The Origins of Bluegrass Music

Here is an animated, opinionated, discussion re. the origins of bluegrass music as a style of playing. My own belief is that there is no definitive response to this question. Even though the style may be traced to the inspiration of one person, William Smith Monroe of Rosine, Kentucky, the factors contributing to the style Bill crystalized in his band The Blue Grass Boys (named after his home state) become very complex under close examination. Nevertheless, it can be fun to check out various opinions. Comments welcome at all times.

An early version of Bill Monroe's band, The Blue Grass Boys.

An early version of Bill Monroe’s band, The Blue Grass Boys.

Joseph Scott: Old Time (music) and Early Bluegrass

Bluegrass started in the 1940s because and when Earl Scruggs joined an already jazz-influenced (e.g. taking turns taking solos a la Count Basie and Benny Goodman, swing rhythmic feel a la Count Basie and Benny Goodman) professional C&W band that had a remarkable bluesy and jazzy mandolinist a la Charlie McCoy “Jackson Stomp” 1920s and not a la e.g. mandolinist Matthew Prater. Old-time in contrast describes music that could have been played by folk musicians in the 1910s. It had that name “old-time music” as of the 1920s because there was significant interest then in listening to music that predated the 1920s. And it has ever since.

If it’s really old-time, it’s not bluegrass.

Zach N Tiff: What about all the players from Galax in the 60s ? As an example you had OT Fiddlers playing with 3 finger banjo pickers (with picks) I know quite a few OT Fiddlers that are documented saying they preferred the BG banjo behind them but they surely weren’t playing BG style fiddle…

Tony Thomas: Monroe had all options open when he was moving around the band in the mid 40s before he hired Earl, Lester, and the bassist. That included just getting rid of the fiddles and banjos and having a five-piece band and trying to be a singer like everyone else. If anyone has ever heard the live air checks of Monroe with Earl at the Opry in late ’45 and early ’46, the level of velocity and intensity and sheer virtuosity involved in that band especially in the machine gun fire rolls and mandolin playing, it really tastes of Jazz or even Rock and Roll, it’s strictly performance, show music of the highest calibre. Monroe’s version of Blue Yodel # 4 (that he later cut as California Blues) from the Opry with Earl is just the most startling, over powering,l overwhelming Performance I have ever heard and I cannot imagine actually hearing and seeing it.

Joseph Scott: “it really tastes of Jazz” It swings, because swing was the thing by then.

Zach N Tiff: Wouldn’t that be an overlap if they are mixed together ? So if a BG style Fiddler plays with a Clawhammer/OT banjo player it’s OT ?

Joseph Scott: It isn’t OT because bluegrass isn’t OT. OT is whatever was actually OT.

Joseph Scott: When Grieg rearranged Mozart in romantic style, it was better than Mozart imo, and it was romantic style, not classical style, even though some of what was in there was straight Mozart.

Jim P: The second Camp Creek Boys LP had BG banjo, but it wasn’t bluegrass. Not strict old-time either, but more old-time than much of what passes at festivals as old-time i.e. huge free for all jams.

Zach N Tiff: Jim P I’m with you there…To say there was no overlap or period of transition with OT&BG imho you are ignoring a lot…

Joseph Scott: Zach N Tiff, There actually was no “period of transition” between OT and BG. And that isn’t about ignoring anything. It’s like someone imagining that when Roy Brown made “Butcher Pete,” it was because he had been listening to Charlie Patton. It wasn’t because of that and he hadn’t been. Time had marched on over decades with more transitions than that. Of course a BG musician can be familiar with OT and mix BG with OT (and the resulting mix is BG, like Grieg’s versions of Mozart were in romantic style and Gillespie’s version of “All The Things You Are” was in bebop style). No one has been disputing that.

Joseph Scott: “Not strict old-time” Old-time music describes such an incredibly massive amount of music that having a place to discuss that actual old-time music is a good idea.

Zach N Tiff: Joseph Scott Thanks for your opinion ??

Austin Stovall: Just thought I would add my 2 cents I consider myself an old-time musician but I see tons of overlap between old-time and bluegrass music with actual country and mountain people. Here in East Tennessee there are many people who play stuff you would call old-time that also play stuff you would think of as bluegrass. Without a doubt when Bill created Bluegrass music it was something new and exciting but it quickly became very popular with rural and mountain folk musicians to me when elements of Bill and Earls music was taken up by average folks is when it really started mixing with the earlier old-time styles. Ralph Stanley is a great example of this he was an old time banjo player that heard and liked Scruggs playing and came up with his own version heavily influenced by his earlier old-time 2 finger index lead banjo style how is this not overlap between old time and bluegrass? Or the 1960s lineup of J.E. Mainers Mountaineers that included a Scruggs style banjo player the music was still old time J.E. was still playing the same old time tunes in the way he always played them. This intense separation between old-time and Bluegrass seems to be most prevalent in the more urban and academic old time music crowd. They are different styles but to say there is no overlap is ignoring a lot of great music that falls somewhere in between.

