The Ancient Spirit of Bluegrass Music
From the Summer 2017 Issue
Spring, 1941; Kannapolis, North Carolina. Walking home from his first-shift work as a doffer at Cannon Mills, a man spies his daughter and son, just out of school, merging onto the sidewalk a few blocks ahead. He runs up and catches them in his arms. “Hey, race you’uns home!”
At the house, they sit on their front porch enjoying the warm breeze and the blossoms. He sits with a cup of coffee and his cigarettes, his feet propped against the railing. The front room window is opened, the radio tuned to WBT in Charlotte. Directly, the strains of “Mule Skinner Blues” by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys crackles over the speakers. The kids jump up and stamp out the beat, shaking the boards beneath the man’s chair. He chuckles.
Good mooooooornin’ Captain!
Good mornin’, shine
Do you need another mule skinner out on your new road line?
Yo de lay he he...
As the song fades out the daughter asks, “Hey, daddy. What’s a mule skinner?”
AFTER the American Civil War, swaths of Southern culture found themselves displaced. Free-ranging no longer existed; land was confiscated and sold, self-sustaining mid-sized family farms were fewer-and-farther-between. Two options presented themselves: the burgeoning textile industry, and sharecropping. Either way, middling and poor blacks and whites were brought together, unsegregated to a degree unknown before the war and after the turn of the century. As they lived and worked in proximity, features of their cultures began to merge: the emotional intensity of revivalist Christianity; the phenomenon of fried okra, with cornbread a substitute for flour biscuits; and a musical rhetoric where the string band tradition of Appalachia cross-pollinated with the blues of the Deep South. It would take time and genius to fuse these styles into a new genre.
Eventually, the white supremacy movement, claiming legitimacy from a growing interest in eugenics, would bring Jim Crow and with it a wedge between whites and blacks. But the cross-hybridization had already taken root.
When World War II erupted, tens of thousands of Southerners, black and white, streamed into manufacturing jobs to support the effort. My own grandfather left his farm to the care of my grandmother and their daughters, and caught a bus for work at the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) in Maryville, TN, making sheet metal for bombers. To sustain such a massive undertaking the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed up rivers in the Great Smoky Mountains, displacing more of my ancestors (their homesteads lie beneath Fontana Lake). These dislocations put a different cadence in these deeply rooted people. The pace and noise of the factories were exhilarating and disorienting.
This was the environment in which bluegrass music sprang up.
While Charlie Parker was catching the frenetic vibe of urban life in New York City and making bebop, Bill Monroe (pictured at right) was harnessing the tools at hand: old-time string band music and the blues he learned from a black neighbor, Arnold Shultz, weaving together the hard-driving version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues” that would give birth to bluegrass.
What drove that first bluegrass number was the guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. A banjo wouldn’t appear in Munroe’s Blue Grass Boys line-up until later. The breakneck pace of the new South came first. The actual sound would be captured when a young textile worker from Boiling Springs, NC named Earl Scruggs borrowed a three-fingered picking technique from DeWitt “Snuffy” Jenkins, adding a complex and innovative forward and backward roll. Unlike the forms, Earl Sruggs’ technique evoked the brassy, syncopated clank and whirl of the spinning machines inside the mill.
Scruggs’ genius came at a price. It knocked Monroe’s first banjo player, David “Stringbean” Akeman, out of a job. Akeman was an exemplar of the older, traditional African American style of playing known as “clawhammer,” in which the strings are pounded by the nail of the index and middle finger while the thumb intermittently plucks the 5th string (the “drone” string). On tracks like “Run Li’l Rabbit” Akeman demonstrated that clawhammer style could certainly keep pace with bluegrass. But to Monroe’s ears it was no match for the sparks of the spinning arpeggios flicking from Scruggs metal finger picks.
But the stories bluegrass songs told weren’t about the mills. They instead chronicle heroic (and anti-heroic) tales of mining disasters, murders of untrue lovers, wayfaring strangers, train wrecks, crop failures, and loyal hunting dogs. Bluegrass didn’t romanticize the old world so much as remember it, passing its identity, place, and pride to a people exiled and disoriented in the modern world. The songs chronicle a fortitude of remembrance the Southern Agrarians and Fugitive poets feared would be lost in the soulless regimentation of the eight to five factory day. But these social commentators underestimated the determination of these people to keep myth alive and powerful. After all, two centuries before the Civil War their ancestors, the wayfarers and free-rangers, had carried the old sea shanties and ballads of the British Isles through the Cumberland Gap.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you…
Yet among people for whom “the past is never dead” it was inevitable that the clawhammer couldn’t be held down forever. While bluegrass music evolved along many lines—newgrass, progressive grass, jam grass—the Stanley Brothers of Dickenson County, VA would leave the most indelible mark on the genre, steering the music back to both its Appalachian and gospel roots as well as the African American clawhammer style. They revived the call-and-response vocal style of the Old Regular Baptists.
In so doing, they committed heresy against Monroe’s orthodoxy, slowing the pace of the music down, but the smell of clay soil and burley tobacco barns began to return, and in 1998 Ralph Stanley gave the world a musical gift with Songs My Mother Taught Me & More, a recording of twenty-four traditional songs fusing bluegrass with clawhammer banjo. The album includes an interview with Stanley in which he explains how his mother infused his soul with the words and sounds of a people belonging to a land filled with bounty and terrors, all under an ever-present and just God.
Thanks to Stanley and the accessibility of his style (as well as the popularity of O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coen Brothers’ Depression-era parody of The Odyssey) more people across the globe have taken up banjo playing in the first decade of the twenty-first-century than at any other time. One has to wonder, though, what these people hear and feel and see as they listen to all of these new Bluegrass musicians. Is it the speed and dexterity of the players? An appreciation for sounds that seem as exotic as African and Mediterranean music? Or might bluegrass lead us to ask similar questions about our past and how we once lived—like that girl on the porch in Kannapolis, NC?
So what’s a mule skinner? Well, a mule skinner, you, see, is a driver so handy with a whip he can knock a horsefly off a mule’s ear without the animal feeling it. Or, as the young would-be mule skinner of the song claims,
I can pop my initials right on that mule’s behi-hind
Yo de lay he heeeeeee . . .