( The author is Festival Director of the North Carolina Blue Grass Music Festival, and founder of the Boston Area Friends of Blue Grass and Old Time Music. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys will appear in concert with the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover at 8:30 p.m., March 21, in Sanders Theatre. Tickets are available at the Coop and WHRB. )
ONE of the most vital and exciting styles in music today is something called Blue Grass Music. By a combination of misunderstandings, a lack of widespread exposure, and the uncompromising self-respect of its major proponents who have down through the years refused to be treated as commercial properties, very few people are aware (1) that the style exists, or (2) if they were, that it is still alive. This is a pity, because a healthy art form is a precious commodity in the United States today.
Describing Blue Grass Music to someone who has never heard it is all but impossible; there are a few essentials that can be pointed out. Blue Grass, although highly original, grew out of, and is a form of, American Country Music which in turn (although less so than when Blue Grass was first created) is a descendant of the traditional music brought by early settlers from England and preserved in the southern mountains. Blue Grass Music bears, both in spirit and complexity, about the same relationship to modern country music as jazz has to Tin Pan Alley pop music. It was originated 30 years ago by one man, Bill Monroe. The story of Blue Grass Music is the story of its creator.
Bill Monroe was born in Rosine, Kentucky, September 13 (he often referred to himself as "Lucky from Kentucky"), 1911. Bill learned to play instruments from his uncle, Pen Vanderver, immortalized in the tune "Uncle Pen." Bill recalls that as the youngest member of a musical family, his choice of instruments was limited. Oldest brother, Birch, played the most coveted and to Bill always the most important instrument, the fiddle. Next in line, Charlie chose guitar. Bill, coming along last, chose the mandolin, a virtually unknown instrument in recorded country music at that time. Not content to borrow styles from other musicians, Bill created a unique way of playing the mandolin, incorporating chords which could be used for rhythm when the mandolin was not being played as a lead instrument. Bill Monroe's hallmark through the years has been continuous innovation in the style in which he plays his chosen instrument.
Radio performances in 1930 and play-dates at schools, house parties and other community functions followed. Bill attributes his phenomenal sense of timing to playing long hours for dancers. He was 22 when he determined to make a living out of his music. Bill played during the 30's with his brothers, Charlie and Birch, as the Monroe Brothers, one of the most popular and influential recording groups in the early period of commercial country music. The Monroe Brothers drew heavily on traditional material, sentimental ballads, and gospel songs for their repertoire.
Already Bill's virtuoso mandolin style was being noticed. It wasn't long before the brothers decided to go their separate ways, Charlie and Bill starting their own groups, the Kentucky Pardners and the Blue Grass Boys, respectively. From Bill's desire to honor his home state originated the name that gradually became associated with the music played by a number of groups which resemble Bill Monroe's in instrumentation and style.
Starting out to make his own music, Bill Monroe worked hard to create an individual and highly developed style. From the music made by an uncle who played the fiddle, from church singers Bill had heard all his life in the Holiness Sect, and from an old Negro man who had lived nearby and played blues style guitar, Bill drew sounds and techniques he liked, adding ideas of his own. Bill's contributions were a highly personal sense of timing and a desire to pitch both singing and music in higher keys than were prevalent at the time, giving his music a particularly intense quality. In the faster tunes of Blue Grass Music the upbeat is stressed rather than the usual 4/4 downbeat. The effect this creates is to free the music from an otherwise plodding structure, allowing amazing effects of syncopation between the instruments. Bill Monroe served as a master blender of musical styles and influences, making his music a new and thrilling experience while drawing on hundreds of years of tradition. It is this quality of Blue Grass Music that makes it at the same time a commercially popular form and a true, living style of folk music.
The first Blue Grass recording was made in 1940, the successful "Mule-skinner Blues," a tune authored by another pioneer of early country music, Jimmy Rodgers, the "Singing Brakeman." In these early days, Bill Monroe's band contained mandolin, guitar, fiddle and string bass, the last of these being the only instrument not found in traditional country music. In 1945 the Blue Grass band took the form in which it remains today, with the addition of a five-string banjo, played by Earl Scruggs in the now universal three-finger style. which bears little resemblance to the earlier "claw hammer" style.
Blue Grass music features high and unusual vocal harmonies. Breaks between verses and strictly instrumental numbers show off the extreme virtuosity employed on fiddle, mandolin, and banjo: the playing incorporates, like jazz, a great deal of improvisation within set patterns. Lead work is supported by the rhythmic foundation of guitar and string bass. Musicians in the field are known for the astounding sophistication of their techniques; most do not read music and have received no formal instruction on their instruments.