Joseph Scott: Austin Stovall, No one is saying that bands don’t incorporate old-time elements into bluegrass. I’m saying that when they do, they’re making bluegrass.

Joseph Scott: And aren’t making old-time, because old-time refers to whatever folk musicians played by the 1910s, and folk musicians in fact didn’t play that hybrid by the 1910s. Same reason we don’t call bebop or rock and roll old-time music, that style doesn’t fall within what was actual old-time music.

Joseph Scott: Rock and roll can include boogie woogie piano by one member of the band that is consistent with 1910s folk piano. But the whole band can’t sound like a rock and roll band and sound like old-time at the same time, it can’t be done. Because no one was playing in rock and roll style in the 1910s. Just like no one was playing in bluegrass style in the 1910s.

Joseph Scott: These are quite parallel examples chronologically, because musicians started making bebop in about 1943, bluegrass in about 1945, rock and roll in about 1946

Joseph Scott: Austin Stovall, “This intense separation between old-time and Bluegrass seems to be most prevalent in the more urban and academic old time music crowd.” It’s most prevalent among those who have bothered to understand what happened chronologically and why people who care about old-time music call old-time music “old-time music.” Some people don’t know or would prefer to not care what “old-time music” refers to. It refers to music that could have been played by folk musicians before the 1920s. It meant that in the 1920s, it meant that in the 1960s, and it means that now.

Joseph Scott: “Rock and roll can include boogie woogie piano by one member of the band that is consistent with 1910s folk piano” For other analogies see the mentions of Grieg/Mozart and Dizzy/”All The Things You Are” above. IIRC Dizzy had traditional pop strings on (one of?) his recordings of “All The Things.” If so, that would be an example of his recording incorporating pre-bop sounds, but being a bebop recording he made.

Joseph Scott: “old time music crowd” If you tell the ragtime crowd that Carly Rae Jepsen is ragtime, they’ll correct you. The reason for that is they know ragtime.

Zach N Tiff: Seems like the debate topic keeps being moved around here..Of course there is a distinction between Old Time and Bluegrass. But to say there was no transition from OT to BG or an overlap or a mixing from where BG was born just doesn’t make any sense to me..So BG didn’t evolve from OT ? If not where did it come from ? It had to come from somewhere and there for having to evolve out of that…Making a transition period..

Joseph Scott: Zach N Tiff “So BG didn’t evolve from OT ? If not where did it come from ?” Hip C&W of the ’30s-’40s

Zach N Tiff: No I disagree with that entirely…BG for sure evolved out of the practice of the Old Time Stringband practice for the majority..

Joseph Scott: Bill was influenced by the Prairie Ramblers, for instance. And they weren’t old-time either. You couldn’t sell old-time in 1936-1945 (e.g. Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly recorded during that period, but those recordings didn’t sell well). Bill knew that you couldn’t. He was hip.

Zach N Tiff: He had plenty of influences including blues…But to say BG as a whole evolved from early C&W more than anything just doesn’t make sense..

Joseph Scott: You’re mistaken, BG was a new kind of C&W that evolved from the C&W before it.

Zach N Tiff: I reckon me and thousands of others are “mistaken” because that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that…BG as a whole evolved from early C&W…Yeah that don’t don’t sound right..

Joseph Scott: “me and thousands of others are ‘mistaken’” Right.

Joseph Scott: “Of the performers on the cast of the National Barn Dance, the Monroe Brothers were particularly struck with the infectious jazzy sounds of the band known as the Prairie Ramblers.” — Wayne Erbsen. All “hillbilly jazz” isn’t old-time because all jazz isn’t old-time.

Austin Stovall: Joseph Scott, So when J.E. Mainer had a Scruggs style banjo player he was a bluegrass musician? Even absent of any other quality that make bluegrass unique like breaks and tight vocal harmonies etc? To me it’s still old time. So an old time fiddler becomes a bluegrass fiddler just by switching accompaniment that doesn’t make sense to me. I also think there is a much bigger difference between a contemporary pop singer and rag time musician. Than early bluegrass and old-time.

Tony Thomas: Monroe was convinced that there was certainly no room for a traditional string bad on the Opry except doing what he was determined not to do, being a corny, stage hillbilly act shying away from musical excellence, and shying away from meeting the intensity that was coming out of the jazz going on around him.

Tony Thomas: The other thing is that in the late 50s and especially the 1960s under the impact of trying to cash in on the folk revival Monroe as well as Flatt Scruggs added a greater number of traditional tunes and fiddle tunes to their repertoire, but until that point Monroe didn’t talk that much about “ancient tones” but both he and Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanleys had a repertoire especially in recordings much closer to non bluegrass country performers’

Joseph Scott: Once bluegrass was identified as a distinct thing for a few years, some scholarly fans (who loved it, and why wouldn’t you) chose to lump it in with folk music, promote it as folk music, wave their ancient-authenticity wands at it as if it were folk music. It wasn’t folk music. It was invented by showoff pros as part of the evolution of show off pro C&W stage and radio and jazz-feel soloist-star entertainment. It was about as old as bebop jazz. Monroe and Scruggs together were about as hip as it gets in C&W. Which was different from being as unhip, unmodern as Jake Staggers or whoever.

