Welcome to our first annual Mr. Bluegrass Manners – Christmas Edition. Mr. Bluegrass Manners has taken time out of his busy holiday schedule (being well-mannered is very time-consuming this time of year) to field some Christmas-related questions from readers. Most of these questions came through facebook.com/chrisjonesgrass. Thanks for sending those in.
Dear Mr Bluegrass Manners:
I’ve been forbidden to bring my cajón to the Christmas jam to play my version of Little Drummer Boy. Where’s the Christmas cheer?
— Excluded in Alabama
Your experience is not uncommon. As with people’s general dislikes, prejudices, and pet peeves, bluegrass musicians and fans’ hostility toward unconventional bluegrass instruments doesn’t usually take a break for the holidays. This is a shame, I think, and it’s also uninformed on the part of the cajón-forbidders. The fact is that the Christmas season is a time like no other to allow “fringe” bluegrass instruments into the music. This isn’t some new-fangled, progressive viewpoint; I can go all the way back to 1951 to back this up: that’s the year Owen Bradley played vibes on Bill Monroe’s original recording of Christmas Time’s A-Coming. Since that time, people have added bells, drums, glockenspiel, even oboe (well they could add oboe), and full orchestras to their bluegrass Christmas recordings. So the next time someone forbids you from playing the cajón at a Christmas jam session, just say, “okay, let me go get my vibes,” or “let me go get my full drum kit.”
Of course you’ll still be faced with the problem that The Little Drummer Boy is consistently ranked “Least Popular Christmas Song” among bluegrass fans. Little drummer boys in general are as unwelcome today as the first one no doubt was by Joseph and Mary in the story (parents frown on the presence of drummers near a sleeping baby). The exception to this is if the little drummer boy has his drum mounted on a bass and plays both instruments at once, as Ernie Newton did on many Bill Monroe recordings in the 1950s. Can you possibly mount your cajón on to your bass?
Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,
What can you discuss at a Christmas party when the following are declared “off limits” for polite discussion: religion, politics, and “just what is bluegrass anyway?” How ’bout those Yankees?
— Silent in New York
Well, I think the third topic on your list might be the most “off limits” of all, at least in some circles. This could trigger an argument that would last right through the last piece of pumpkin pie. Unfortunately, “how ‘bout those Yankees?” is not an ideal alternative. That’s because your party could be populated with Mets or Red Sox fans. This could get ugly quickly. Also, baseball season being over, at some Christmas parties this could be interpreted as a reference to the Union Army or northerners in general. This can get prickly in border states.
So what can you talk about at a Christmas party? The weather is no longer an option, because in 2017, almost any weather comment is answered with a climate change remark from one side or the other of that argument and off goes your Uncle Clyde on his annual holiday rant.
Here’s a list of what I consider safe and polite topics to bring up at a holiday get-together, that will at worst lead to good-natured arguments:
- Jimmy Martin’s preference for round hole mandolin
- Innovations in turkey-breeding
- Crosspicking: down-down-up, down-up-up, down-up-down, or up-down-up?
- Did Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer really exist?
If you can manage to steer any discussion of politics, religion, the weather, or the definition of bluegrass towards any of these safer topics, your Christmas party will be relatively tranquil and fewer family members will storm out, vowing to never speak to each other again.
Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,
I know that “regifting” is often frowned upon in polite circles, but some gifts would be better off in someone else’s possession. I have a brother-in-law who’s a collector of all sorts of vintage items. He has no musical knowledge whatsoever but he loves our bluegrass band, Piles of Grass, and last Christmas he gave me a pre-war Martin D-28 herringbone guitar he had found at a yard sale in Kankakee, IL. It was nice of him, but I don’t play the guitar at all, and I think it would be better off with someone else instead of sitting in my house, unplayed. Is it so rude to regift this item to someone who would really appreciate it?
— Undecided in Ohio
No, I’m afraid it’s considered quite rude to regift an item like this. I would recommend that you give it to me, since I wouldn’t be judgemental at all about it, knowing the background story. Plus, I can always back you up if your brother-in-law comes over and asks where it is, and you tell him you just lent it to a friend. Just ship it to me c/o Bluegrass Today (and buy the insurance). Don’t bother with the formality of wrapping. I’m just glad to help.