A while back I was invited to bring my fiddle to a potluck party some friends of mine hosted in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. I brought along my instrument in the hopes of finding some bluegrass musicians to jam with.
When I arrived at the converted barn where the party was being held, I saw a guitar learning up against the corner, so I sidled up to the guitar’s owner and introduced myself. As I shook howdy with him I asked him what kind of music he played, so I’d know whether our styles would be compatible. But that’s when the trouble began. As I waited for his response and the seconds ticked by, his eyes rolled back in his head, his body started to sway, and a far-away look appeared on his face. Finally he says, “I play music with a POSITIVE message.” I just stood there staring at him. Unable to contain my mischievous side, I said, “Well, I play music with a NEGATIVE message.”
Thinking my explanation wasn’t quite complete, I went on to say that “I just love songs of deep pain and suffering.” To put the icing on the cake, I told him “my favorites are songs of dying orphans and homeless widows,” and finished it off with “you can’t hardly beat a good murder ballad.”
The awkward silence that followed convinced me that our new relationship was in the gutter. I soon excused myself, and slipped off to get lost amongst the other party goers. Needless to say, we did not jam that night. The food at the potluck was so good that I forgot all about picking, and concentrated instead on some serious eating.
In thinking back on that night, I realize that the guitarist at the party must have thought me very strange. Somehow, it wasn’t the time or place to have a serious conversation with him about what, in my opinion, makes a good bluegrass song.
If the time had been right, and he would have been receptive, I would have told him that in the kind of music I play (bluegrass, old-time, Gospel), most of the songs express the tragic side of life. These are the songs that had the deepest meaning to people whose lives had been hard. I would have said that many of the oldest English and Scottish ballads were about murder and death. Building on the old ballads, most of the music of the 19th century was clearly of the sentimental variety. These tragic songs made their way into popular culture via late 19th century songsmiths who wrote for the popular stage. These professional songwriters had offices in an area of New York City known as “Tin Pan Alley.” The leading publishers printed and sold lavishly illustrated sheet music of these tragic songs.
Eventually, many of these sad laments found their way into the repertoire of some of the same old-time musicians who pioneered the earliest roots of bluegrass. A quick look at the repertoire of such groups as the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers or even Jimmy Rogers will show a strong attraction toward these tragic songs.