Tony Thomas: Joseph Scott, I have talked to bluegrass musicians who have talked to Earl about where ideas for things like Foggy Mountain Breakdown/Bluegrass breakdown came, and lots of references to swing instruments or to people like Blind Boy Fuller.

Tony Thomas: Oh Lomax’s “folk music in overdrive” was just a way for him and his crowd to possess//appropriate it. One has to look especially at the increasing harmonic complexity of Monroe’s work especially albums like Masters of Bluegrass. Kenny Baker, who was playing swing and jazz in a lounge before Monroe hired him, always said that to play bluegrass fiddle you have to know jazz

Tony Thomas: Naturally there is a phony ideological attempt to claim authenticity that Monroe latched on to and that Louise Scruggs propagated but both were very progressive and anti-traditional musicians within the string band tradition. Monroe was pretty much in favor of rock and roll. Listen to the Stanley Brother’s recording of Blue Moon of Kentucky in the mid 50s, which sounds like a doo wop version of Elvis’ hit. BILL MONROE TOLD CARTER TO RECORD THE SONG THAT WAY AND CAME TO THE STUDIO AND ESSENTIALLY PRODUCED THAT RECORDING.

Joseph Scott: Tony Thomas, Mr. Thomas know his stuff. “folk music in overdrive” As if there wasn’t countless old-time folk music that flew along! It’s as pointless to look at it that supposed way as saying “Rock and roll was swing, but with guitar,” or something equally ridiculous.

“to play bluegrass fiddle you have to know jazz” All “hillbilly” jazz fiddle went back to the likes of Venuti. The hillbilly jazz violinists and pianists really liked Venuti and Earl Hines, for whatever reason, what records sold best where when.

Peter Feldmann: “folk music in overdrive”, a quote attributed to Alan Lomax in Esquire magazine, 1959, was an attempt to describe the new style of music to an urban readership that had never heard either bluegrass or old time music. While Lomax was arguably the most productive folklorist in the 20th Century, he was not attempting a definitive statement, just coining a name for this music of Monroe’s which, to this point *did not have a name*! It was Lomax who, in a concert at Carnegie Hall, first presented the music to NYC. Lomax had been described as a communist to Monroe, who subsequently did not appear but declined in favor of Earl Taylor.

Tony Thomas: The problem with that and the whole Stalinoid school he represented is that it ascribes some special value to something for being folk music, and condemns commercial show business music,. BLUEGRASS BEGAN AND WAS LED BY PROFESSIONAL, COMMERCIAL SHOW BUSINESS MUSICIANS, whose business was making records, getting people to pay for shows, and appearing on radio and television. J

Tony Thomas Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs looked to peers in commercial country music and pop music and small group jazz for ideas of what to do because they wanted a way to advance string band music competitively in the commercial Market Place.

Tony Thomas: Much like the bop generation, their peers in Jazz, they raised the level of musicianship and musical knowledge required to play their music to a level that excluded amateurs, and pushed aside the previous generation of string band musicians especially on the banjo, but also on fiddle and mandolin.

Tony Thomas: Lomax was simply wrong to say that Bluegrass had much of a relationship to folk music, and you cannot understand how bluegrass developed, how it works if you proceed from what he said.

Tony Thomas: To Lomax’s defense he made the statement after he had spent about 10 years outside the United States. Lomax was not particularly liked by either people doing serious studies of folklore or by revivalists of old time music and people in the folk music community interested in Bluegrass. He tried to appropriate a scene where all involved were really beyond his ability to explain . Bluegrass is something you can explain if you look at the problems that post war white performance music and string bands faced, but has nothing to do with the way folk music works except insofar as it represented the unraveling of folk music and its replacement by professional, commercial, show business.

Peter Feldmann: Tony, None of your comments above contradict what Alan Lomax said about “bluegrass”, a word he himself most likely coined, to describe the new musical style. To make any suggestions about bluegrass being or not being “folk music” is patently absurd, since the term “folk” has had such broad usage as to be completely useless in any scholastic treatise. I agree completely with your assessment that bluegrass began as a professional, commercial form, and comparisons to bebop and jazz are very valid. To claim that bluegrass was not strongly rooted in Appalachian balladry and string band music, plus black blues, is ridiculous. Those are the building blocks that Monroe used when piecing the style together,. Lomax would have had no argument with this either. That bluegrass now has a strong amateur following does not invalidate this outlook. Neither I (nor Lomax himself, probably) would shed any tears at he was “not particularly liked” in the field. Too, too bad! He may have stepped on a few toes, but he amassed a collection of field recordings that will undoubtedly remain unsurpassed in the fields of folklore and ethnomusicology for the foreseeable future. I and any serious student of American music remain indebted to him and his work.

