Community and Connection - Diversity in Bluegrass
October 5, 2017 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Rhiannon Giddens (previously winner of the Steve Martin prize for excellence in banjo and bluegrass) gave the keynote address at this year's IBMA. The speech explored the creole history of bluegrass and asks "how do we get more diversity in bluegrass? Which of course, behind the hand, is really, why is bluegrass so white??? But the answer doesn't lie in right now. Before we can look to the future, we need to understand the past."
posted by Arbac (31 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah. I encourage everyone to look at her/their ( Carolina Chocolate Drops ) discography.
posted by mikelieman at 4:09 PM on October 5 [7 favorites]

I was just thinking about this subject the other day and was going to use an AskMe to find out more about the topic. I heard a rerun of her interview on Fresh Air and then sometime later still, the local community radio station was doing their regular member drive and I was listening to the bluegrass program talk about how great the community is. My brain, doing what it does, wondered "is bluegrass a folkway that was originally African American and whitewashed? Was it multi-racial originally and just has lots of white fans now? Maybe it was segregated and there was a parallel tradition in black music that we just don't hear anymore?" Now I know! Thanks!

Also, her voice is amazing. She sings a number of songs in the Fresh Air interview that are amazing. (Must tolerate Terry Gross tho.)
posted by fiercekitten at 4:15 PM on October 5 [5 favorites]

Another music tradition that seems to be mostly played by whites these days but was originated by African-Americans is jug band music. Can anyone name any contemporary African-American jug band musicians?
posted by larrybob at 4:57 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]

Also worth checking out is Jake Blount's recently-released EP, Reparations, and his interview/jam on the Get Up in the Cool podcast. Reparations is an album of fiddle tunes which come from Black and Native fiddlers, and it's quite good. Jake talks about it some on the podcast.
posted by hades at 4:59 PM on October 5 [6 favorites]

I wanted to link to Jo Miller and Laura Love's Ain't No Ash Will Burn but YouTube has failed me.
posted by Bee'sWing at 5:02 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]

I want people to understand—that recognizing the African American presence within these traditions does not come at the expense of trying to erase all of the other tradition bearers who have already received so much of our attention.

Its unfortunate how often I've heard a variation of this disclaimer these last few years.

Great speech, I'm reminded a bit of Michael Twitty's talks on culinary injustice.
posted by lkc at 5:04 PM on October 5 [9 favorites]

I want people to understand—that recognizing the African American presence within these traditions does not come at the expense of trying to erase all of the other tradition bearers who have already received so much of our attention. I want to celebrate the greater diversity of the people who have shaped the music that is so much a part of my identity. I want the public to appreciate this string band music, this bluegrass music, as a creole music that comes from many influences—a beautiful syncretization of the cultures that call this country home. I don't want to minimize, trivialize, or ignore anyone's passion to explore this music. I just want them to understand, as fully as possible, the entire picture! If we are going to embrace greater diversity in bluegrass music, then we must be willing to acknowledge the best and worst parts of tradition.

Well, goddamn. Wow.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:04 PM on October 5 [10 favorites]

larrybob: not exactly, but check out blind boy paxton.
posted by wibari at 5:17 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]

This is timely, I just recently discovered her, not sure how I missed her before. Her version of Wayfaring Stranger is haunting.
posted by beowulf573 at 6:02 PM on October 5 [4 favorites]

Here's a short history lesson of the bluegrass form from Rhiannon.
posted by NoMich at 6:46 PM on October 5 [4 favorites]

Thanks for posting this.

As someone who actively plays bluegrass, I've lost count of the number of times a passing comment on my part about the banjo being African has been met with a "Well...." The whitewashing drives me nuts. Both this keynote and NoMich's link are now staying on my phone.

I've always got so much time for Rhiannon Giddens. In my house, there's team bluegrass and team Broadway. Her range of staggering talent as a musician is such that we can both lose our shit over how great her music is.

larrybob: Otis Taylor takes a run at some jug-band stuff - Gus Cannon in particular - on his Recapturing the Banjo album, e.g., Walk Right In. But the album isn't strictly jug band material. It is, however, very awesome.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:53 PM on October 5 [11 favorites]

Rhiannon Giddens is a national treasure. I've seen her (solo or with the Carolina Chocolate Drops) a few times, and she never ceases to amaze me with her versatility. She is a classically trained opera singer who owns a traditional African style banjo, does a mean cover of Hit Em Up Style, and sings beautifully in Gaelic. So glad she is getting more and more recognition.
posted by slmorri at 7:03 PM on October 5 [5 favorites]

Oh! And!

She was totally screwed over when Shuffle Along closed before she could take the stage, even though rehearsals had started with her.

So we actually saw Shuffle Along on a day when Audra McDonald was out for the day, and it was her understudy filling in, and the show was still fan-friggin'-tastic. Now, with Giddens in there? Be still my heart.

Terrible move not to keep it running.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:09 PM on October 5 [2 favorites]

Rhiannon Giddens is a national treasure.

