I think I’m safe in saying that nearly everyone listens to music and among those who do, most enjoy music with lyrics as much as they do the pure sounds of an instrumental piece. As a writer I enjoy a good yarn, whether in the form of a poem, short story, or novel. Music is prevalent in every culture throughout the world. For example, in Turkish, the verb to sing – şarkı söylemek translates into English as: tell song or sing say. Not long ago I adopted the practice of listening to Bluegrass music. I dabbled in learning to play the banjo in my younger years, but it didn’t stick…until a few years ago.
What drew me to Bluegrass was deeper than my desire to develop Skruggs style picking skills on my banjo. In fact, I’d spent quite a bit of time listening to the Bluegrass genre back in the ’80s and ’90s, when most guys my age were drawn to “rock und roll” or “pop” (among my crowd, punk only lasted a couple of years in the early ’80s). I listened to Bluegrass “in the closet” since any suburban kid from the San Francisco Bay Area wouldn’t want to have been found out to be stereo typed as a red neck (by the way, folks who enjoy Bluegrass music are not rednecks).
I discovered a few interesting revelations on my tumultuous musical journey that eventually coincided with my living in Portland Oregon where Bluegrass is Cool and Banjo pickers aren’t shunned (at least not in public). Like a bolt of lighting, I realized that there are stories in this genre of music that offer a history that came from the people who played and shared the music they brought to the United States. They were working class people with a dream. They had very little, worked hard and played hard. How do I know? Because the history is in the lyrics of the songs and when the singing stops, the music continues. The energy of letting loose can be enjoyed by watching and listening to fiddle tunes, jigs and reels.
Ironically, this new revelation became abundantly clear a few years back when I attended a music camp in none other than an outlying region of the San Francisco Bay Area. Among a bunch of like minded amateur musicians, we were all blessed with an opportunity to rub shoulders and share sound with some of the worlds best Bluegrass musicians, who were there to offer instruction and perform during evening entertainment. The roster of participation is too extensive to go into here though (if you’re curious, see the following).
When I first heard flat picking guitarist, Ron Thompson play, I knew I was in for a treat. Ron’s an older gentleman from a family of farmers, born and raised in Appalachia. He speaks with a heavy drawl at a pace that is inexplicably slow given the speed he can pick licks out on a guitar or mandolin. Furthermore, when singing a classic Bluegrass song, his ability to enunciate every syllable at the pace of the fastest fiddler is remarkable. I asked a few of the other professional musicians about Ron. Most said they thought his demeanor and pattern of speech might just be that he likes playing the role of an Appalachian mountain man. It turned out, I couldn’t find anyone at the encampment that really knew this guy and it seemed most everyone was a bit shy about engaging him in conversation.
Fast forward to the last day of the encampment. A bunch of us mere mortal amateurs were jamming on a song called “Dark as a Dungeon”, which is a story about life in the mines of West Virginia. Ron happened to walk by while we were passing around lead breaks. When we were done, he complimented us on putting life into the music. Having been raised a suburban kid, I was sure the “life” of the music must have come from some of the others present. Other than having listened to the stories in the music, I had no familiarity with the life of a West Virginia coal miner. Anyway, Ron’s compliment was an intro to engage him in conversation.
I asked him where he was from and he told us he lived in Colorado. Given that there are enclaves of Bluegrass loving communities in Colorado, that made sense, but didn’t explain his accent, so I asked where he spent his boyhood. That is when the stories flooded out. Everyone wanted to hear from Ron about how he must have been picking guitar and mandolin since he was knee high, but that isn’t really his story. The one he ended up sharing was even more telling of a lifestyle so foreign to many of us.
Ron told us he never played until he left home at age 16. He said that his parents and others in the region where he grew up, worked 12 hour days six days/week. They were lucky if they owned one vehicle that wasn’t a tractor (it was usually a pickup truck that the family shared). Ron’s parents and those of his peers had only one outlet for relaxation and enjoyment and that was the music and the instruments that they inherited from their relatives. He told us that offspring were not allowed to touch any of the instruments unless it was for the purpose of tuning them when the adults were taking a break from playing (translated – sipping beer or whiskey between sets).
In the evenings at the end of the work week, everyone would convene at one of the neighbor’s homes – usually it would be who’s ever turn it was to host, or in the home of the standup bass player if anyone had a bass. The job of the youth was to make sure the instruments were tuned and stayed in tune when the adults stopped long enough to imbibe. Those of Ron’s age at the time respected the fact that the instruments they were entrusted with were family heirlooms, perhaps the only things of value anyone owned in those days. I asked Ron whether he and his friends ever actually played the instruments when they were finished with their chore of tuning them while the adults were still in the other room – he left that answer a mystery, winked, then turned and waved so long.
Reflecting on Ron’s story, the scene that ran through my mind upon hearing this, reminded me of another Bluegrass song about the mines called “Nine Pound Hammer”. Of course the lyrics are about life in the mines, but there is a verse that touches on a bit of regional history too. Not too long ago in various places across the country, there were dry states, dry counties, bootleggers and honest hard working people who just wanted to get a little brew without breaking the law. Each time I hear this music and listen to the lyrics, I learn a bit more about the heritage of the people that make up America.
The stories are in the music we love, whatever genre that may be.