Joseph Scott”: “To claim that bluegrass was not strongly rooted in Appalachian balladry and string band music, plus black blues, is ridiculous.” They knew some Appalachian ballads, definitely. Bill Haley knew some old nursery rhymes, too, and when Haley did a rock and roll version of an old nursery rhyme, the style it was in was… rock and roll. What “string band music” and “black blues” are you referring to, specifically? Because if we look at e.g. the 25 years of professional black blues that immediately preceded Scruggs joining Monroe’s band, how much of that stuff was old-time music? Whatever you are looking at there, specifically, what influence did it have on Scruggs and Monroe in the late ’40s? Prairie Ramblers, e.g., wouldn’t qualify as old-time influencing Monroe, because the Prairie Ramblers weren’t old-time either, because old-time describes much older styles than the Prairie Ramblers liked to impress people they were hip with.

“To make any suggestions about bluegrass being or not being ‘folk music’ is patently absurd, since the term ‘folk’ has had such broad usage as to be completely useless in any scholastic treatise.” <– That’s patently absurd.

Joseph Scott: “That’s patently absurd.” I’ll give you a concrete example. When people talk about the folk and stage blues artists of 1910-1919, they give John Hurt, who played for friends in his town, as an example of a folk artist, and Charles Anderson, who sang blues professionally on stage in the U.S. and Canada, as an example of a stage artist. Pretending that distinction cannot be made is unmotivated and counterproductive.

Tony Thomas: Peter Feldmann, How can you say Lomax coined this term? His focus and his body was outside the United States in the rather formative period of Bluegrass’s emergence and crystallization into a distinct style.

Joseph Scott: I don’t recall reading anyone saying Lomax coined the term, I recall reading that bluegrass musicians used it in the early ’50s

Peter Feldmann: Joseph, I think “early ’50s” may be pushing it a bit. And general usage (including by Monroe himself – as applying the name to the music rather than the band) came later.

Tony Thomas: Joseph Scott, In his post above my friend Peter says “None of your comments above contradict what Alan Lomax said about “bluegrass”, a word he himself most likely coined to describe the new musical style.” This is the kind of idolatry of Lomax of people without critical knowledge of music history of his work get into. How could Alan have coined the term bluegrass when Bill Monroe ascribed that name for his band when he set up a separate band from the Monroe Brothers in 1938 or 1939?????

Joseph Scott: Well, I think he’s referring to “bluegrass music,” a term musicians began using in about 1950.

Tony Thomas: It is true Monroe himself for a decade and a half insisted that his band did NOT play any special kind of music and that bluegrass was just what his band did and that his band was just another Country or Country Western band like others on the Opry.

Tony Thomas: In September 1950 Lomax left the United States for Europe and did not return until 1959 Now I was 12 in 1959 but I knew the term Bluegrass music, didn’t think i liked it then. Lomax had nothing to do with that. Lomax was a self aggrandizing person who was deeply immodest, but I do not think he would ever claim that he invented the term Bluegrass or Bluegrass music.,

Tony Thomas: Joseph Scott, Blues scholars I know wo knew and worked with Alan Lomax talk about how while he appreciated the blues, he had a hard time really accepting it as a form of folk music or much of the professional blues as folk music. Certainly my own research about the banjo and black music and particularly my work on Gus Cannon suggests that understanding the blues as a financial performance music and the economics of it in the first 3rd of the 20th century provide good explanations along with the musical and dance ones for the disappearance of the blues

Tony Thomas: What I most strongly object to is the idea there is something wrong with commercial show business, with professional musicians, with non-folk musics and something “elevating” or pure of connection with society for “folk music” or that such music provides some kind of escape from the cultural and social problems of life in a sexist, racist, capitalist, dollarist society. I say that in a room that has 4 banjos, 5 guitars, a gambian Riti, a violin, an autoharp.some hand drums and flutes from Africa, Mexico and Guatemala as I am supposed to be practicing tunes for the Bluegrass jam tomorrow

Scott Odell: Peter Feldmann Yes, back in the early years of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and allied enterprises, I remember how Ralph Rinzler always made a special point of seeing that Alan Lomax was included and appreciated, despite – as you correctly recall – the hostility and condescension he frequently got from established academicians!

Joseph Scott: Tony Thomas “Alan Lomax… had a hard time really accepting it as a form of folk music or much of the professional blues as folk music.” He was an eccentric whose more sober (but also sometimes intellectually dishonest) father handed him an important job working for the government. Sometimes what Alan wrote made perfect sense, down to the letter. Sometimes what Alan wrote made no sense, down to the letter. I’m not saying this idly, I know my Alan Lomax and he deserves credit for both of those! He knew what folk music meant and as I say, whether he was concerned about whether he was describing what folk music was with precision would have depended on what day it was. Could Forrest City Joe tell us anything about old folk music, no, basically. Would Alan take money from someone to record Forrest City Joe for a folk set, yes. Alan knew that e.g. ’40s T-Bone Walker wasn’t folk music. (So does everyone here, I hope.) T-Bone began playing electric guitar about 5 years before Scruggs joined Monroe’s band.

Joseph Scott: Scott Odell “the hostility and condescension he frequently got from established academicians” Some of what he wrote was so childlike and obviously false that the condescension is understandable.