Yeah, totally Kennedy Award worthy. Google sez she preformed at the Kennedy Center honoring BILL MURRY.
posted by mikelieman at 2:48 AM on October 6

Google sez she preformed at the Kennedy Center honoring BILL MURRY.

posted by mikelieman at 2:53 AM on October 6 [2 favorites]

posted by spitbull at 3:37 AM on October 6

Yeah, she's tremendous. The fact is that you can't learn about country music without learning about its early black practitioners and influences. There's a sort of hand wavey story about why these influences are now buried and why the form became so white, in which it is the result of a marketing decision to divide blues and country into "race" and "hillbilly," on charts and on record labels, and that inevitably lead to the two forms separating.

That's true, but overlooks the larger social forces that might encourage this marketing decision, which closely tracks with Jim Crowe and institutionalized segregation.

I have personally tried to desegregate my own country listening. Some of that means deliberately locating POCs who play country music, both now and historically, and some of it means being broader in my definition of country than is usually done -- Leadbelly sang cowboy songs? They're in. A doo-wop song about the Lone Ranger? It's in. A Satchmo cover of Hank Williams? In.
posted by maxsparber at 4:02 AM on October 6 [4 favorites]

American music was integrated before it was forcibly segregated. But most of us seem to have forgotten that and fairly quickly. At least now there's an awareness and with it an opportunity to discover overlooked music and musicians.
posted by tommasz at 5:45 AM on October 6 [3 favorites]

Can anyone name any contemporary African-American jug band musicians?

Dom Flemmons, also from the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

And for anyone who has exhausted the Carolina Chocolate Drops discography, I recommend the related (but overlooked) Sankofa Strings album. Rhiannon Giddens had been part of it at one point, though not on that album, due to having just had a kid when it was recorded.
posted by fings at 9:49 AM on October 6 [1 favorite]

Terminology's important: "bluegrass" is a radio-driven, specific, commercial musical style invented by a few prominent acts. "Old-time" or "traditional" or "roots" music is an inclusive enough term to take in not the specific sound of the Bluegrass Boys and their imitators, but all of the complex producers of the American roots musical traditions that gave rise to bluegrass as a single offshoot.
posted by Miko at 2:09 PM on October 6 [4 favorites]

The banjo and mandolin aspects of bluegrass very quickly get into white-boy equipment fests. I know a few folks for whom “the sound” starts and ends with a very few years of production from one Gibson plant in Michigan. Folks who'll happily pay 10K+ for a particular instrument but who can only play a couple of rolls veryveryvery fast.

Rhiannon is the best, tho.
posted by scruss at 8:49 AM on October 7 [2 favorites]

The banjo and mandolin aspects of bluegrass very quickly get into white-boy equipment fests.

Oh yeah...and man, it's fuckin' tedious to encounter. If you'd rather talk about gear than actually play some music... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:37 AM on October 7 [2 favorites]

It's super interesting to me how she uses the term "bluegrass." Is it just because it's the IBMA? She certainly does know the music's history. I can't quite tell if she's challenging the dominant narrative of bluegrass as a commercial invention, or if she's more just lightly touching that aspect of the musical history/terminology for the listening audience. I suppose I should read through her bibliography (awesome to provide that) and maybe that'll enlighten me as to her use of the term to describe her music. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, for instance, I'd have always classified as squarely "old-time."
posted by Miko at 5:19 AM on October 8

It's super interesting to me how she uses the term "bluegrass."

I think part of that is that music is, by long tradition, characterized as "Genres" so that record stores ( remember them? ) could buy and organize stuff in a manageable way. I'd go with Country/Americana rather than Country/Bluegrass myself, but you know, banjo players /shrug_emoji...
posted by mikelieman at 7:53 AM on October 8

not to abuse the edit-window...

Now, as one of them open-source hippie deadhead taper types, I go for a flatter hierarchy, and woundn't MYSELF put either American or Bluegrass under Country, but you know, marketing guys are idiots, so I need to reference the de-facto Genre/Sub-genre naming convention.

So in my taxonomy it's a root category


and would also have Hot Tuna and David Bromberg. We can discuss Christine Lavin...
posted by mikelieman at 7:57 AM on October 8

I agree that genre classifications do flatten, but in my old-time playing circles, calling old-time country music (whether of European-American or African-American origin) "bluegrass" will get you some cold stares and sometimes a lecture. I don't quite get the way she uses the term, since most music historians and players wouldn't call her music bluegrass. But it seems like the industry term is "bluegrass" even for OT music - which is how the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, for instance, which contains no technical bluegrass, got sold as a "bluegrass" record. Perhaps that's just the reality of the way a professional player has to engage with the business structures of music distribution.
posted by Miko at 8:32 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]

And not to go all genre-crazy, but for me, the root category is "American roots music," or "American traditional music," with "Americana" being a late-20th/early 21st-century form of roots-influenced music by songwriters or bands presenting mostly original compositions.
posted by Miko at 8:33 AM on October 8

The complete video on her talk is now available on the IBMA page.
posted by Arbac at 3:20 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

And now Rhiannon Giddens has received a MacArthur fellowship.
posted by larrybob at 6:46 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]

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