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Fifty Miles of Elbow Room

Don't Plug In — Bluegrass and the Folk Revival

Gibson ETB150 Banjo  Electric Banjo
(Gibson ETB-150 Model Electric Tenor Banjo, 1940)


Growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970's and 80's, I knew some lovers and practitioners of bluegrass music. They all loved rock n' roll too, and seemed a lot more worried about electricity running microwave ovens than musical instruments. I remember laughter at the thought that folkies had turned on Bob Dylan for "going electric."

Still, I also remember sharing with bluegrassers a special affection, even reverence, for the acoustic quality of bluegrass instruments. I'm reminded of John Hartford's drawn-out, playfully grandiose introduction to his tongue-twister "Tater Tate and Allen Mundy":

Bluegrass music a-playin' in the park
Bluegrass music picking way past dark
Bluegrass music, it don't butt in
Don't need an amp and don't plug in
I thought of all this last night while reading the introduction to Neil Rosenberg's "Bluegrass: A History." In a section entitled "Bluegrass — What Is It?", Rosenberg insists on a paradox. Bluegrass has always been a commercial and professional form designed for radio and records, and its sound was shaped by a 20th-century electric invention: the microphone. Nevertheless, the non-electric stringed instruments of bluegrass are usually the first thing mentioned by its followers when trying to describe the genre:
... [as] can be seen from a joke told by Ricky Skaggs ... "How many bluegrass musicians does it take to change a light bulb? One, and three to complain because it's electric!" [taken from Rosenberg's book]
I've finally begun reading Rosenberg's history of bluegrass because, over the past year or so, I've become aware of a lot of such paradoxes and surprises. That's what good histories are always for — "the past" always turns out to be nothing like the way our presumptions lead us to believe.

For example, I've recently realized how important the Folk Revival of the 1950's and 60's was to the survival of bluegrass. The first-ever bluegrass LP was released in 1957 by Folkways Records. It was recorded and compiled by Folk Revival future-heavyweight Mike Seeger, and its liner notes mark the first use in print of the word "bluegrass" to refer to a genre of music.

The author of these liner notes, Ralph Rinzler, would eventually found the Smithsonian's annual Festival of American Folklife in Washington D.C. — but first, he helped revive Bill Monroe's stalled career by becoming his manager. Some of Monroe's new band members were soon to be Northern "citybillies" who first encountered bluegrass in Greenwich Village coffee shops or at folk music concerts on college campuses.

This surprises me, both comin' and goin'. On the one hand, today's officianados of "Old Time" music think of Mike Seeger and his New Lost City Ramblers as champions of authentic folk alternatives to post-WWII commercial inventions like rock n' roll and bluegrass. It is definitely not widely known in the Old Time community that Seeger, Rinzler, and Alan Lomax helped rescue bluegrass from obscurity (if not oblivion) by forcefully asserting its legitimacy as an authentic American folk genre.

On the other hand, it's surprising coming from the other direction, too. An acquaintance from West Virginia once expressed suspicion about the fact that I, a Chicago native, have an intense interest in "her" music. From what I gathered, she might have been surprised to learn that Monroe's invention only dates from the mid-1940's, and that its commercial prospects nearly died a decade after they were born. Not only the finances, but the very values and identity of bluegrass were shaped by us Northern revivalists. Rosenberg writes:

Until the mid-fifties the acoustic aspect of bluegrass was not unique within country music, and in that sense the use of acoustic instruments in bluegrass is a historical accident. But because it was performed on such instruments, particularly the antique five-string banjo, it was virtually the only form of contemporary country music acceptable to the folk boom of the late fifties and early sixties, where electric instruments were considered inauthentic and symbols of the alienation of mass culture. Through the folk boom bluegrass gained new audiences and recognition as a distinct musical form [that is, became thought of as "bluegrass"]. Today the insistence upon acoustic instruments has become a philosophical position.
By the way; thinking about bluegrass and the folk revival, it's interesting that other branches of country music in the post-War years dealt directly with social problems facing southern expatriate "urban hillbillies," such as adultery, divorce, depression, and alcoholism. But bluegrass chose to deal with these same pressures by evoking feelings of an alternative — and idealized — place and time. Rosenberg:
Because the content of the bluegrass repertoire is so often clearly symbolic (rather than directly oriented toward current concerns), it is more accessible to people from very different cultural milieux who relate to the music as an art form, enjoying it as many enjoy opera sung in languages they do not comprehend.
I may report more about these and other matters as I get further into "Bluegrass: A History".


Rob Hutten

Rosenberg's book is a great read... enjoy it.

Michael Wishart

I can relate to that, having fallen foul to the bluegrass police here in Australia for playing songs deemed not to be strictly bluegrass. Also, apparently you need a 'high lonesome' American accent to sing bluegrass!

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