Scott Odell: Joseph Scott, Ralph and most others I knew back then were certainly very well aware of the enthusiasms, and unproven and disproven theories beloved and published by A.L.. But I was on the Festival’s advisory council back then and appreciated Ralph Rinzler’s ability to see past all that to the very real contributions made by A.L. and insist that his experience and knowledge was honored and included in planning discussions.

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Joseph Scott Here’s another Mudcat thread involving Alan Lomax that may well interest Odell or Thomas or whoever else
https://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=157325&messages=168
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Joseph Scott: “the very real contributions made by A.L.” His taste in music was wonderful and he went and recorded it and recorded it and recorded it. Who gave Jelly Roll Morton another drink and got stories no one else got, him. (Was Jelly Roll Morton a folk musician, no, but as noted you’re smart to take the good with the bad with Alan and there was so much of both.)

Scott Odell: Joseph Scott Glad to agree with that, and I’ll stick with the good stuff!

Joseph Scott: NPR played a radio show about Alan in 2015. It was HORRIBLY unfair to him. My defense of him is here starting about a fifth of the way down, if anyone is interested.
https://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=156497

MUDCAT.ORG Alan Lomax: Racist stereotypes&all/NPR

Joseph Scott: Speaking of being fair to Alan, here is him describing bluegrass in 1959: “a sort of mountain Dixieland combo in which the five-string banjo… carries the lead like a hot clarinet….”

Peter Feldmann: Well, I can sort of agree with that if I squint . . . 🙂

Peter Feldmann: Wow! At least 18 replies to one post I made yesterday. Before I venture to tread into this morass, I will make a request of the other commentators here: May I copy this thread to my music blog, “Pete’s Place”? I ask this to preserve it in a fairly stable environment, where it will not be swept away in the billion comments / day found on this corporate website. You are welcome to email me at: Peter@BlueGrassWest.com

My university education was in physics, and later in the biological sciences, with graduate work in the chemotaxonomy of terpenes found in pine resins. I do keep friends in the social sciences, however. These social sciences tend to be handicapped by a lack of precise definitions, and that was part of what I was addressing previously. The term “folk music” for example, can mean anything played by a human as opposed to by a clam, shall we say. It is therefore meaningless (or absurd) to try to have any sort of discussion as to whether a music is “folk” or not. Note also that such usage often places an implied value judgement on the music. We can say that some musicians play for money (the favorite American title, “Pro”), while others play as a hobby and/or for the love of it “amateur”.

I like to use the Harry Smith Anthology as a good rule of thumb when discussing old time music, a term I still find has some validity. Anything on those three volumes will find an appreciative listener in me, and I am ready to attempt to play it, and to discuss it for hours at a time, perhaps over a good single malt Scotch. I am happy to have had relationships with some of the people whose music is on the anthology, a fact for which I remain ever grateful. Speaking of “bluegrass” I first heard Mr. Monroe mention that term (with reference to his music) in May of 1963. I misspoke when I mentioned that Alan Lomax “coined” the term in 1959. What I meant to say was that his article on bluegrass was the first time the musical term was used in a national magazine. Indeed, Mr. Monroe was slow to use the term, the Stanley Brothers did not use it, and Lester Flatt expectorated after mentioning it in an interview I helped conduct with him in 1986. I am very unclear whether “bluegrass” will survive much longer — perhaps in name only.

Re. Alan Lomax: True, he did obtain a “government job”! Not on the salary level of say a Scott Pruitt, but earning probably enough to pay for Pruitt’s chauffeur’s fees. You don’t care for his writings? Cantometrics? Politics? (A good reason to leave the USA during the McCarthy era). Each to his own. I find his music collections fabulous and offer a little prayer of thanks every time I encounter yet another chapter in his collections.

As for professional vs amateur musicians, this hearkens back to the old folk singer era, as if someone doing something for a living somehow invalidates their credentials. Really not interested in discussing this. Simply not to any point of value in my opinion. I have made my living about 1/3rd of my life performing, presenting, and teaching the music. I still love it, I intend to keep performing it until I no longer can.

Joseph Scott: “The term ‘folk music’ for example, can mean anything played by a human as opposed to by a clam, shall we say.” Was there something about the 1910s blues example above you didn’t understand? And you may quote me my friend.

Peter Feldmann: Thanks Joseph. Re. 1910s blues, do you mean your post about a stage artist vs. folk artist? “Folk artists” on stage can present a problem, if what you mean by a folk artist is one that plays as an amateur. It takes a professional *performer* to put across a stage presentation. Running a music club for four years taught me that lesson.

Joseph Scott: “do you mean your post about a stage artist vs. folk artist” Yes. Charles Anderson (black, born Alabama) learned e.g. “Baby Seals Blues” off the sheet music, and as I say was hitting Canada. With written blues in 1913. And sang very unlike Hurt. Contrasting him and his peers with Hurt and his peers (only in some ways, of course) is very real and meaningful. Which is why, e.g., in 1913 people called musicians like Anderson “stage” musicians and in 1913 called people like Hurt “folk” musicians.

