Author: Campbell, Bruce

The Pioneers (and the Settlers)

When I was a younger (read: thinner) man, one of the hobbies I enjoyed was spelunking. If you don’t know the word already, spelunking is cave exploring as a hobby (as an avocation the same activity is speleology). I liked the tight spaces, the darkness, the chaotic beauty of caves. On one such expedition, to a privately owned wild cave in Sheep Ranch, the owner took us as far as he had ever gone in the cave.

“This is as far as I’ve gone in this cave. But you can see it goes further”, he said and he gestured into the gloom where several promising black holes beckoned. So I and my friends dove into those holes. Some of the holes went in further than we had time to explore, and as we wriggled into those “virgin leads”, I was thrilled at the prospect of going somewhere on Earth where no one have ever, ever gone before. In a way that just doesn’t present itself too often, I was a real pioneer.

Mark Varner’s recent column on Bill Clifton got me thinking about the nature of pioneers – in this case, pioneers of Bluegrass. My timid foray into an unexplored hole did not really mean I was a pioneer. Pioneers not only go where no one has gone before, they keep going, and going. And in doing so, benefit those who take the trails they have blazed.Pioneers are revered by folks, for their contributions their efforts make for those who follow. However, pioneers, in many cases, didn’t necessarily press those “virgin leads” for our benefit. Often they are driven by their own muses, their own obsessions. Bill Monroe didn’t invent a style of music to become famous or a legend – he was driven to express himself in his music. On the other hand, Bill Clifton seems to have been bent on not only blazing a trail, but leaving bread crumbs to help others follow the same trail. Together, their efforts continue to benefit the lives of thousands – millions? – of Bluegrass fans and musicians.

But we’re missing an important part of the gestalt here, I our hero worship. Just as important as the Lewis & Clarks of history, are those who followed. If Kit Carson accomplished nothing more than depleting the west of pelts, history would not treat him so kindly. Ain’t no point in blazing a trail if no one follows that trail and settles into a nice homestead.

So, yes, I sing the praises of the pioneers, for they showed us the way. But I also sing the praises of the settlers, just as heartily. For I AM a settler! I didn’t invent Bluegrass, and it’s unlikely my life of playing will have a lasting influence on the art form. But the combination of me, picking and singing the music for years and years, and so many others, picking and singing much longer than I – well, that’s what ultimately makes the longterm contributions to the music.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants, it’s true, but here we stand, and here we pick and grin, and we are the ones who will ensure the longevity of this art form. So, as this 2009 Bluegrass year unfolds and we pay tribute to the pioneers that gave legacy of the music, and the festivals, raise a cup of your favorite beverage to yourself. For you are the brave and mighty settlers, who defend the music and really make Bluegrass safe for your family and friends! Without you, the work of the pioneers is for naught!
Posted:  2/4/2009

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