Janet and I just got back from Sore Fingers Summer School, a bluegrass camp in the Cotswolds in England—affectionately dubbed by Tim O’Brien, Hillbilly Hogwarts.
We taught a week-long class on bluegrass harmony to 30 Brits who spent their hard-earned pounds to be initiated into the mysteries of trio and quartet bluegrass singing—a skill, I assured them, that would likely not earn them their money back.
I meant to keep a running blog of the week, but with jet-lag, Internet unreliability, and a full schedule, I barely managed to keep enough wits about me to order another pint of Hooky, a local ale of outstanding balance—at least better than mine after a couple of them.
There was also nightly picking in the pub, concerts by teachers and students, afternoon workshops, and general hilarity. Did I mention the pub? But this article is not about Sore Fingers.
Part of the official extended definition of bluegrass, which now covers nine volumes excluding footnotes, is that it’s not really bluegrass if you can’t argue over it (see Chris Jones’s fine reporting of this phenomenon).
This article is about an aspect of bluegrass that, until now, has not been sufficiently argued over—bluegrass harmony singing. Or maybe I just haven’t stayed around for the third hour of carping where it’s covered in detail.
Let me see if I can try to define bluegrass harmony singing in a way that will rile up everyone.
Louis Armstrong famously said, “All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song,” (another example of the triple-negative with a twist, like Bill Monroe’s, “Ain’t no part of nothin’”).
Now that we’ve agreed that bluegrass songs are sung by folks, what can we say about bluegrass harmony?
Any definition begs exceptions so we’re already on shaky ground here, but in general: 1) bluegrass harmonies are close harmonies, the harmonized chord tones are as close as possible to the lead melody note—in other words, there are seldom any wide gaps between harmony and lead that leave out a chord tone; 2) there are no background singers in bluegrass—the in-your-face blend is part of the music; and 3) in any campground jam there should be at least three lead singers, five tenor singers, and two people claiming to be singing baritone, but who in fact are either singing lead and/or tenor.
I remember not knowing how to sing harmony and how mysterious it all seemed. When I was in seventh grade and learning to play guitar, a friend, Jeff Trippe, and I were singing a Simon & Garfunkel song when one of us strayed to another note. The resulting harmony shocked us so much we stopped singing and just stared at each other, not sure what had just happened, as if we had just burped up the Gettysburg Address.
In fact, we were unable to reproduce the effect for a few weeks until we wandered onto the notes again. The interval between successes became shorter and shorter until we were singing harmony—sort of—without knowing how.
Later that year I went to a bluegrass club gathering in Jacksonville, Florida, and heard a duo singing Lonesome River. It wasn’t the Stanley Brothers (boy, was it not the Stanley Brothers) and yet it still made me want more.
At first, what thrilled me the most were the tenor singers: Monroe, when he moved up to tenor on a chorus, or Curly Seckler bending upward in unexpected places with Flatt & Scruggs. I knew Earl was in there somewhere, but I didn’t have a clue what a baritone part was. And Ralph. You can learn tenor just from listening to Ralph because his singing is always up front.
And then I became intrigued by what seemed like acoustic sleight-of-hand: the baritone. Earl, JD Crowe—what great singing to fit into the blend without being recognizable as a separate voice. I still struggle with it, but it’s by far the most satisfying part when you get it right, when you hear that full chord.
Trio singing is such an integral part of bluegrass vocals, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t always the first harmony choice. Fred Bartenstein, in an excellent unpublished 2010 paper entitled Bluegrass Vocal Styles writes:
“Early bluegrass and the old-time southern-mountain vocal styles that preceded it were characterized by solos and duets. Trio singing was most often heard in Tin Pan Alley popular tunes, cowboy songs, and European music. In the 1940s, Bill Monroe began experimenting with occasional three-voice choruses. Flatt & Scruggs continued those experiments. On March 1, 1949, the Stanley Brothers and Pee Wee Lambert recorded three stunning trios (A Vision of Mother, The White Dove, and The Angels Are Singing in Heaven Tonight) that established that sound as a permanent part of bluegrass.”
After that, most of the great second-generation bluegrass bands extended and refined 3-part harmony.
When Janet and I teach harmony we do it through repertoire. The people in our class at Sore Fingers learned three different stacks to at least five different classic bluegrass songs, and then performed one of them to a captive lunchtime crowd each day. With 30 people, it was more like the Bluegrass Chorale, but there is safety in numbers when you’re first learning. They were a fast group and learned the parts amazingly well. (I apologize for installing the chicken-wire, but you can’t be too careful.)
We taught lead, tenor, baritone, high baritone, low tenor, and bass. And stacks—the thing that happens when you put the lead in the middle, on the top, or on the bottom. The parts all make sense and you can learn how to find your notes, but inevitably the genius of bluegrass music shines through and questions arise that leave you saying things like, “Well, I don’t know why Ralph chose that note, but it sounds right,” or “You should only try that if you’re name is Ira Louvin.”
It makes me wonder how those first-generation guys worked out parts and how they talked about harmony singing. So much of what we try to teach now just came second-nature to them and we’re left trying to retrace the flight of birds. We can talk about the technical details, but to recapture the soul is more difficult.
The four biggest pitfalls of harmony singing are 1) not listening to the lead vocalist’s phrasing and melody, 2) being drawn away by another voice, 3) sticking to the comfort range of your own voice, instead of going to the right note, and 4) putting your finger in your ear so it looks like you know what you’re doing when it really looks like you have your finger in your ear.
If you think about it, those are four pretty big pitfalls in life itself: 1) not listening to others, 2) following the loudest voice, 3) not taking chances, and 4) having your finger in your ear.
Harmony can teach us a lot.
I realize I haven’t been controversial enough here, so I hope you can find something to disagree with. But that’s the problem with harmony: it tends to seek accord over discord, blend over separation, and moderation over extremes—things that are not easy for any of us to learn and even harder to pull off consistently.
So, there are a lot of ways to learn bluegrass harmony. Find a camp, instructional DVD, or a couple of friends who will tell you the truth. Or you can learn the traditional way—sing until people stop telling you you’re not singing harmony.