Tony Thomas: For what he was trying to do, and for the tools and bad social and political context he became an advocate of, Lomax was a hero, but someone with the limitations of his political and social outlook, someone who never fit into a collaborative critical framework, and most of all, someone who didn’t know much about Bluegrass when he called Bluegrass folk music on overdrive in 1959 a month or two after being out of the US for 9 years.

Tony Thomas: Believe me 20-25 years ago when I got back into old time, blues, bluegrass and fell into the banjo world , I had all the hoary ideas about folk tradition and the superiority of the true sounds and all of that, but every serious effort I have made to look into this explodes that idea and demolishes these kind of simplistic ideas. It does nothing to denigrate the music to say what it is and what shaped it and describe the world as it is with all its warts and carbuncles, dirtiness, and sweat. How else could we enjoy it

Joseph Scott: I love John Hurt and Dizzy Gillespie. John Hurt really made folk music. The fact that he really made folk music doesn’t somehow have to do with me loving him relative to Dizzy. But he made it, so if you want to understand American folk music of about 1900-1915, you listen to Hurt, not Dizzy. That fact does nothing to denigrate Dizzy, and vice-versa on all that if you love bebop, which I do.

Tony Thomas: Joseph Scott, Dizzy was also a great player of the jaws harp and could beat some mean hambone and had worked in a Black minstrel show. If I listen to Hurt, I also see also sorts of influences of popular music around 1905-15, and ragtime lurking in the background and how some set composed ragtime pieces like Creole Belles floated down into what hurt was doing. There are no pure states in the world. Before he was educated as to what he was by people who had been to Yale and Harvard, Roscoe Holcomb told people he knew that he could be best described as a blues singer!!! I’ve got a recording of John Lee Hooker singing “Rabbit in a Log Need a Rabbit Dog” at a private party in Detroit around 1947. The pure states the searches for holy grails disable us more than they empower us,.

Tony Thomas: I didn’t listen to it but from the chat about it on the music group, the NPR thing on Lomax must have been pure slander. BTW Joseph I limked your desanctification of Carl Hagstrom Miller who back when this was written had all these fools thinking he was so wonderful when he proved in his book he didn’t get outside the university enough and know how the real world worked.

Joseph Scott: “the searches for holy grails” Searching for X is fine, just don’t stop when you get to the pop song “Creole Belle” unless it’s X. You want “Hop Joint” instead. It’s a freakin’ Rosetta Stone.

“Roscoe Holcomb told people he knew that he could be best described as a blues singer” I agree with him. I’ve never heard a better version of “Graveyard Dream Blues” than his.

“I like your desanctification of Carl Hagstrom Miller who back when this was written had all these fools thinking he was so wonderful when he proved in his book he didn’t get outside the university enough and know how the real world worked.” Thanks Tony, it’s gratifying to see someone put that so accurately.

Joseph Scott: “The term ‘folk music’ for example, can mean anything played by a human as opposed to by a clam, shall we say.” Was there something about the 1910s blues example above you didn’t understand? And you may quote me my friend.

Joseph Scott: I love John Hurt and Dizzy Gillespie. John Hurt really made folk music. The fact that he really made folk music doesn’t somehow have to do with me loving him relative to Dizzy. But he made it, so if you want to understand American folk music of about 1900-1915, you listen to Hurt, not Dizzy. That fact does nothing to denigrate Dizzy, and vice-versa on all that if you love bebop, which I do.

Tony Thomas: The rest of the Esquire piece was actually quite astute in Lomax’s more apt comparisons of bluegrass to Dixie Land and the clarinettists role in it.

RG Hocuff: Earl Scruggs when he played with Monroe was an OT banjo player, if you don’t think so, you really don’t understand “old-time” music nor have you heard much of what was recorded in the 20’s, 30’s & early 40’s…as a collector of 78’s primarily before 1940, your statement is blatantly wrong…as most absolute statements are…

Joseph Scott: “was an OT banjo player” What that band was playing was bluegrass. As an analogy, some of the session musicians who were hired to play on early rock and roll were swing pianists. They could play swing piano as such on those recordings and the recording…See More

RG Hocuff: Listen to Earl and Arthur Smith play their duets and tell me that’s not OT. The way Earl approached the banjo was firmly rooted in straight OT finger style banjo, you can hear it in Snuffy Jenkins, Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Fisher Hendley, Lucius Smith, Uncle Dave, whoever is playing on the McVay/Johnson recordings, Gus Cannon, Wade Ward, Oscar Jenkins etc. Gotta listen to more old 78’s before you make such a unilateral blanket statement…saying something like “if it’s really old-time, it’s not bluegrass” must just boil down to semantics then instead of actual music…

Tony Thomas: Kind of a silly ignorant post, Tom Ashley NEVER PLAYED FINGER STYLE BANJO PLEASE SHOW ME ONE INSTANCE OF HIS FINGER PLAYING

