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Bluegrass Educates with Sound of Music

By Matthew H. Coogan, Crimson Staff Writer

As jazz was a generation ago, American folk music is beginning—too late, as many enthusiasts insist—to be embraced and studied by the academic world. In that vein, “Fire on the Mountain”—a day-long symposium featuring world-renowned scholars and performers, including Grammy-awarding winning composer and banjo player Alison H. Brown ’84—aims to explore the roots, methods, and culture of bluegrass this Saturday in the Barker Center.

The symposium will open with remarks from E. Forrest O’Connor ’10, president of the Harvard College American Music Association (HCAMA), and Deborah Foster, a Folklore and Mythology senior lecturer who helped adapt the department’s annual symposium to feature bluegrass music. Brown and her husband Garry West, co-founders of Compass Records—a record label that specializes in part in bluegrass music—will join scholars to discuss the roots of the genre. The day will culminate with an evening performance by Clint W. Miller ’11, Brown, legendary bluegrass fiddler Bobby Hicks, and mandolinist Sam Bush—who is credited with the invention of the “Newgrass” style.

The annual symposium organized by the Folklore and Mythology department, now in its sixth year, aims to integrate artistic production and intellectual inquiry in the field of folklore, according to Foster.

“Although this event follows the model of the past [Folklore and Mythology] events, it goes even further in its attempt to integrate the making of the music, including the construction of the instruments, and the scholarship that has investigated not only the musical form itself, but also its place in American social and cultural life,” Foster wrote in an e-mail.

Matt Glaser, Artistic Director of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College and the keynote speaker of the symposium, stresses the legitimacy of bluegrass music in an arena of serious intellectual discourse. “I’ll play little clips of bluegrass to demonstrate the kind of Shakespearean depth that this music has,” he said. “Just because it’s often a bunch of guys with cowboy hats not saying many words doesn’t mean it’s not deep music worthy of study. In my opinion bluegrass music is one of the highest American art forms.”

O’Connor, who plays the mandolin, notes that bluegrass is one of the few subsets of American folk music that was largely pioneered by one person. Mandolin player Bill Monroe formed the Blue Grass Boys in 1939, and was later joined by banjoist Earl Scruggs and singer/guitarist Lester Flatt. Bluegrass, whose instrumentation includes guitar, banjo, mandolin, double bass, and fiddle, emerged as a kind of commercially disseminated folk music a decade later. It then began to permeate early rock music in unexpected ways: the offbeat mandolin chop characteristic of bluegrass music, for example, eventually evolved into the snare-drum offbeat in rock and roll.

“Although scholarly interest in bluegrass arose in the ’50s and ’60s, some folklorists called the folklore of bluegrass ‘fakelore’ because it was viewed as too commercial and too popular,” O’Connor says. “But until the late ’50s it was known largely as ‘hillbilly music’—in a sense, you can’t get more folky than that. It occupies its own funny segment of the music world.”

The concept of a bluegrass symposium at Harvard emerged years ago. Brown expressed interest in coming back to the college to perform after playing in a concert for President Drew Faust’s inauguration in 2007. O’Connor had dreamed of organizing an event of bluegrass music since he founded HCAMA with banjo player Clayton D. Miller ’10 that same year. “We built on jam sessions and thought we should try to represent the style of indigenous music on campus more,” O’Connor says.

Jack C. Megan, Director of the OFA, helped coordinate the effort and provided funding for the event. “We are always trying to support underrepresented art forms. We also recognize that there are a lot of brilliant people here, and sometimes one of the best things an office for the arts can do is not think it has all the ideas. So when a Forrest O’Connor shows up, we’d be crazy not to respond.”

Megan lauded the synergism of administrative, faculty, and student groups that contributed to making the event a reality. “It’s a model of productive collaboration among three distinct constituencies,” he says. “That kind of collaboration is rewarding on a personal and a professional level.”

While the lineup will likely draw many diehard bluegrass fans, O’Connor hopes that the event will educate newcomers about the genre. “If we can make five students think differently about music or really come to appreciate bluegrass, then we’ve achieved something big,” O’Connor says. “Hopefully the symposium will be more than that.”

—Staff writer Matthew H. Coogan can be reached at mcoogan@fas.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: February 2, 2010

An original version of the arts article "Bluegrass Educates with Sound of Music" called Sam Bush a bluegrass fiddler and Bobby Hicks a mandolinist. In fact, Hicks is the fiddler, and Bush the mandolinist.

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