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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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The African-American Influence

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The importance of African-American musical traditions on bluegrass has often been overlooked in the past. The notion that bluegrass is a purely white musical tradition has been the prevailing narrative in musicological circles. However, racial segregation in the antebellum South, and to a certain extent in the pre-Civil War South, was not as absolute as was previously thought. “At times, many blacks and whites interacted not so much as members of segregated racial groups engaged in cultural imitation or barter but as members of one group sharing class consciousness vis-à-vis the planter class” (Farmelo 182).

Example of shape-note notation
"Star in the East" from the 1854 edition of The Southern Harmony, pg. 16.

Some believe that the segregation of white and black settlers in the mountains was not as prominent among those of ethnic groups who shared the same social class. It is believed that whites and African-Americans often came together through the Church. The second Awakening, a religious revivalist movement that started in the early 19th century, spread through the South starting in Kentucky. The movement "gave rise to the massive outdoor camp meetings where for the first time black and white met on anything like equal terms" (Small 99).

The revivalist religious movement also helped to spread what was known as shape note singing schools. Shape-note singing was devised in the late 18th century as a way to allow religious congregations to sing better. Each note on a scale was assigned a specific shape that would indicate pitch to the congregation. This methodology was perfect for congregants who were not music literate. Shape note singing became popular throughout the Antebellum South. The hymn texts were taken from English hymnists such as Isaac Watts and Charles and John Wesley, as well as from poems by lesser-known American hymnists. The melodies drew upon songs from varying musical traditions: fiddle tunes, psalms, ballads, camp-meeting tunes, and anthems (Campbell). The evidence of African American involvement in shape note singing is difficult to find, although it has been discovered that “before the Civil War black singers, both slave and free, participated avidly in shape-note singings (particularly during interracial camp meetings), often having a marked impact on the style of music the antebellum books contained” (Campbell).

Example of lining out singing
A selection of lined out hymnody sung by members of the Indian Bottom Association, Old Regular Baptists, at Defeated Creek Church in Linefork, KY, in 1993, YouTube.

Other religious musical traditions include “lining out,” where a cantor would shout out lines of a hymn in a timed fashion so that the congregation would be able to follow the next line. This helped in areas where song books were difficult to come by and where a portion of the congregation was illiterate. African-American slaves were exposed to lining out during the pre-Civil War era. “Among the slaves, lining out was called raising a hymn. The minister or a devout male member of the community would raise the hymn. Instead of singing the lines of the hymn as they were written, or reciting them in an oratorical manner, the leader would chant the lines, often chanting two lines at a time to a tune unrelated to the tune the congregation would sing” (Boyer 7).

The most obvious African-American contribution to bluegrass was the banjo. The banjo originated from a single-stringed, gourd-bodied instrument from Africa. Later, the gourd was replaced with a wooden hoop covered in a taut skin. A four-string version of the instrument emerged in the late 17th century, and a five string version (the addition of the fifth string is normally attributed to the Scottish-American musician Joel Walker Sweeney) can be seen in paintings of black banjo players from between 1777 and 1800 (Farmelo 189). Farmelo argues that the banjo is “probably the first distinctly African-American instrument. Details aside, the banjo grew up on the North American continent as part of a resilient African heritage” (189). Musicologists and folklorists have varying theories of exactly how white Southern Appalachian residents came to know of the instrument. Some believe that freed slaves traveling through the Appalachians brought the first banjos to the region. Others believe that there was more cultural interaction between whites and African Americans during this period.

19th century African-American banjo players
African American soldiers with guitar and banjo seated in front of open tent at a US Army mobilization camp, Spanish-American War., c.1898.

However, many folklorists believe the banjo was brought to the Southern Appalachian region via traveling minstrel shows themselves, which featured white performers imitating African-American performers making music. While this exposure to the banjo via minstrel shows is heavily documented with newspaper advertisements and magazine and journal articles, it is less evident how the banjo playing styles of African Americans were taught to the white performers (Farmelo 190). However, the use of the banjo in these minstrel shows became a symbol to newly freed African-American slaves who wanted to distance themselves from the plantation slave stereotype that minstrelsy portrayed. It was this that brought African-American folk musicians to play the banjo less frequently. Thus, the banjo was removed from the African-American folk music narrative and transferred to the white Southern Appalachian heritage (191). Despite this, some African-American string bands, most of which came from the North Carolina Piedmont region, were playing during the 1920s.

Old Soldiers Joy played clawhammer style
An example of clawhammer banjo playing by Hunter Robinson, YouTube

White banjo players most often used the clawhammer playing technique – a highly percussive style used by minstrel performers who most likely learned the playing style from African-American banjo players. Robert Cantwell describes clawhammer banjo player as “using the force of his wrist and sometimes of his forearm [to bring] the back of his fingernail down upon the string, snapping it and striking the banjo head more or less forcefully at the terminus of its arc” (93). He goes on to say that this motion “encapsulates the note in a hard percussive shell which dissolves with the decay of the tone” (93).

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