Author: Daniel, Bert

It All Sounds the Same to Me
Bluegrass, Old Time and Gospel music is not universally appreciated around our house. I’ve admitted this deep dark secret before on the welcome column. So far I haven’t been asked to turn in my CBA membership card, so I’ll elaborate. In our family the great musical divide is pretty much along gender lines. My son Ethan and I listen to our favorite music and go to as many Bluegrass festivals as we can every year. Meanwhile, the gals tend to complain if Ethan and I leave the CD player on for a few seconds after they walk through the door, like it’s going to pollute their delicate ears or something.

My pre-teen daughter is more tolerant than her mom. Juliet will actually go along with Ethan and me to the odd Bluegrass festival, but it’s more for the social aspects and fun of camping than the music. My darling wife Joyce is the most anti-Bluegrass member of the family by far. I think she was disappointed when, at age 6, Ethan fired his classical violin teacher and took up the fiddle so he could have some fun. When Joyce starts extolling the virtues of “classical training”, I sometimes find myself in the position of having to defend the virtuosity of a Michael Cleveland as compared to the likes of a Joshua Bell. It’s a difficult proposition. Maybe Michael would have a hard time with some of the show piece concertos that Josh Bell handles with seeming ease, but on the other hand I don’t think Josh could just pick up his Stradivarius and rip into Orange Blossom special with quite the same verve as our Bluegrass standard bearer either. (It sure would be fun to hear them both try though!)

Joyce took up the violin for a bit. I think she wanted to inspire Ethan to keep playing classically. After a while she gave up. Right before she retired her violin, she played around with some of Ethan’s fiddle tunes, and actually sounded pretty good. I hoped against hope that she would catch the Bluegrass bug. Maybe I could have a soul-mate and jam-mate all in one! But it was not to be. My music is just too low brow for my beloved. She’ll never “descend” to my level it seems. It’s not all bad though. I love classical music and Joyce learned the piano as a child and still plays beautifully. She’s a lot better at music than I’ll ever be, so I respect her opinion, even though I don’t agree when it comes to my music.

One consistent complaint Joyce has about the music is that it sounds like it’s being “sung by uneducated people with bad teeth”. I suppose this especially galls her because she’s an orthodontist by profession. But it’s more than that. She doesn’t like southern accents either! She thinks they make the speaker sound uneducated. I know from experience that many people feel the same way. I was born and raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and when I went away to college in the northeast, I noticed how people talked down to me once they heard my southern accent. At one time, I tried to modify my accent in order to sound more intelligent, but as a fellow southerner once told me: “Once you learn to speak English correctly, you never forget”. With my accent, I’m really lucky Joyce agreed to marry me. Fortunately, according to her, my accent “isn’t that bad”. But when my brother calls from South Carolina, she has to hand me the phone because she has so much trouble understanding his drawl. Honestly, I can understand her parents better, and they were born in China!

But the southern tongue is music in itself to my ears. Years ago, when I’d fly home from college after months of hearing nothing but northern accents, if the PA announcer on the flight happened to have a southern accent, I’d feel like I was back home even before my plane left the gate. Recently, I was amused by the syllabus for singing classes at this year’s music camp in Grass Valley. One of the topics was whether or not to sing with a southern accent. A very legitimate subject if you ask me but you should have seen the smirk on Joyce’s face when I showed her that one.

Another complaint Joyce has about the music is that it’s too repetitive. “It all sounds the same to me,” she says. And come to think of it, she’s got a good point there. Many of our songs have the same one, four, five chord structure. And when Clarence Ashley or Clint Walker sings: “Somebody stole my old coon dog; Wish they’d bring him back,” isn’t he simply singing Sugar Hill with different words? There may be thousands of instrumental tunes in all sorts of different keys and modes, but lots of them do sound the same. Part of the reason is the countless variations put into standard tunes over the years by the musicians who hand them down. Pigtown Fling comes to America and becomes Stoney Point. Each fiddler that plays the tune adds unique touches, and before too long an old tune takes on a new character and gets a new name. Many fiddle tunes show obvious similarities: Billy in the Lowground and Temperance Reel; John Brown’s Dream and Little Rabbit; Hell Broke Loose in Georgia and Old Joe; Sally in the Garden with a Hog-eyed Man and Fire on the Mountain. Katy Hill differs from Sally Johnson by just one chord and the tune Sally Ann Johnson sounds like a reworked version of The Boys of Bluehill. Sometimes the line between tunes that share the same name, and tunes that are clearly related but distinctly different, is a difficult line to draw. Musicologists speak of families of tunes. Take Cherokee Shuffle. Put it in a different key and change the B part. Now you’ve got Lost Indian. Cricket on the Hearth is an old tune based on Marmaduke’s Hornpipe, but listen to it closely and you’ll hear Dixie Hoedown for the A part and Flop-Eared Mule for the B part. And try playing Red Haired Boy when your turn comes on Salt Creek at your next jam session. It fits in there just fine and with a little fudging you could play the second part of Cold Frosty Morning over the B part!

Bluegrass music is full of “borrowings”. The first time I heard Bill Monroe’s Roanoke I thought: “I’ve never heard Soldier’s Joy played that way”. I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky sounds suspiciously like Fireball Mail to me. And when Hot Rize sings Walkin’ the Dog, isn’t that really True Life Blues? At one of the jams I go to Wabash Cannonball is regularly called for. By the end of the tune we’re usually all playing Footprints in the Snow! Woody Guthrie wrote the song Grand Coulee Dam but was required to change the tune just a bit because of copyright issues from Wabash Cannonball.

But Bluegrass and Old Time music are not the only borrowers. All music forms borrow, to some extent, from other forms. In classical music, Mozart reworked the melodies of the Haffner Serenade into the Haffner Symphony. Brahms had folk material for his Hungarian Dances. Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copeland is based on, of all things, old time tunes.

OK so our music isn’t respected by everybody on the planet. We’ll just have to accept that as fact and feel lucky that at least WE are able to appreciate a unique genre from the great body of music that humanity has to offer. A few years ago Voyager became the first satellite to leave our solar system. Aboard the 1977 spacecraft was a so-called Golden Record, containing excerpts of music that the experts deemed representative of human culture across the globe. Beethoven’s Fifth is on there. So is Mozart’s Magic Flute. Even Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” made the cut. But no Bluegrass. No Old Time. No Gospel. I think that’s a huge loss for whatever alien civilization happens to come across that satellite. Soon after Voyager left the solar system, Father Guido Sarducci reported on Saturday Night Live, that a message had been received from outer space. When the alien transmission was decoded it read: “Send us more Chuck Berry”. Perhaps alien civilizations are more cultured than we give them credit for. Maybe they will have already listened to our old radio broadcasts and the message will actually come out as “Send us another space
Posted:  7/11/2009

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