and therefore difficult to transverse, alongside valleys and 'hollers' full of generally agriculturally useless soil.  The Appalachians therefore tended to attract poorer people looking for cheaper or unwanted land” (McClatchy). The Scottish, Irish, and Welsh settlers came to the Appalachian region looking for land and isolation. They brought with them rural British ballads, narrative poems passed down from generation to generation (Price 6), which were monophonic, in minor or modal tonalities and sung unaccompanied with little emotional expression. Instrumental music took the form of dances, which were played on fiddles and sometimes dulcimers.

Apppalachian regions
Subregions in Appalachia, Appalachian Regional Commission, November 2009.

The ballads that the settlers sung were centuries-old tunes and stories, comprised of many verses and many variations. These songs were from “the British tradition of the single personal narrative, but the list was selective; most of the one hundred or so variations of the three hundred classic ballads found in American tradition are to do with sexual struggles from the female standpoint, as Barbary Allen, Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, and Pretty Polly” (McClatchy). After a period of time, ballads’ lyrics were changed by the Appalachian settlers to reflect their new environment. “Names of characters and locales were Americanized: ‘The Oxford Girl’ became ‘The Knoxville Girl,’ while ‘Bonnie George Campbell’ turned into ‘Georgie Collins’ (Price 8).  Due to the distance between settlements in the Appalachians and the nature of the variability due to oral transmission, people living in relatively close proximity to each other could sing widely different versions of the same ballad.

Field recording of Barbara Allen
A prison field recording of a performance of ballad Barbara Allen, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1939, YouTube

The Appalachian region was mostly isolated from the rest of the American public so that the settlers’ musical traditions remained untouched from other influences. However, after the Civil War, the mobility and new-found freedom of slaves and the advent of minstrel shows would influence the music of Appalachia.

Go To African-American Influences

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