Just barely managed to sit through twenty minutes of a “documentary” on Bluegrass music. some observations:

The “Documentary” in question is called something like “Bluegrass country soul”, and involves (poorly-edited) footage taken at Carlton Haney’s 7th Bluegrass festival, sometime in the 1970s.

The things that stuck out most about the documentary (and the “scene” which it purports to be documenting), are as follows:

  1. OVERWHELMINGLY “WHITE” crowd.  There is some off-hand mention of occasional attendees from Japan, but the whole “scene” appeared to consist near-exclusively of WHITE Appalachian-types, and wannabe-Appalachian types.  Some vaguely hippie-ish “longhairs” in the crowd and as performers, but….the whole thing was weirdly (and rather tragically) segregated.

2. NO discernible “evolution” since whenever this documentary was filmed.  Bluegrass festivals (and “jam sessions”) tend to be exactly the same – at least they did as late as 2013, when I had my most recent opportunity to brush up against that particular genre-based “scene”.

You see exactly the same demographic/subcultural mix: hell, probably mostly the same people.  The “scene” is utterly stagnant and repetitive to the point where once you’ve gone to one such festival, you’ve essentially vicariously attended all of them.

This isn’t about some ersatz “tradition” dating from the 1940s.  This is about an increasingly-marginal (and never particularly “relevant”) music genre which has spent over fifty years dedicated to NOT evolving.

See, here’s the thing:  this isn’t about (for example) the “Great American Songbook”, or “Jazz Standards”, or whatever;  many music genres/subcultures develop a more or less coherent set of subcultural “shibboleths” – aesthetic/structural attributes which permit the most ignorant/least discerning elements of the “fan-base” to make snap-judgments about the (supposed) “authenticity’ of any given example.

That’s pathological in a different way, but that at least allows for a significant amount of exploration/syncretism/creativity (even if you do have to waste time and effort on fruitless debates over whether or not such “fusions”/derivative genres are “authentic”, or not.)

The situation with Bluegrass is weirdly different, in that even the most “exploratory” or “progressive” elements of the genre never substantively deviated from the defined aesthetic “palette”  set down by the “canonical” groups in the 1940s and ’50s:

“Fiddle”, guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, “Dobro”.

Even the most “progressive” individuals/groups seldom (if ever) deviated from the above formula, OR from the (increasingly stagnant and self-parodyling) palette of imagery related to Appalachian stereotypes.

Weirdly enough, the ersatz “HIllbillies” involved in the “Bluegrass” scene never seemed to do anything to actually help appalachia develop.

Why is this, do you think?  Could it have something to do with the fact that they had either managed to escape from the grinding stagnation/poverty/degradation of “the holler”?

I submit that the “Bluegrass” music scene was to Appalachia what “hip-hop culture”/basketball is to the urban “Minority” subcultures: a way for *some* to escape the specific “ghetto” into which they were unlucky enough to have been born:

Because make no mistake:  Applachia is definitely a ghetto, in many respects:


Quite frankly Appalachia is irremediably fucked:

There is here a strain of fervid and sometimes apocalyptic Christianity, and visions of the Rapture must have a certain appeal for people who already have been left behind. Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades. As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain.

There’s the tragedy, right there: the “vibrant folk-culture” of the region has been relentlessly exploited and milked by everyone from Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax and other “musicologists”, and used as a means to GTFO by such folks as Bill Monroe and Jean Ritchie – while the region itself has either been ignored or ridiculed.

To the extent  that there was ever anything resembling an “economy” in that region, it consisted primarily of resource extraction (most notably, coal-mining).    Now, the region is both “played out” in terms of mining (hence the mountaintop-removal thing) and no longer nearly as economically “necessary”  (due to coal mining in other regions of the world, and other fuel sources – fracking, “renewables”, etc.)

At any rate: the “vibrant folk culture” milked by Lomax and others has now become essentially an affectation for the (comparatively) well-off in other regions.  Appalachia itself?  Not so much:

THERE ARE LOTS of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants. Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007.

No amount of “bluegrass festivals” or “quilting bees” is ever going to solve those problems – Bean Blossom notwithstanding.



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