Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Bluegrass Lesson #3

The Roots of Bluegrass Music

From 1916 to 1918 Cecil Sharp intensely combed the southern mountains, collecting and transcribing often intact versions of long-forgotten English ballads and songs. He was not disappointed in what he found. As he explained, “I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking.” When he finally returned to England, his collection was published as English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians. As such, it is one of the most complete works that documents the richness and variety of southern Appalachian songs and ballads. Sharp’s collection is a measure of the intense musical activity that went ton during this period and makes it clear why bluegrass so readily found its roots here.

When Cecil Sharp arrived in the southern mountains on his first collecting expedition in 1916, he virtually stepped into a bubbling cauldron of traditional musical activity. In his daily diary he noted, “The cult of singing traditional songs is far more alive than it is in England, or has been, for fifty years or more.” He soon realized that the Appalachian Mountains had been populated generations earlier by settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland, who had brought with them a wealth of both vocal and instrumental musical traditions. Due to the relative isolation of mountain communities and a determination to cling tightly to their shared musical legacy, these mountain people had preserved as precious the music, stories and speech from an earlier time.

Sharp discovered that it was mainly the women who were the carriers of the strong vocal traditions. Often barred by local custom from playing raucous instruments like the banjo or the fiddle, most women preferred to sing. More often than not, they sang the old English and Scottish ballads that had been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. These ballads were seldom, if ever, written down, and even the longest ballads of twenty or more verses were indelibly etched in the minds of countless mountain women by the sheer force of having sung them so many times. In this way, the ballads were carefully preserved by a culture that was bent on keeping intact the traditions of their ancestors.

For mountain people who actively carried on the vocal traditions, singing was not something they did just on a Saturday night for entertaining family and friends. Instead, it seemed like mountain women were constantly singing as they went about their daily chores. They found that by singing, their children always knew where to find them, whether in the garden, woodshed or in the kitchen. Menfolk often sang while doing odd chores, and one mountain man claimed that unless he was singing, his mule wouldn’t pull the plow! Growing up with this level of musical activity around them, it’s no wonder that so many mountain musicians can legitimately claim they were born, raised, and bred on traditional music their entire lives.

Wonderful music lesson on Bluegrass music, Ava!!
Thank you, North!
From the Canon in D to Appalachia. A woman after my own heart.

How did you get 23 posts up while my back was turned. I'm reading them all but probably will combine comments.

Love the kissy horses.
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