Should we consider adopting the metric system for bluegrass songs to broaden the music’s appeal? Bluegrass musician Ira Gitlin brought this issue up to me recently, and I think it deserves some thought. This is a question almost no one has bothered to ask, I’ll admit, but recall that the “I” in IBMA stands for “International.” In case you think I’m stating the obvious, I’ll point out that in a recent survey of IBMA members, a full 18% thought it stood for “intergalactic,” 12% believed it was “incidental,” and 4% thought “Indiana” (not surprisingly, those 4% were from Indiana).
The US, as you may know, is one of the only countries never to convert to the metric system, in spite of a half-hearted attempt during the Ford Administration in the mid-’70s. The conversion strategy used at the time is best summed up this way: “Sure, let’s try this and see how it goes. For a while anyway. Or not—it seems weird using different numbers for things.” I think the government was already feeling discouraged after the “Whip Inflation Now” button campaign (if you get that joke, you’re really dating yourself, as I just did).
By the 1980s the only change we’d made was to buy Coke in two liter bottles
For clues as to why this effort failed, you need look no further than the US attempts to convert to a dollar coin. Or just observe congress functioning for a day. But whatever the reason, today we stand virtually alone in the world with Imperial measurements and the Fahrenheit scale. I say “virtually” because they’re still using the Imperial system in Belize and the Pacific island of Palau, so maybe we’re not as isolated as people say. So there!
How easy, then, would it be to convert some bluegrass standard songs like Nine Pound Hammer or Eight More Miles to Louisville to metric? There are certainly some challenges I’ll discuss below.
Let’s take the issue of temperature conversion first, and examine Gordon Lightfoot’s Ten Degrees, recorded by J.D. Crowe in 1975. This one’s an interesting case, because Gordon Lightfoot is from Canada, a country which, like the rest of the non-Belize, non-Palau world, is using the Celsius scale. However, Gordon is old enough to have grown up with Fahrenheit temperatures so he wrote the song in Fahrenheit. Plus the song takes place in Colorado.
The Fahrenheit scale, which goes back to the early 18th century, is awfully quaint. That might even make it bluegrassy, but it’s still pretty impractical: where the Celsius scale is set at zero for the freezing point of water and 100 for the boiling point of water, the Fahrenheit scale was set with zero being the point at which salt water would freeze in Daniel Fahrenheit’s lab (?!), and I forget what 100 represents; I think it’s either the body temperature of a mule or a fiddle player after playing a six-minute rendition of Lee Highway Blues.
Ten degrees in Celsius changes the whole nature of the song, because that’s the equivalent of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. A hitchhiker complaining about that temperature is just being whiny.
If we convert 10°F to Celsius, we get -12°. When changing any lyrics, of course, the meter of the song (or 3.28 feet of the song) is important to maintain, but in this case, it works surprisingly well if you eliminate the word “degrees”:
“It’s minus 12 and getting colder down by Boulder Dam today.”
The song also mentions Fahrenheit body temperature in the third verse:
“So he sat down at her table and they talked about the weather
98.6 and rising down by Boulder Dam that night”
Celsius body temperature is 37.6. The extra syllable makes this awkward but it can still be pulled off. Of course all of this requires a title change, too. At this point we might as well just rewrite the song so the guy avoids being outside in that kind of temperature in the first place. We can keep the lady taking him for a ride in the morning sun because that’s nice.
The bluegrass standard (by way of Johnny Horton) Ole Slewfoot requires both temperature and distance conversion. The chorus:
He’s big around the middle and he’s broad across the rump
Running 90 miles an hour taking 30 feet a jump
Converting this is a real mouthful:
Going 144.82 kilometers an hour taking 9.14 meters a jump.
Perhaps a more approximate conversion would help: we could shorten it to 140 kilometers and 9 meters, which still doesn’t quite get us there. We could further shorten this tongue-twister by using the military-based slang for kilometers, “klicks.” It still doesn’t quite work out. Maybe the solution is to just have the bear go a little slower: “90 klicks an hour” sings well and that’s still plenty fast; in Canada that’s the speed limit on a number of secondary highways, so that’s not exactly lumbering along.
The third verse mentions the wintry temperature of “20 below.” This is much less of a problem than the 10 degrees discussed above: -20 Fahrenheit is -28.89 Celsius, so I suggest just stretching that a little and calling it “30 below.” Done.
What about Merle Travis’ Nine Pound Hammer? This is 4.08 Kilos. Without changing the time signature of the song to 5/4, we’re going to have to adjust this. It seems like lightening the hammer to an even 4 kilos would have advantages all around. Trust me, no one wants to swing a 5 kilo hammer. Reducing the hammer’s weight might only make it suitable for Number 8 coal, as opposed to Number 9, but don’t quote me on that.
It’s important to get moonshine measurements right, even if international trading in moonshine is frowned upon by border guards:
From Mountain Dew:
And he thought that I ought (“ort”) to sell him a quart
Of my good old mountain dew
Here we have both a meter and an internal rhyme problem: “He thought that I ought to sell him 946 milliliters” just isn’t going to work out. Stretching it to an even liter doesn’t help much either, unless you rewrite the whole line:
And he said c’mon Peter, could you sell me a liter?
Of your good old mountain dew
It’s not ideal. Maybe we should just concentrate on exporting music (and moonshine) to Belize and Palau.
Other metric bluegrass hits:
9.65 More Kilometers (to the Graveyard)
844.67 Kilometers (Away From Home)
12.87 More Kilometers to Louisville