“Noam Chomsky has described the contemporary Republican Party as 'the most dangerous organization in human history'.” - Joseph O'Neill, 'Save the Party, Save the World,' New York Review of Books, August, 20, 2020.
"Why do you think I have chosen solitude? Commerce with men is a dangerous business. The only way I have found to avoid being betrayed is to live alone." - Jean-Pierre Melville.
One week prior to the most significant US Presidential elections in decades, local denizens of Lower Hutt's Moera Hall were treated to Wellington-based bluegrass band T-Bone's broad canvas of musical styles, including tinges of bluegrass, old-time, country, cajun, and zydeco influences. They currently comprise a multi-instrumental acoustic quintet who share an obvious passion for painting with an effervescent and polychromatic palette. The result is an accomplished blend of high-octane Americana music with fiery solos on guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and fiddle, and close vocal harmonies on their slower, more melancholy tunes.
Since getting together in 2005, they have appeared at numerous Antipodean folk festivals, as well as the 2015 Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Borneo. Alongside Aaron Stewart, Cameron Dusty Barnell is multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter who has toured extensively with The Frank Burkitt Band, The Federal String Band, The Hardcore Troubadours, and as one half of the duo Kim and Dusty. Gerry Paul is an award-winning songwriter, musician, and producer, as well as a highly respected session musician who has performed and recorded with Grammy Award winning bluegrass icon Tim O’Brien, Irish platinum-selling accordion maestro Sharon Shannon, and Bansoori player Ravi Kumur, as well as with his own band Gráda. Largely self-taught fiddler, Richard “The Pimp” Klein is a connoisseur of fine wines from New Jersey, best known for his previous collaboration with Melbourne's Le Blanc Brothers Cajun Band.
There has perhaps never been a more polarizing or argument-provoking genre of music than bluegrass, a development of American roots music that derives its name from Bill Monroe's pioneering band, The Blue Grass Boys, and flowered in the 1940s. Traditionalists insist it has to include a banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass, with three-part harmonies and maybe even a bass fiddle thrown in, but certainly no amplified bass or drums.
While some believe the rapid growth of the jam band scene has hurt bluegrass, others think musicians like Allison Krauss have converted the genre from the gutsy, ballad-spewing, breakneck tempo music that it was into the wispy, AM-gold, elevator music that much of it has become. Or maybe The Berklee School of Music is to blame, producing graduates who have gone on to make some of the most polished and overproduced music on the American music scene.
The real reason why people either love or hate it remains strangely elusive and difficult to define. Jam bands have co-opted bluegrass, using it as a platform for extended bouts of self-indulgent improvisation, only to come around after hours of psychedelic exploration to zip through updated versions of such classic standards as "How Mountain Girls Can Love".
It is hardly surprising that Jerry Garcia loved bluegrass and originally aspired to be a banjo player in Monroe’s band. Had he taken an interest in klezmer music and played a clarinet, it is arguable that Deadheads would have come to prefer klezmer music over bluegrass. Monroe himself characterized the genre as “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound." Its retrograde racist and misogynistic roots lie deeply embedded in traditional English, Scottish, and Irish ballads, dance tunes and reels, originally transported down the Mississippi by French Canadian traders and Canuck fur trappers. The style was further developed after WWII by a number of exceptionally gifted musicians who played with Monroe, including five-string banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs and scrupulous finger-picking guitarist Lester Flatt.
Bluegrass generally features acoustic string instruments and emphasizes the off-beat. Notes are anticipated, creating the characteristic, accelerated level of high octane playing, in contrast to more laid back blues where they are more often played slightly behind the beat, or “in the pocket.” As in jazz, instrumentalists take turns playing the melody and improvising around it, while the other musicians perform accompaniment, typified by tunes called 'breakdowns' that are characterized by rapid tempos, unusual instrumental dexterity, and complex chord changes, as opposed to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together, or one instrument carries the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment.
Three main sub-genres are broadly discernible: in traditional bluegrass, musicians play folk songs with traditional chord progression on acoustic instruments; progressive bluegrass groups like The Punch Brothers, Cadillac Sky, and Bearfoot tend to employ electric instruments and import songs from other genres, particularly rock & roll; while bluegrass gospel employs Christian lyrics, soulful three and four-part harmonies, and sometimes solo instrumentals. A more recent development is neo-traditional bluegrass that typically involves more than one lead singer, as exemplified by bands such as The Grascals and Mountain Heart.
