Bluegrass music is a genre of Americana roots music. Roots music refers to many subgenres of Americana music: early blues, country, folk, rhythm and blues, and rock. One aspect evolved into what we know as Bluegrass Music, but it is more than that, it is the synthesis and blending of blues, American southern string band music, English, Irish, and Scottish traditions. It incorporates elements of both sacred and country music.. The Reel is a dance and a popular style in the folk music of South West England. It crossed the Atlantic ocean with Irish and British immigration 1800’s and early 1900’s and is featured in many songs.
Bluegrass was honed and recognized in 1940s in the Appalachian region of the United State. The genre derives its name from the seminal band that developed the early sound: Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Kentucky blue grass is smooth meadow-grass that is predominant in the Appalachian region and to them, it seemed a fitting name.
What is a Bluegrass Banjo?
Any banjo can be a bluegrass banjo, it’s more in the style of clawpicking, than the actual instrument. In clawpicking, picks are on the thumb, index and middle fingers. However the best banjo for playing banjo is 5 strings, and has a back called a resonator, which makes it louder. The style of picking is rapid fire and complex.
When did bluegrass music start
The earliest records of bluegrass music really begin in the mid-1930s, but it didn’t become well known, and widely heard until the 1940s and then mostly in Appalachia.
History of bluegrass music
The earliest roots of bluegrass are found in the 1600’s when people from Ireland, Scotland, and England brought ‘country music’ to Appalachia in the United States. The earliest banjo-like instrument was in 1620 which as a “gourd with neck and strings” in Africa. In 1855 a Thomas Briggs Banjo Primer published that detailed not only songs, but how hold, tune, strike & finger the banjo. In 1870, Henry Dobson creates 5-string banjo with frets.
Bluegrass music came out of the rural south after World War II, and was developed by Bill Monroe, a mandolin player who took the style of playing to the banjo. It was perfected by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs noted for popularizing a three-finger banjo picking style, now called “Scruggs style”.
Bill Monroe & Bluegrass Boys played on Grand Ole Opry in 1939.
In the 1940’s groups like Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, and Foggy Mountain Boys began playing.
In 1972, bluegrass became world prominent with the arc of Dueling banjos in the movie Deliverance.
Bluegrass is now played throughout the world.
what is the difference between bluegrass and country music
Country music is a lyric based music, sharing elements that current pop music has but it is more dominant in Country Music. Country Music has an earthy resonance to it in part because of the staple instruments like steel guitar, fiddle and banjo.
Technically, Bluegrass is a sub-genre of Country Music.
However, Bluegrass is unique because, it has a syncopated rhythm and that off-beat feeling that sets the pace. It is distinguished by its high energy, fast tempo sound. It includes lead vocals that feature a high-pitched tenor voice, and harmonies are tight and smooth. It has a stronger influence of jazz and blues than country music. Unlike mainstream country music, it also has a broad number of instruments that can be combined for a unique sound. Bluegrass is played on several combinations of acoustic stringed instruments. The most common combination is a five-string banjo,a fiddle, which is played differently than a violin, and a guitar. Very often a mandolin, and upright bass or string bass added. Additionally are often joined by the resonator guitar known as a Dobro, and for special effects on certain songs, a harmonica or a Jew’s harp can be played.
Bluegrass music also has a unique feature called a breakdown. Similar to a feature of jazz, , bluegrass allows performers to improvise and take turns playing lead. A break is a short instrumental solo played that is conventionally a variation on the song’s melody, in fact, any one with an instrument, old or young, is invited to play what is known as a ‘passing break’. This instrumental form that features a series of breaks during a song that is played by a different instrument and performer each time. This is in stark contrast to Old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together.
Bluegrass music also features some instrumental playing techniques that are distinctive to the genre, and have little cross over into other genres of music.
The vocals have a unique flavor to them, that distinguish the characteristics of bluegrass. These include particular vocal harmonies featuring two, three, or four parts, There is often a dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice. Modal music is specific, it uses diatonic scales . These scales are not necessarily major or minor and don’t use functional harmony , most people are accustomed to in other music. The term modal is most often associated with the eight church modes of music.
The singing style was originated by Bill Monroe, and it knows as a ‘high, lonesome sound’. It is characterized by an expressively emotional, powerful and earthy style of musical expression which is characterized by an unmetered music score and use of gapped scales in singing. A gapped scale is different that a regular diatonic musical scale. It has five notes; usually the fourth and seventh notes of the diatonic scale are omitted. The difference between modal and tonal are in the harmonic languages surrounding the tonal center. Tonality is the harmony by the eighteenth century that uses major and minor keys. The tonal center is the first note of the major or minor scale.
Rick Spencer of Catfeather Art & Music, an historian and performer of Americana music, commented on the difference between Bluegrass Music and Country Music. “Bluegrass is to Folk music and traditional Country music, as Jazz is to Rock or Rhythm & Blues. Their roots are similar, but Bluegrass and Jazz are much more sophisticated forms of music, and require far greater instrumental proficiency.”
what instruments are used in bluegrass music?
The mandolin and the banjo are the keys to the Bluegrass sound, although the instruments used are used it many genres, it’s the unique lineup of acoustic five-string banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and upright bass.
Popular Bluegrass Songs
Bluegrass christmas songs
Christmas is an important holiday in the bluegrass community. Bluegrass Christmas albums are a staple in many homes.
This is a season when there are some cross overs that are unique, Alison Kraus who is a well known modern bluegrass singer, has played Christmas carols like The Wexford Carol, with cello impresario Yo-yo Ma. In fact, the traditional Christmas carols, as opposed to Christmas songs, are kept alive by the bluegrass community.
