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Bluegrass Music: A History

Bluegrass music is enjoyed by millions of fans across the nation, and even the world. Its origins are much more humble than that, and extend further into the past than most realize. Some sources state that the influences for bluegrass extend as far back as the immigrations of the 1600's - before our nation even existed as an independent country. The music of Irish, Scottish, and British settlers and colonists, and later, African American gospel and blues, all played key roles in the creation of the unique sound that is bluegrass music. In fact, the banjo is based on the design of an African instrument, probably brought to American musicians by African slaves (Roots 1). Other influences include jazz (Bluegrass 1) and rag-time (Bluegrass 5).

Bluegrass began as European settlers began to move away from established colonies and out into the country and mountains. These settlers started writing music that described daily life, which became known as country or mountain music (Roots 2). Bluegrass as a definitive sound of its own didn't fully develop until after WWII, however (Bluegrass 5). In 1939, Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys played on the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, first establishing the national audience for the sound (Roots 5). It was after WWII in the mid-1940's, though, when war-time rationing ended, that radio could finally bring the unique sound nationwide to private homes (Bluegrass 5). Bluegrass music gets its name from Monroe's band, which he named for his home state of Kentucky, the Blue Grass State (Bluegrass 4).

Bluegrass's notable sound is characterized by a number of specific traits, such as its focus on vocals (Roots 3). The vocals take precedence over the instrumental accompaniment, some songs even performed without any instrumental accompaniment at all (Bluegrass 3). The vocals are exemplified by two, three, and even four-part harmonies, with a "high lonesome" lead voice as the focal point (Roots 5). This lead voice is also distinctive for its dissonance with the other harmonies, distinguishing bluegrass from other music styles (Roots 4). The harmonies of the other vocals draw upon the influences of gospel music, string bands, work songs and shouts of black workers, country music, and blues music (Roots 5).

Another important feature of this style is the use of acoustic instruments over electric ones (Ruehl 1), which often include the mandolin , fiddle, guitar, banjo, and bass guitar (Bluegrass 3). In addition to these traditional instruments, bluegrass music can also be recognized by the style of playing - three finger plucking style (Scruggs style) on the banjo (Roots 6) and flatpicking on the guitar (Bluegrass 2). Similarly, bluegrass music features improvising by each instrument, each of which also takes a turn in playing the melody, much like jazz (Bluegrass 1). Finally, aside from the traditional instruments, the Dobro, accordion, harmonica, piano, autoharp, drums, and drum kit, may also be used. More progressive bands may include electric instruments, instead of the preferred acoustic instruments, as well (Bluegrass 3).

As with any art from, bluegrass music has developed since its origins in the 1940's. Originally, bluegrass music was a style that accompanied a type of dancing known as buckdancing, flat-footing, or clogging, and the hallmark acoustic instruments are a result of the unavailability of household electricity (Bluegrass 7). The major differentiation between bluegrass and folk music is that bluegrass was formed and developed by professionals, although bluegrass takes many of its themes from folk music (Bluegrass 8). For instance, many of the songs focus on religious or sentimental themes (Bluegrass 4).

From 1948 to 1969, bluegrass music was introduced to the American public through TV and live performances at schools and universities. Its use in popular media, such as the film Bonnie and Clyde, gave the style a kind of popularity it otherwise might not have attained (Roots 8). Other media influences include The Beverly Hillbillies, Deliverance, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Roots 11); this newfound popularity may have led to its garnering of new and younger audiences, including its being played by rock bands (Ruehl 7).

The genre finally became commonly known as bluegrass in the 1950's, with Bill Monroe as the genre's accredited father (Roots 9). The 1960's saw continued growth of this movement, with bluegrass festivals, including the first full weekend festival in 1965 run by Carlton Haney (Roots 10). The 1980's saw a renewed interest and progressive development in the genre. Technological advances allowed each member to be miked for a clearer sound. Similarly, the electric bass became accepted as a common instrument, and nontraditional chord progressions were also accepted. Finally, to solidify this new style's popularity among fans, traditional bluegrass songs were performed with these progressive developments (Bluegrass 11).

Bluegrass has continued to develop, even evolving into specific categories, such as traditional, which focuses on retaining the original acoustic sound and folk songs (Bluegrass 14). Progressive or newgrass is another tradition, heavily influenced by rock 'n roll with electric instruments and lengthy improvised rifts performed by individual instruments. Also known as jamgrass, this movement began in the 1960's and 1970's (Bluegrass 15). Another sub-genre is gospel, which focuses on Christian faith and theology and features three or four part harmonies with subdued instrumentation (Bluegrass 16). Lastly, there is neo-traditional, a category that features bands headed by a solo artist. Neo-traditional bluegrass originated in the 1990's (Bluegrass 17).

With such a vibrant history, it is no wonder that bluegrass music is such a beloved genre today. Many amateur musicians find this genre appealing, and practice on a variety instruments, from the banjo to the autoharp. These musicians need more than just instruments; they need reliable supplies and parts. For instance, the Oscar Schmidt autoharp, also known as a chromoharp, is recognized as a leader in the industry. Accessories like banjo strings, autoharp strings, guitar picks, autoharp tuners, accordion music, and even autoharp music, are all integral to the amateur artist.

Sources:

"Bluegrass Music." 13 Jan. 2009. Wikipedia. 17 Jan. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluegrass_music

"Bluegrass Music: The Roots." International Bluegrass Music Association. 17 Jan. 2009 http://www.ibma.org/about.bluegrass/history/index.asp

Ruehl, Kim. "Bluegrass Music from Foggy Mountain Boys to Nickle Creek." About.com: Folk Music. 17 Jan. 2009 http://folkmusic.about.com/od/historyoffolk/a/Blugrass_Histor.htm

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