Open letter to Bluegrasscountry.org
For about five years I am an ardent listener and fan of Bluegrass, mostly listening to the streaming of bluegrasscountry.org. About 25% of the music is from other genres, like Americana, Traditional European Folk, Blues and Zydeco, mostly sharing the same roots. Some of it not my taste but ok. The main thing is that the music is authentic, acoustic and primarily string instruments. Of course Americana is not acoustic but as it is mostly authentic this is as an exception no problem. Even then with 24/7 there is a lot of time to fill so occasional transgressions as well as intensive reuse of material is understandable. On the side: the last two years this reuse is mostly not explicitly stated and there seems to be no limit to use the same material more than once or twice in a short time (“I haven’t played that in a long time”). This gets irritating.
What really gets me is that over the years there is a tendency for more non-authentic material and more political correctness, which is not-authentic by definition. This political correctness also trickles down to the presentation. Please keep politics out!
Authenticity in this respect has to do with the “soul” of the composition, text and performance. For bluegrass the “soul” is the harsh reality of the “deplorable whites”, mostly male whites, in the Mid-Eastern part of the US. I will not exclude the possibility that some material was produced by or refers to deplorable black males, but they did blues and jazz, which was the other main inspiration for blue – grass. Of course the political correct will say this is cultural appropriation. To them: get a life.
The peculiar form of this authenticity is that it doesn’t swell in self-pity or “self-complaint” (in Dutch these are two words that translate both to self-pity) but keeps a realist stance, distance, at the same time transferring the feelings of sorrow, injustice bad luck, anger. In a strange way this applies to the important gospel-side of bluegrass as well where there is joyful singing on death, graves and meeting persons in heaven. Another part of this authenticity is the personal phrasing, touch in the performance.
Most of the circumstances that produced this authenticity are not there anymore, especially not for the newer generations of musicians who more and more have a middleclass background and often have some academic-degree musical schooling. The only way is to play original material as a true artist, trying to recreate this authenticity. In the “old-time” school of playing this is mostly achieved.
The creation of new material from a middleclass position is very difficult and it takes the genius of someone like Bob Dylan to do so, although he used lots of old material. He makes no secret of that. Most of the musicians don’t have that genius. When they take their own present middle class life as a source they fail miserably, they simply do not have enough personal experience of the kind of sorrow, injustice and bad luck that the old ones had. So their songs are full of selfcomplaint and selfpity. Another even worse way out is to take bluegrass itself or one of the old heroes of bluegrass as subject of a song. It’s no surprise that their performance has lost any soul and is sterile and middle of the road. This already started with groups like the Seldom Scene.