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ralph johansson

Drawing the Line

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This is an essay that I wrote many years ago for a small publication devoted to American String Band Music and later translated to English.

Drawing the Line

On forums like Mandolin Café a recurring theme is Bluegrass vs. OldTimey music. This distinction seems to be of great concern to some people. For instance, chopping the mandolin at an Oldtime jam is considered bad form.

I once mentioned this to an old-time fiddler who knows the history inside out. And, as I expected, he could give several examples of old-time mandolin players chopping the hell out of their axes.
Luckily I did not mention group vocals, take-off solos or dobros; that would have
kept him busy all evening and he would have missed his gig.

Definition quarrels are silly enough, but in this case they are particularly silly
because Bluegrass and Oldtime are entirely different kinds of labels.

Bluegrass, on the one hand, denotes an established tradition starting with Bill Monroe's band of late 1945. This band established a genre because other people began modeling
themselves on it, adding their own interpretations. With Earl Scruggs joining Monroe’s band
the various roles of the instruments were clarified, suggesting further development.
Traditions survive by change.

Oldtime, on the other hand, at least since the days of the Folk Music revival in the 60's,
denotes a multitude of individual and regional styles recorded commercially in the 20's to 30's at the intersection of traditional, popular and parlor music. One could define this multigenre
by enumerating the groups that the New Lost City Ramblers modeled themselves on.

A while back I listened to one of those "O Brother" compilations, with various Oldtimey and Gospel groups. I was struck by the repetitiveness of many of the performances, possibly typical of music that hasn't quite abandoned its social roots and function. Therefore it's worth pointing out Monroe's true accomplishment, the professionalization of various traits in the old-time music he knew
from tradition, records, and radio.

Chubby Wise joined the group before Scruggs and in historic perspective his fiddling is just as important as Scruggs' banjo, with more flexible phrasing and less reliance on open strings,
compared to older styles.

The recording of Goodbye Old Pal (a cowboy song by Cliff Carlisle) established the key of B natural
as a signature key in what was to develop into Bluegrass. The first recording of Blue Moon of Kentucky, in 1946, was in Bb, also a far from common key in traditional music. That, of course,
is also an example of professionalism, letting the desired
vocal expression determine the choice of key.

When jam culture in the US (as related to me) defines Oldtime by negating certain traits in
Bluegrass it therefore often becomes an excuse for amateurism and rigid purism. There were other
trends in string band music that could easily have been brought to the same level of professionalism.
I would really like to see Bluegrass as just part of
contemporary American string band music. No kind of music thrives on isolation.

Bluegrass has certainly had its share of definition quarrels. When citybillies like Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler became aware of its folk roots, drawing the line against commercial
country music - "the Nashville treacle" to quote Seeger - became important,
marginalizing the Bluegrass-Oldtime dichotomy.
The darlings of the citybillies were the Stanley Brothers, the first prominent Bluegrass group
to tour Europe, typically as part of a folk music package.

The Country Gentlemen, based in the DC area, seemed to divide the folkniks.
Seeger produced them for Folkways records, Rinzler purely hated them. I believe the
Gentlemen simply
saw Bluegrass as an art form. They were equally capable of handling traditional songs from the archives of the Library of Congress as material by contemporary artists like Bob Dylan and Tom Rush,
not to mention show and pop tunes like Heartaches and (The World is Waiting for the) Sunrise.
Typically, their name derived (at least indirectly) from a tune by Chet Atkins, a very unprejudiced and ecelectic musician.

By the 70's Bluegrass appeared to have painted itself into a corner of stylistic expectations, to the extent that any step out was a step into something else - already existing. Frankly, most of the "experimentation"
was driven by survival rather than curiosity. When the commercial potential of these changes had been exhausted, and the situation for Bluegrass had brightened, many artists went back to their roots.


Outsiders often remark on the limited harmony of Bluegrass; there are usually only few and simple chords. There's no lack of dissonance, though, such as the fifth string of the banjo, the practice of
singing or playing the tonic over the V chord, or the Dorian, Mixolydian or Minor Pentatonic modes
against major chords. But these dissonances do not upset or jeopardize, but rather confirm, the tonality
or modality.

Bluegrass has no place for ambiguities like whole tone chords or
very sweet or complex harmonies. I've heard several Bluegrass versions of Farewell Blues (an old Dixieland number), but none with the expected diminished chord in the 12th bar.
All BG versions of Panhandle Rag known to me use IV-I-IV-V in the bridge,
but Leon McAuliffe's original uses IV-I-II-V. Seems bluegrassers resist the idea of
a flatted ninth (g against F#7 in E major).

That, I believe, is the way it should be. It's in the nature of the genre that chords should be what I call "strummable", i.e., playable in repeated rhythmic patterns with the ring and splash that open strings
allow - try that on G7b5 for two bars (no, please don’t) ! There's another limitation that surprises me more, the scarcity of
tunes in minor keys. The point with minor (often) is its instability - e.g., its tendency to modulate to the relative or parallel major, thus broadening the harmonic base without contrivance. Also there's the choice - often within one tune - between the major and minor 7th and the iv minor or IV major chord, for further variety.

Gene Lowinger was the first Yankee to fiddle with Bill Monroe, in 1965. In his book "I Hear a Voice Calling" he relates how Monroe once accompanied him to a synagogue in Nashville.
Monroe was immensely fascinated with the minor dominated music. Afterwards he thanked the rabbi and
expressed his hope of incorporating some of these sounds in his own music.

I've looked into Wolfe-Rosenberg's Monroe discography. Up to this time I find only one minor tune (bordering on the Dorian), Kentucky Mandolin, a live performance with Doc Watson. The Lonesome Moonlight Waltz (also performed live with Watson) progresses from d minor to its relative major, F. The bridge of Cheyenne is in g minor, the relative minor to Bb flat. And that appears to be all.

Later in his career we find, e.g., Land of Lincoln, Jerusalem Ridge (which Kenny Baker more than helped write), Crossing the Cumberlands, My Last Days on Earth, Southern Flavor, and My Love is Gone.
The last song (never recorded by Monroe) has found interpreters far outside the Bluegrass tradition, most notably Katy Melua.

I cite Monroe mainly because the myth portrays him as jealously guarding his creation against
blasphemy, unwilling to develop after his sound was established. But then many people forget
that he recorded a Rockabilly number, Sally Jo, in 1957, and a Dixieland number, Milenburg Joy,
in 1976, which he learned in Chicago more than 40 years earlier. Why wasn't there more of that?
I believe the angriest purists are among the fans and festival promoters (recall Cadillac Sky being
run off the stage at a festival a couple of years ago). Musicians as a rule are more curious and often
frustrated by the expectations of the audience, real or imagined.

As for myself I did not grow up with this music and have always approached it without prejudice. If I play a Bluegrass standard I care only about my fellow musicians, the melody, the groove I feel and the way I hear the changes. Listening to others I am often drawn to mischief and impurity. I rejoice when Dailey&Vincent record with strings, when Rhonda Vincent and Claire Lynch do swing type numbers,
when Sam Bush and David Grisman race through Daybreak in Dixie with flute and drums, when Cadillac Sky contribute a novel virtuosity as arrangers and players, when IIIrd Tyme Out do Only You a cappella,
or Chris Stapleton lends his gravelly voice to some of the most musical lyrics in the whole genre.

Drawing lines and quarreling about definitions therefore is not my bag. But I wouldn't mind a speed limit.

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  1. JeffD's Avatar
    Well said. I might get picky hear and there, but I pretty much agree.