Don’t know nothin’ ’bout lit-ra-cy

Chris JonesYou may not be aware of this, and your calendar may not show it, but in addition to this April of 2014 boasting Easter, Passover, and the U.S. and Canadian tax deadlines, April is also Musical Illiteracy Month.

If you’re like most people, you’ll just blindly accept that as fact, even if I just made it up (which I may or may not have done). And why not? When anyone tells me it’s National Mustard Week, Shingles Awareness Month (the roofing material, not the virus; that one’s in October), or International Trailer Hitch Day, I always say something supportive, like “great!” or “I look forward to it every year!” or just “ah!”

The same holds true for Worldwide Bluegrass Month (if there really is such a thing). I understand that it’s moved from May to September or possibly September to May, or maybe from April to October, but you could tell me that it’s this month, and I’d be happy to go with it.

Back to Musical Illiteracy Month, though, this is not a month for promoting an end to musical illiteracy. On the contrary, this is the month of the year when we try to foster musical illiteracy any way we can, and I would like to pledge my full support to this cause.

After teaching at music camps and giving workshops for years, I have concluded that the reliance on tablature and written music (we’ll deal with the issue of song lyrics next week) has gotten out of hand.

This may seem hypocritical, since I have tablature which accompanies my own instructional DVDs, I handed out tablature in my last guitar class, and I’ll do so again a few times before the year is over. Most instructors do, and as a tool which supplements learning by ear, it’s fine. I’ll even admit that I have learned fiddle tunes from standard notation (though in my defense, I’ve since forgotten them).

Bluegrass Today’s editor-in-chief, John Lawless, also presides over the highly-respected AcuTab instructional empire, and they’ve certainly cranked out their share of tablature along with their instructional DVDs (word is that Bluegrass Today’s Roanoke headquarters, BT Tower, is actually insulated with banjo tab from years past).

I’m certainly not condemning written music itself. It’s an excellent reference tool, and it has its place. It’s just when I see too many students staring at paper and not using their ears, that I think it would be good to lay it aside for a month and just watch the video or the instructor (tipping the instructor is strictly optional).

Ours is not a written tradition, after all, in the same way that classical music is not an aural tradition. You don’t catch the violas all of a sudden straying from the music in the Brandenburg Concerto no. 6 and playing a little Cheyenne or whatever comes to mind in B flat for a while (I mention violas, because in the classical music world the viola joke is their equivalent of the banjo joke). Likewise, at an all star jam session finale at a bluegrass festival, when someone calls out the inevitable Will the Circle Be Unbroken, you don’t hear the banjo player saying “Wait, let me get out my tab for that.”

The multitude of Sally Goodin’ variations didn’t come from the wide circulation of Sally Goodin’ sheet music. They were influenced heavily by a 1920s recording by Eck Robertson (who in turn, no doubt, learned it by ear from another fiddler), but then passed on through the generations with regional variations and changes made along the way.

I would further argue that none of the bluegrass players that any of us admire learned to play that way, whether it be J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, Benny Martin, or Chris Thile.

Now I will admit that Chris Thile can read tablature, standard notation, a Chicago Cubs scorecard, and P.G. Wodehouse, possibly all at once, but these are not the reasons he can play the way he does.

Maybe I’m just bitter because every time I try to write something out in music or tablature, I usually make some major mistake, like having a G-run that’s actually a D-run.

In any case, it’s Musical Illiteracy Month. Try to observe it by forgetting exactly how something goes and just faking your way through it.

If you’re not able to do that, or you just disagree with the whole idea, it’s also Armadillo Awareness Month. Go out and become more aware of armadillos for a while. Please don’t use them to insulate buildings.