Author: Campbell, Bruce

Yes I listen to the Lyrics
One of the real appeals of Bluegrass music is the stories in the songs. As in any musical genre, there are plenty of songs that are utter nonsense, but there are a lot with poignant, beautiful stories or images as well.

Lots of songs are about pining for the wonderful home town, and/or getting back to it after years of roaming. The message often seems to be that the singer should have know that real happiness was in their little home town all along, and that going off to the Big City was a foolish mistake. I expect this sentiment won out over the opposite (“I finally escaped this little hellhole of a town!”), because then the singer would not be hanging around and writing Bluegrass tunes. Certainly, also, there are people who truly do favor a simple life, and these songs (Old Home Place, The Old Home Town, Love of the Mountains) provide cautionary tales for other young folks who might roam off and regret it. Also, bear in mind that a young person who leaves the small town deprived the family of a strong back to work the farm.

There are some really interesting murder ballads (Bands of the Ohio, Knoxville Girl, Down in the Willow Garden), sung from the viewpoint of the murderer. This makes for a certain amount of sympathy for the killer and a curious lack of sympathy for the murder victim. The murderer is always caught quickly, and feels tremendous guilt, but the song does provide the reason (the girl refused to marry the guy). Was this a common occurrence at some time in our history? The songs seem to provide another cautionary tale – that if you give in to your impulses and murder that girl who won’t marry, you’ll feel bad and go to jail.

The glimpse that some Bluegrass songs provide into the courtships of rural country folks is really fascinating, and touching. Often, the guy falls in love with a girl whom he has never met, but only seen from afar – in church once a week, or in town or at the County Fair. Then his hopes are dashed when she marries a feller who actually had the nerve to speak with her. It underscores how difficult it must have been to get to know a girl that catches your fancy. I remember it taking weeks to get up the nerve to talk to a girl I saw every day at school. Imagine how long with would take if I only saw her once a week, at church?

Several Bluegrass songs mentioned a guy’s search for a girl. Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road and On and On, to name a couple, mentioning raoming around and looking for their girl. What does this mean? What are the odds of success in this? Is it like looking for a lost dog, where you drive around and call out the dog’s name? Is it more widespread and takes up weeks and weeks, with the lovesick suitor actually combing the country for this girl? And wouldn’t it be easier to interview family and acquaintances to determine her whereabouts than to just “roam around” and hope to spot her? I dunno….

Gospel songs provide some of the most beautiful imagery. Man in the Middle encapsulates the Christian religion’s main message perfectly, and it comes right from the source. Three men are being crucified, and one of them is Jesus (he’s in the middle, of course). One of the other men believes that Jesus is the son of God, and asks for forgiveness, and Jesus promises the man everlasting life, with him in heaven, before that very day ends. On the other side, a non-believer tries to goad Jesus into setting them all free, if he’s such a big wheel with the Guy Upstairs. This song very neatly explains the basic tenet of Christianity: redemption through acceptance of Jesus as savior, in less than three minutes! Wow!

Civil war songs are often heartwrenching songs. There are very few triumphant “We won the battle” songs. Instead, they almost always have the protagonist dying a lonely death in a field or hospital, missing the girl or mother he left back home. The utter hopelessness of these characters (the songs are often sung in the first person, who is dead), and the sad tragedy of such a young person, with so much promise dying for a lost cause (often the characters are on the side of South), is heartbreaking.

I guess I’m running long here, but there’s so much to go into on this subject. What’s the lesson here? I guess there are two things: Bluegrass is not only about the SOUND, but also the content. Plus, when you’re singing Bluegrass, don’t just worry abut being in tune and on time, think about the lyrics you’re singing – INHABIT the song, and you will be moved, and you will move others…
Posted:  8/23/2006

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