OVER the years, nearly every musician who has apprenticed with Bill Monroe has gone on to make a name for himself in the Blue Grass field. A partial list includes Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Mac Wiseman, Carter Stanley, Benny Martin, Sonny Osborne, Jimmy Martin. Clyde Moody, Jim Eanes, Gordon Terry. Stringbean and Chubby Wise. Shortly after Bill Monroe's music began to be heard other musicians saw the possibilities the music had and borrowed from it. The Stanley Brothers were the first group to do this, followed by Flatt and Scruggs and Reno and Smiley. Soon there were countless bands, both professional and amateur, playing music drawing from that created by Bill Monroe. Gradually the music became known as Blue Grass music, after Monroe's band name. In the South and Midwest today, there are few villages and towns without an amateur Blue Grass band. Since the folk boom propelled Flatt and Scruggs to fame (one of the first bands to take up the style), college students and people in other parts of the country have heard and learned to love Blue Grass music.
In October of 1939 Bill Monroe became a permanent member of the world-famous "Grand Ole Opry." For eleven years the Blue Grass Boys never missed a Saturday night and Bill Monroe has been one of the most popular acts ever presented. The governor of Kentucky designated October 18th of this year "Bill Monroe Day," coinciding with the DJ Convention in Nashville, Tennessee. Although Bill plays on shows with Nashville musicians. Blue Grass has been recognized increasingly in its own right. Presently about twenty Blue Grass Festivals are held each summer in different parts of the country. The largest of these, the Annual Labor Day Weekend Festival, held in North Carolina, features some thirty of the biggest name bands and last summer drew upwards of 15.000 people.
Bill Monroes adherents say that the real Blue Grass music has never been learned from anyone other than Bill Monroe. People who play with him can present the right sound, but they have to approach the music as Bill does. Some go so far as to claim that a musician's ability to play Blue Grass can be measured by the number of years he has been away from Bill Monroe. It would be a little easier for others to imitate his music if they had his famous Gibson P-5 mandolin; Bill bought it 25 years ago from a barber shop in Miami for $125. He has been offered $20,000 for it, but it will stay with him. There are few if any at all which can match it for clarity and volume-"It makes the sound I want to play," says Bill.
Traveling some 50,000 miles a year in a converted Greyhound bus, Bill Monroe has hardly missed a small town or hamlet in the South, as well as having sung in most of the major cities of the United States and Canada. He has appeared at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. Boston's Jordan Hall, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and at most of the nation's major folk festivals. In addition, the Blue Grass Boys have appeared at numerous colleges and universities across the country. Recently Bill has even made appearances overseas. An exclusive Decca recording artist, Bill Monroe can be heard on thirteen L.P.'s on that label, as well as on recently re-issued old masters on Columbia and R.C.A. Victor.
Now 58. Bill Monroe has always been grimly proud, and has relied on his music rather than words to communicate his feelings. He succinctly describes how he views the music: "Blue Grass music has advanced each year with things I've felt and learned. I've held back and saved things to use and the music keeps evolving. The sound is the thing. Any melody to play would be what I want to hear and say-a message, or to put myself into it. One could have sadness and another love or happiness: and all are told in music, and you have to find it. Blue Grass expresses the player's feelings."
Blue Grass songs span the gamut of human emotion. From the melancholy love ballads so beloved in American popular music, Blue Grass stretches to deal with love from home and family; the life of the soil: the chronicling of great events in ballad form (e.g., "White House Blues," a song about the death of McKinley); the perils of such diverse occupations as truck driving, horse racing, railroading, mining, soldiering, and crime of all types; loneliness; the joy and humor of living and the pathos that goes along with it. The range of expression in Bill Monroe's songs and music is a reflection of his living life to its extremes. An especially important category of Blue Grass is that of sacred material. In an age swiftly retreating from organized religion. the starkly individual faith portrayed in Blue Grass Gospel Songs can be moving indeed. Perhaps over and above the material, however, it is the sincerity of presentation that is such a refreshing and striking characteristic of Blue Grass music.
First-time listeners are amazed at the range and depth of feeling evoked by the heavily Blues-oriented fiddling, which shares with the vocals the real core of the music. Playing fiddle with the Blue Grass Boys of today is Kenny Baker, like Bill a native of Kentucky and a former coal miner, whose musical soul is so in harmony with that of Monroe that the two maintain an almost unbearable spiritual communication on stage. Also featured with the group are Bill's son, James, on guitar, and Rual Yarbrough from Alabama, on banjo. One can listen hard and still hear only a fraction of the genius in Bill Monroe's music. "You don't know what it is, though, until you play it," as one ex-Blue Grass Boy put it-"it is natural music."