Tony Thomas: LUCIOUS NEVER PLAYED FINGER STYLE BANJO TELL ME ONE INSTANCE WHERE HE PLAYED FINGER STYLE BANJO. DO YOU JUST MAKE UP THINGS BASED ON YOUR IGNORANCE]

Tony Thomas: What Earl did in Banjo playing is pretty explicit and easy to hear, If you had any kind of respect for the world you might have familiarized yourself with how Scruggs described his style what components came to it. His official claim is that he took …See More

Tony Thomas: The key thing that Earl and Snuffy and others of their generation–Earl was not the only one but was the main and the best one– was to apply the roll and other technical approaches that came out of classic banjo and show business banjo and ragtime ba…See More

Tony Thomas: Since I have done an enormous amount of work on Gus Cannon over the past 12 years, it is appropriate for me to refute the stupidities this guy makes in regard to Cannon playing like Earl. Now it is true that toward the end of his life when afflictions…See More

Peter Feldmann: Tony, Yes I agree with most of what you are saying about banjo style. Gus Cannon was a fine exponent of the three-finger “classical” style of playing. You can hear this in much of Charlie Poole’s work as well, especially in his Gennett recordings. This kind of playing was big at the turn of the nineteenth century, and appeared often on the vaudeville stage – and before that, in minstrel shows, so it is quite old. So what is all this fuss about Earl Scruggs? As Tony has mentioned, he applied syncopation to the classical rolls to carry the beat of the music forward, resulting in the intense drive of bluegrass music. Monroe had experimented with David Akeman, who played a more primitive two-finger banjo style with the BGB; it is my guess that Stringbean was added more as a comic element than for his musicianship. But I want to go back to that “drive” in bluegrass. *This* is what completely sets it apart from what people call “swing”. The stress is on the one beat, not the two, so that the music has a forward-leaning feel to it, the opposite of the “laid-back” feel in swing. I find this drive very stimulating, and that’s why I play bluegrass, not swing.

Joseph Scott: “Gotta listen to more old 78’s” There is no problem with how much old-time I’ve listened to. Bluegrass was named after the sound of a band in which Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs both played.

RG Hocuff: If you make a statement such as “if it’s really old-time, it’s not bluegrass” is again a straight semantics/labeling issue, not a musical one. Again. the proof is in the listening and playing…

Joseph Scott: Labeling and musical issues are both unavoidably involved in what people have called old-time and bluegrass.

Peter Feldmann: Yes, don’t get lost in semantics / labeling. That’s what I’ve been trying to preach here. Re. finger-style banjo players, don’t forget Frank Jenkins. His “Home Sweet Home” is a real masterpiece.

Tony Thomas: Woolbright was Earl’s neighbor. Earl could see Woolbright playing Home Sweet Home on Woolbright’s relative’s front porch across the street from his home and Woolbright was a friend of his father. People I know who socialized with Earl in the 1970s and 80s said that he could play Woolbright’s Home sweet home note for note even then.

Tony Thomas: Jim Beaver Louise imposed a lot of hokum on Earl’s public utterances about where his banjo playing came from once the folkies came around and for a while she even revived the Joel Sweeney myth. However, people I know who had direct conversations with Earl about where his early music came from, Earl had pretty specific references to a variety of musicians, most of whom were not banjo players, but including swing instrumentalists, and blues players, especially Blind Boy Fuller who must have been a sensation given the way both Black and white North Carolinas around in the 30s and 40s mark how music changed by references to fuller

Tony Thomas: In the parlor music of the late 19th Century and early 20th century, especially in the style erroneously called classic today, “Home Sweet Home” was on of the set pieces that every banjoist had to learn and that the masters perfected fancy versions, and the publishing composers and players performed and published and performed their variations to., It also was played a lot, insofar it was often the last tune played at a dance or a concert, a signal to get your butt home!

Peter Feldmann: Tony Thomas, Someone was planning a book on Louise, but to my knowledge it never happened. She certainly deserves some attention as she seemed to be a very responsible party in the success (and later demise) of the Flatt & Scruggs band. I had some interesting encounters with her, especially a 25-minute phone conversation which ended when she declared: “I do not think . . . that I want the name ‘Scruggs’ . . . associated with bluegrass music.” Lots going on there.

Tony Thomas: Well someone should write an honest, musically informed, non fanzine book about Earl Scruggs. I was deeply disappointed about the fanzine book that is passed off as a book about Earl

Tony Thomas: Jim Beaver, I remember being at a Party at Cece Conway’s house in Boone in 2010 where the great Clarke Buhling was playing his rendition of classic variations on Home Sweet Home. John Cohen was a bit shocked, and came over the Clarke and asked are those the same rolls and a dressed up version of Mack Woolbright’s Home Sweet Home

Peter Feldmann: I agree! During the 1980s – 90s, I became friends with Dr. Nat Winston, supposedly Scruggs’ best friend (and Johnny Cash’s psychiatrist!). He had lost of interesting tidbits about Earl, and took me over for a visit on Saturday morning . . .