Emphasising an unplugged sound, especially the unnerving twang of banjos and fiddles, bluegrass performers have adopted the scornful sensibility of an ancient musical tradition handed down from the distant mists of time. In reality, however, the genre is only ten years older than rock 'n' roll. As performed by its earliest practitioners, it was considered a radical innovation in its time - much faster and more precise than any of the old-time mountain music that preceded it. Some celebrate its birth year around 1940, when Monroe made his first recordings for RCA, while others prefer 1945, when he hired Scruggs, whose three-finger banjo roll made the music much leaner and more virtuosic than before. In any case, Monroe’s musical modernism proved as revolutionary in country music as the concurrent phase of bebop pioneers did in jazz.
The progressive nature of Monroe’s music was camouflaged by the conservative cast of his lyrics. His music echoed the power of the radios and telephones that had reached into isolated Appalachian communities and connected them to the outside world. It also reflected the increased velocity of the cars and trains that were liberating young people from farms and small rural towns into Atlanta and Northern industrial cities. The lyrics assuaged the homesickness of people on the move by providing a sentimental sense of nostalgia for a rapidly vanishing way of life. Bands such as The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers, and The Larry Stephenson Band ably fill this role, taking classic Monroe recordings as a template to follow, rather than an inspiration to change.
There are still plenty of bands doing it Monroe’s way, spitting out lyrical tales of heartache interspersed with rapid mandolin and banjo breaks, but when Monroe 'invented' the genre, it was genuinely outsider music compared to the sort of glossy Bing Crosby/Perry Como/Tony Bennett crooning popular in post-war America. From the late 1950s and well into the seventies, many mid-Atlantic areas flourished with bluegrass bands. It was an aggressive and emotional music mostly heard mostly in bars where sawdust covered the floors and remained stubbornly beyond mainstream acceptance, despite the commercial success of soundtrack albums from The Beverly Hillbillies to Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance.
America's musical heritage remains a racial minefield, however. Prejudice pops up regularly to complicate tunes we would prefer simply to enjoy, in the same way it feels weird these days to watch an old Mel Gibson movie. Take "Big Bend Gal", for instance, a catchy fiddle-and-vocal number about a female field hand who is ”the queen of the whole plantation” and includes such lines as “There’s no use talking about the Big Bend Gal who lives at the county line / For Betsy Jane from the prairie plain just leaves them way behind.” "Big Bend Gal" was first recorded in 1927 by the Shelor Family of Virginia, who were white and sang it in a raw hillbilly style with lines that put nowadays put a damper on the festivities.
"Jump Jim Crow" is another popular fiddle tune with a dubious history whose refrain goes “Weel about and turn about and do jis so / Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.” In the early 1830s, a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth Rice adopted the song and its eponymous trickster character for a comedy act that would catapult him to international fame. Donning rags and blackface, Rice performed send-ups of black speech and culture, song and dance. He wrote endless new verses for his signature ditty - corny slapstick humor with the occasional social commentary:
And if de blacks should get free,
I guess dey’ll fee some bigger,
An I shall concider it,
A bold stroke for de niggar.
Rice’s success paved the way for a wave of mean-spirited blackface performers and the 'Jim Crow' moniker soon became synonymous with American apartheid. In the post-bellum period, black entertainers also did blackface routines for a time, before moving on to blues or jazz-based vaudeville acts. “The first one or two generations of black performers took those stereotypes to a far deeper degree of racist imagery than even the white performers did,” said Don Flemons, a black fiddler and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who moved on to a solo career in 2014 and has a passion for black cowboy songs. Black performers often “subverted these images and black audiences could tell,” but white minstrelsy evolved into something “more sinister.”
Sporting a fedora and grizzled love patch, (Richard) Klein is well positioned to undercut the music's more questionable aspects, peppering the playlist with Northern Union, Italian revolutionary, and Bob Marley protest songs. He carved a crisp and clean path through the sort of gut-bucket hoe-downs more typically associated with the unfortunate inhabitants of trailer parks - poor, white, and predominantly found in the most impoverished regions of the US that have experienced the ravages of coal-mine closures, the collapse of public education and consequent mass illiteracy, and the devastating effects of prescription opiate addiction. These Southern and Midwestern states are the rabid heartland of Bible-bashing and heavily-weaponised Trump supporters.
Without any effort at explanation or historical contextualisation, such enthusiasm for a musical genre steeped in racial and misogynistic stereotypes runs the risk of being seen as just another a patronising affectation, like the Tom Waits hat and strange facial hair. Fortunately Klein's solid and well-informed performance was pitch perfect and provided exactly the right equilibrium. The audience - which ranged in age toddlers to grannies - certainly appreciated the band's toe-tapping antics, which were neatly balanced out by some soulful harmony singing on the slower numbers. A little fiddle can go a long way, but mercifully there were no klezmers or accordions in evidence.