String Theory

By Lonnie Harp — September 01, 2003 9 min read
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Bluegrass fans say the mountain-inspired music helps kids understand history—and themselves.

In the Atlanta suburb where 13-year-old Sarah Schneider lives, the instrument tucked under her chin is called a violin. She plays it in her middle school orchestra and takes formal lessons. Here in Lexington, Kentucky, it is something else entirely. As she practices with Steve Mayo, a soft-spoken Indiana farmer more than three times her age, skipping and then pushing the bow across the strings, trying repeatedly to get just the right combination of notes, the instrument in question is a fiddle. Sarah is at a music camp hosted by the Festival of the Bluegrass, a four-day outdoor music festival where students learn to play bluegrass the traditional way—one riff at a time, from seasoned musicians.

“Nobody in my school plays music like this, but I’ve been listening to it all my life,” Sarah says. “It’s fun.” Her grandmother, Patty Gillespie of Shepherdsville, Kentucky, observes her progress from a nearby chair in the shade. Gillespie has attended the Festival of the Bluegrass all 30 years it’s taken place. She carries a sandwich bag with pictures of her children alongside bluegrass players and one of her husband selling a horse to Bill Monroe, the mandolin-playing “Father of Bluegrass.” Watching her granddaughter, she beams as the music she’s always loved becomes something more personal.

These are changing times for bluegrass. The musical form, with its fast- paced harmonic sound, was created by self-taught farmers, miners, and working- class people who were in the midst of a transition themselves—from rural lives in Appalachia and the South to factory work in bigger cities—in the years after the Great Depression. Now, the style is seeing many of its original masters pass from the stage. At the same time, country music, which has long had a noticeable connection with bluegrass instruments and styles, is moving away from its roots toward a more commercial pop sound. Yet the twangy, acoustic sounds of old-time songs like “Muleskinner Blues” or “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” still have the power to captivate listeners, as demonstrated by the success of the soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The album, a collection of bluegrass and folk songs from artists like Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley, won a Grammy for Album of the Year and sold more than 6 million copies. Seizing a rare moment when mainstream America had a bluegrass tune in its head, the music’s supporters have stepped up their efforts to promote it, especially to young people.

“This music is an important thing that we don’t want to see lost, so we’re looking for ways to introduce it to the next generation,” says Nancy Cardwell, director of special projects for the International Bluegrass Music Association, a group that promotes the musical form and puts on the industry’s annual awards program. “Kids really like bluegrass music—it’s happy, fun music— and it’s nice to catch them before they get into Top 40 radio and become afraid to like something that everyone else doesn’t like.”

Steve Mayo shows Sara Schneider how to make her violin sound like a fiddle at a bluegrass music camp in Kentucky.
—Photograph by Lonnie Harp

IBMA is spreading the word through workshops for teachers, which it holds at bluegrass festivals like this one and at its annual meeting. Organizers say interest among educators has been growing in recent years, albeit mostly in states, such as Kentucky and Ohio, where bluegrass is part of the cultural heritage. In an attempt to reach teachers and students outside traditional bluegrass territory, IBMA has in the works a DVD/CD-ROM on the music’s history and fundamentals, which it plans to market nationally.

This year’s kids’ camp at the Festival of the Bluegrass has drawn nearly 100 students, mostly from Kentucky. It’s clear that they’re getting a kick out of meeting and collaborating with other kids who play their instruments to this different beat. But even these young enthusiasts know bluegrass is not an easy sell. Discussing the opportunities to play or study back home, one teenager remarks that bluegrass doesn’t fit in schools’ music programs. Overhearing the conversation, an adult banjo player jumps in to dismiss the idea that bluegrass is less relevant than other forms of music taught in school. “Once you’re finished with the school band, what are you going to do with a trombone?” he quips.

From a distance, the white tent housing the festival’s teacher training sessions might be mistaken for a country revival. A six-piece band starts playing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” for two dozen teachers in plastic porch chairs and several other festival campers who have wandered up to the tent. Audience members keep time by tapping their feet or nodding, smiling occasionally in recognition as some instrument or sound they’ve just discussed comes through in the song. The performance illustrates many of the basic lessons about instrumentation, beats, and harmonies that band members explained to the teachers earlier.

During the half-day session, the educators at this introductory course learn about the instruments that make up a bluegrass band—banjos, fiddles, upright basses, guitars, and mandolins—and how vocal and instrumental harmonies work together. The idea is to gain an understanding of the musical style, then, after returning home, possibly create a series of classroom lessons or start an after-school bluegrass club or band. The workshop also explores the ways bluegrass conveys lessons about history, rural life, and how American culture has been built by assimilating a variety of individual styles.