Visiting Earl Scruggs

Tony Thomas: The three finger style erroneously called classic today was the dominant form of banjo playing IN THE WORLD in the late 19th and early 20th century. If you went to get banjo lessons somewhere this is pretty much what you would get taught if you went in NC or in Australia or England.

Tony Thomas: Peter Feldmann, This is a great clip Pete. I got a program to download and save YouTube Video just to keep that permanently Thank you for all you have done, the generosity and seriousness to the music and to others. Though we never met, you are one of my heroes.

Peter Feldmann: Tony, Your thoughts are regularly stimulating, even when i disagree!

Tony Thomas: Bluegrass emerges from old time music largely due to commercial and performance pressures. It was not a folk or community music performing atmosphere that Monroe aimed at or developed in. He was a professional musician from his late teens (although Monroe actually started out as more of a dancer on the National Barn Dance in the Chicago area and Iowa). Monroe’s aims and problems was not playing for dances or in communities, but how to make his string band commercially relevant in the SHOW BUSINESS of the grand ol’ opry and the recording industry as it emerged from WWII with amplification taking over one segment of country music coming from Western Swing but also cutting down band size, and changing dancing. There is nothing about folk sensibility, community dancing or anything else that governed the problems and decisions that Bill Monroe made from 1944 to 1946 that created bluegrass

Tony Thomas: Monroe contemplated just becoming a singer and playing a guitar and setting up a five piece band like everyone else was doing. He did not see any future or have any desire to become one of the surviving token old time players like String Bean or Gran…See More

Tony Thomas: What Monroe came up with was the string band as a jazz combo, focusing on the virtuoso solo performances of the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin developing solos like Jazz or 2nd generation (postwar not the original) Dixieland, including the virtuosic singing that Bill and later also Lester Flatt and folks like Mac Weisman and Jimmie Martin provided. THIS IS SHOW MUSIC, not intended to power a dance (for the most part too fast to dance to) but to get people who come to the show to be impressed and thrilled. Listen to the Opry go crazy in the 45-46 outtakes from the Opry when Bill or Earl go into their breaks, or when Earl fires those machine gun rolls. Above all listen not so much when Lester sings with this band, but with the excitement generated when Monroe sings, especially when he sings the blues. I can only think of a few of the most exquisite classical performances I have seen live, or seeing Dizzy, Charles Mingus, James Burton behind Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Rollins, to the pure ecstasy of listening to Monroe’s Blue Yodel #4 from the Opry especially the first version recorded before the band recorded a tamer version on the record and tailored the next Opry performance to sound more like the record. I am afraid to listen to that because I might not be able to do anything else, and I have to work up some guitar calluses to play bluegrass this afternoon

Peter Feldmann: Practice up, kid, and I’ll hire ya!

Tony Thomas: LOL one reason I know bluegrass is a professional music is that no bluegrass band would hire me as while I practice up on jam day I am working my banjos or doing banjo research with my other music time. We have some really great bluegrass pickers here in S Florida even in the summer and then when the winter comes we get snowbids coming down who have played in professional bands, appeared on the opry.

Peter Feldmann: Yes, bluegrass is show music, not dance music! This fact makes it a difficult sell in clubs and bars, where owners want dancing, with breaks for the people to return to their tables and order more drinks!!! And this is why I so happily discovered playing casino show bars in Nevada in the 1960s. They wanted us to hype up the customers with a fast-paced show and send them back out to the gaming floor. A perfect fit! And they paid!

Tony Thomas: Well Monroe traveled with everything for a show, black face comedians at the start, even had a baseball team that would challenge the local baseball team. though that was a common thing for bands then, I have seen film of Duke Ellington’s baseball team practicing! Monroe who was incredibly strong would do a strong man act where he would challenge local strong men to weight lifting. In the 40s he could pick up two or three band members and hold them up as part of the show.

Peter Feldmann Ha! Well, yes, Monroe learned his entertaining in the “old days” of show business. Bill was at a disadvantage when it came to fronting a band, due to his innate shyness, brought about in part because of his childhood crossed eyes. His older brother Charlie, was much more of an extrovert and did the front man duties in the Monroe Brothers, When Bill left to go it alone, he was presented with a problem: who was going to front the band? Clyde Moody did some of that work. I think Bill might have hired Stringbean more as a comedian to break the ice than for his banjo picking. Either that or because he was a good shortstop! Many early bluegrass bands had at least one member who did the rube comic act . . . a relic from minstrel and medicine show times. It was often the bass player (eg. “Boatwhistle” w/ Earl Taylor) or the banjo player. I spoke with Earl Scruggs about the famous comment Uncle Dave made about him from the wings at the Opry. Uncle Dave was asked “Well, what do you think about Bill’s new kid banjo player?” Macon answered, “Well, he ain’t a bit funny.” Looking at that comment from this perspective, it was a valid professional criticism. Earl agreed with this, and laughed, saying that he and Uncle Dave were good friends.

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs.

Peter founded Santa Barbara’s Old Time Fiddler’s Convention (1972), UCSB’s Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps – three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled “The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music” (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 – 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, “BlueGrass West!”, based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California.

Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America’s musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.

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