One few Christmas songs with Appalachian roots is Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. It is played in the Carter Family-style music.
White Christmas is a favorite song and holiday classic in many styles but it is best done in bluegrass style by Larry Sparks.
Bluegrass songstress Christmas Rhonda Vincent is known for her holiday albums and brings a hopeful sweetness to the well know song, Time at Home.
Another traditional carol is given a new and sparkling spin that is sure to delight the children. The Johnson Mountain Boys give the Christmas story a new look with barn animals commonplace in rural America in the carol, The Friendly Beasts .
Comforting home settings and going home are staple themes in Bluegrass and no one sings it better for Christmas than in the poignant, I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas Time by Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
A long list of carols and songs are done by many bluegrass artists in the distinctive style. Christmas is alive and well in Bluegrass.
Angels We Have Heard on High
Joy To The World
Good Christian Men Rejoice
He Is Born
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
Good King Wenceslas
Away In A Manger
Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella
Breaking Up Christmas
Once In Royal David’s City
Up On The Housetop
Deck The Halls
The First Noel
O Come All Ye Faithful
O Holy Night
Frost And Snow
What Child Is This?
Ding Dong Merrily On High
Go Tell It On The Mountain
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Carol Of The Bells
In The Bleak Midwinter
The Coventry Carol
Silent Night! Holy Night!
Oh Holy Night
bluegrass gospel songs
Gospel plays as strong a part in bluegrass as Christmas music does, as most of the musicians, artists and listeners are from a strong, southern Christian faith. A southern funeral of a prominent member of the community would not be complete without a bluegrass gospel.
Cryin’ Holy Unto The Lord
Church in the Wildwood
Shall We Gather At The River
Are You Washed In The Blood
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms
Where the Soul Never Dies
This World Is Not My Home
When We All Get To Heaven
Just Over In The Gloryland
Nothing But the Blood of Jesus
Standing On the Promises
In the Sweet By and B
The Unclouded Day
I Love To Tell The Story/Stand Up Stand Up For Jesus
The Old-Time Religion
I Am A Pilgrim
I Am Bound For The Promised Land
When The Roll Is Called Up Yond
There Is Power In The Blood
Keep On The Sunny Side Of Life
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Bringing In the Sheaves
Hallelujah, I’m Ready
The Lily Of The Valley
Life’s Railway To Heaven
Tis So Sweet
Send The Light
Will The Circle Be Unbroken
famous bluegrass songs
With Body And Soul – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
Foggy Mountain Breakdown – Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys
Rank Stranger – The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys
Blue Moon Of Kentucky – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
Rocky Top – The Osborne Brothers
On The Sunny Side Of The Mountain – Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys
Orange Blossom Special – The Stonemans // Johnson Mountain Boys
Jerusalem Ridge – Kenny Baker & Bill Monroe
I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow – Stanley Brothers (1959) // Soggy Bottom Boys (2000)
Fox On the Run – Country Gentlemen (Rebel Records, studio, 1971)
I’ll Fly Away – Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch
I’ll Meet You In Church Sunday – The Stanley Brothers
New Muleskinner Blues – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
Mountain Dew – Grandpa Jones
I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby – Jerry Douglas Band w/Alison Krauss
You Don’t Know My Mind – Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys
Molly & Tenbrooks – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
Wayfaring Stranger – Emmylou Harris
Salt Creek – Norman Blake, Tony Rice & Doc Watson
Paradise – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
Little Maggie – Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could – Jim Eanes & The Shenandoah Valley Boys
I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home – Mac Wiseman & The Country Boys
How Mountain Girls Can Love – The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys
Uncle Pen – Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys (1950) // Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder (1983)
The Boys Are Back In Town – Patty Loveless
Wild Horses – Old And In The Way
I’ve Got That Old Feeling – Alison Krauss & Union Station
Wagon Wheel – Old Crow Medicine Show
Feudin’ Banjos – Arthur Smith & Don Reno // Duelin’ Banjos – Eric Weissberg w/ Steve Mandell
Clinch Mountain Backstep – The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys
Worried Man Blues (1971) – Wade Mainer
High On A Mountain – Del McCoury & The Dixie Pals
I Am A Pilgrim – The Kentucky Colonels
Drink Up And Go Home – Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys
Dooley – Dillards
I Know You Rider – Seldom Scene
Ruby, Are You Mad? – The Osborne Brothers
Callin’ Baton Rouge – New Grass Revival
Last Train To Kitty Hawk – Balsam Range
The Little Mountain Church – Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Devil’s Train – James King Band
Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms – Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys
Freight Train – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
High Lonesome Sound – Vince Gill
It’s Mighty Dark To Travel – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
Georgie Buck – Carolina Chocolate Drops
I Saw The Light – Roy Acuff w/The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Meet Me By The Moonlight – The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys
A Voice From On High – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
The Fields Have Turned Brown – Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
Girl At The Crossroads Bar – The Bluegrass Cardinals
‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered – Mac Wiseman & The Country Boys
Nine Pound Hammer – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
Little Birdie – Wade Mainer (1953) // Red Allen & The Kentuckians
Tennessee 1949 – Larry Sparks
Walls Of Time – The Johnson Mountain Boys
The Ballad Of Jed Clampett – Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys
Fair And Tender Ladies – Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys
Pretty Green Hills – Dave Evans
Tortured Tangled Hearts – Dixie Chicks
Grayson County Blues – No Speed Limit
Pretty Polly – Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
Please Be My Love – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
Rocky Road Blues – Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys
Long Black Veil – John Duffey
Steam-Powered Aereoplane – John Hartford
Going Across The Sea – Valley Road
I’m On My Way Home – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys