Author: Campbell, Bruce

Remember the Luddites!

One of the things that makes bluegrass music so appealing is its organic nature. In a world where music is big business, bluegrass is the music that was played on rickety front porches long before technology became the new musical instrument in the land. The music is made with wires and wood, and vocal cords, and the myth of bluegrass as being “pure” is precious to us.

It is, of course, a myth. From the outset, bluegrass was an odd collision of the modern and the medieval. Yes, the instruments were made by hand, and the high lonesome vocals were not processed in any way. But the music was delivered by technology since day one.

The instruments were made of wood worked by fine craftsmen, but look at your old photographs, and there’s one piece of technology that is ubiquitous: The microphone. There were some barn dances where no amplification was available, certainly, but the music’s spread was aided considerably by rustic old radio stations around the country, where bluegrass pioneers clustered around a ribbon microphone and delivered the sound to the masses through the ether.

The choreography of the musicians around that single mic is an inherent part of the familiar motions of bluegrass performances. How cool is it when the guitar player stands like a statue most of the time, but raises the guitar up to the mic for that perfect G-run to emphasize the phrase? And the way banjo, fiddle and mando players dive into the fray for their solos, or the way the harmony singers crane their heads toward that magic microphone in the center. All other things being equal, the players who could work this dance effectively sounded the best and so garnered the best following.

One piece of technology that I think has helped bluegrass tremendously, at least on the amateur side, is the cheap electronic tuner. I have heard the old stories about everyone in the Bluegrass Boys tuning to match Bill Monroe’s voice, and maybe that’s OK when everyone’s a stone professional. But remember when one guy had a tuning fork and everyone tried to tune to match that guy? It was a disaster! Come to think of it, after 2 AM or so at any festival, most jams end up in that state...

The bluegrass festival itself is an event made possible by technology. Stages, with sound systems, deliver acoustic music to people who arrived by vehicles, some of which are themselves technological marvels of rolling homes. We park those vehicles in rows like suburban tract homes, and simulate the front porch picking experience. And man, do we have fun.

There’s nothing hypocritical or even all that ironic about this dichotomy. We live in a modern world – just like people have always done. Well, except for the Luddites. You remember them, right? 19th century workers who roved the English countryside in bands, destroying early industrial age machinery? I’m glad they failed.

So, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying rustic folk music with your friends, delighting in the honest sounds of wires, wood, horsehair and vocal cords – lit by a fluorescent lantern -- and then when it’s time to quit for the night, retiring to a warm soft bed. You’re entitled to a good night’s sleep – there’ll be more picking the next night! And if civilization ends tomorrow, all that will be left is cockroaches and bluegrass!

Posted:  11/4/2009

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