Jan Koenig, an enthusiastic 14-year music teacher from eastern Kentucky, finds this part of the course particularly enlightening. “I’ve been trying to help children understand more about their own culture for several years,” she says. Last year, she recalls, she showed her classes at Estill Springs Elementary School a short film about the history and sound of bluegrass music. “When we watched the video, one child looked at the dulcimer and said, ‘My grandpa has one of those.’ To me, it’s sad if they have that hanging on a wall, but the kids don’t know what it’s called.”

Koenig hopes to use what she learns in the course to spark interest in bluegrass among her students, especially those who don’t feel a connection to other musical styles. She’s also considering forming a bluegrass band at her school.

Education standards adopted by many states in the 1990s encourage teachers to explore a greater variety of musical styles and connect music with culture. But bluegrass is often overlooked as a subject, even in the schools of the Bluegrass State of Kentucky itself. Tom Kopp, an assistant professor of education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, says snobbery has made it hard to get bluegrass into school music programs or college music curricula. The biggest obstacle to teaching bluegrass, he contends, is that many stereotype it as worthless “hillbilly” music.

Bluegrass takes its musical cues from many American traditions, including African American blues, ballads transplanted from the British Isles, and Tin Pan Alley pop.

Fans dispute this image. “Bluegrass was traditional-style music made professional,” author Richard D. Smith writes in Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, a biography of the trailblazing Monroe, who brought national attention to the musical form in the 1930s and ‘40s. Smith notes that Monroe and his band always appeared in dress clothes and polished shoes to lend the music status.

Bob Cornett, the festival’s organizer, is a longtime advocate for breaking down prejudices to get bluegrass into schools. “This is really not about bluegrass music, or music at all, but connecting kids with the context of real life,” he argues. He was inspired to add a kids’ camp to his festival a decade ago, after learning about Stanton Elementary School in eastern Kentucky, which strengthened ties between students and their parents and grandparents by forming a children’s bluegrass band now known as the Wise Village Pickers.

Guitarist Joe Meyer plays with students at the Festival of the Bluegrass camp. Educators say bluegrass can teach kids how American culture was created by assimilating a variety of individual styles.

Outside southern and Appalachian states, bluegrass music may not be part of local culture, but it can still be a powerful educational tool, aficionados say. Kopp argues that, through bluegrass, students can understand key periods in American history, such as the hard times of the Depression and the lure of the industrial age. “This is living, breathing U.S. culture, not just something in a book,” he observes. And students may find echoes of their own traditions in the musical form. That’s because, as Smith points out in his Monroe biography, bluegrass takes its musical cues from many American traditions, including African American blues, ballads transplanted from the British Isles, and Tin Pan Alley pop. “Wherever there is improvisational music alive in the community, this could work,” Cornett says.

A decade ago, West Virginia science teacher Peggy Dean didn’t know much about bluegrass. Today, she’s responsible for the featured act in the final concert at the teachers’ workshop—the Duval High School band.

Attending a bluegrass festival inspired Dean to take up the mandolin in 1994. About the same time, she decided to start a bluegrass club and beginner’s band at Duval High, her small, combination middle/high school in Griffithsville, West Virginia. “I asked somebody where I would get my kids, and they said you get them from orchestra,” Dean remembers. “We didn’t have an orchestra and were lucky to have 20 in the marching band.” So she recruited students with no musical background from her science classes.

Teaching the instruments was a slow process, although many students made steady progress and were able to play some simple tunes within weeks. Dean says playing bluegrass has taught students a great deal about teamwork and listening, and many have discovered skills and talents they never imagined they possessed.

Joey Meadows, a stocky 19-year-old, is one such player. He credits the band with no less than changing his life. “In 9th grade, I was going to quit school and probably be a loser and work at McDonald’s,” he says, as he twists a clamp from his banjo in his hands. Then Dean approached him about joining. “She needed a bass player, and I gave it a try,” he recalls. “It took awhile, but all of a sudden, I got it one day. Since then, another guy started and wanted to play bass, and I taught him everything I know.” In turn, Meadows picked up the banjo.

“When I joined the bluegrass club, it gave me something to do besides nothing,” he continues. “I went from making D’s and F’s to the B honor roll. I wanted to make myself look good, I guess—to not just be a failure playing bluegrass.”

Meadows picks the strings of his banjo with confidence as the Duval band runs through several songs for the teachers’ workshop. The students have fun with them, making noises and offering comments that add humor to the lyrics. Their set ends with a lighthearted song about how a new rooster has upset life on a laid-back farm; the school’s exchange student from South Korea handles the vocals.

The Kentucky festival marks Meadows’ last show with the Duval High band. He expects his bluegrass days to continue, however, even as he attends a technical college near Charleston, West Virginia. “There are plenty of people I can play with,” he says. “And if I don’t get in a band with somebody else, I may start my own.”

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