Ben-Meir: We need us more bluegrass

Last week I casually suggested to a friend that she listen to more bluegrass. Her slightly stunned and vaguely appalled response drove home a stark reality: Yale has a severe bluegrass deficit.

While we can proudly lay claim to stirring architecture, brilliant professors and a surfeit of British art, we have far fewer banjos and mandolins than other leading research universities (although Tangled Up In Blue fights valiantly to combat this imbalance). As a result, we are missing out on the valuable lessons that only bluegrass can teach.

Most fundamentally, bluegrass is about musicianship. The lion’s share of bluegrass recordings are standards, differentiated from other recordings of the same song primarily through instrumental variation. Different interpretations sometimes use different instruments, but more often set themselves apart through astonishing displays of technical proficiency. The dynamics of a jam give a powerful example of how to assert individuality while remaining part of a group.

The songs themselves are simple, the complexities contained almost entirely within and between the performers. Listening to bluegrass breakdowns reveals the limits of what is possible on a banjo, guitar, mandolin or fiddle. Moreover, doing so allows one to sharpen one’s ear for the nuances of particular performers and combinations. In allowing for such an immediate connection between the performer and the music, bluegrass reinforces our appreciation of music as something deeply human.

While the sublimity of Beethoven or Handel makes it easy to forget that all music comes from an individual impulse to create or communicate, the experimentation and prowess central to bluegrass playing makes the individual impossible to forget. This makes the music not only more approachable, but also easier to appreciate, as it comes from a recognizable impulse in us all.

Bluegrass also has value as tradition. The songs are old, both in age and sensibility. Coal mining, rail splitting, train hopping, rambling and gambling: Bluegrass is one of the last vestiges of an America that has tremendous worth, as myth if nothing more.

The songs serve almost as an index of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we value. Some of these values are flawed, some dangerously wrong. But notions of family, hard work, passion and solidarity speak to us both as exhortations and self-examination. It is important to understand that bluegrass was created by recent immigrants: The America of these songs never existed, except inasmuch as it exists to this day as a myth we embrace or reject as we define ourselves. The songs give depth, contour and character to concepts and ideologies otherwise easily reduced to oversimplification.

There is also surprising poetry in bluegrass. These are songs about impossible women and unholy men, nature and the supernatural. The cast of players drinks too much and fights tooth-and-nail, puts everything on the line in a game of cards and hops the next train if it doesn’t work out. More than other genres, bluegrass is a narrative art, colored with a Romantic sensibility.

Bluegrass songs are case studies in economy of language, telling complete stories in three-odd minutes. They also provide sterling examples of how minute details can interweave a narrative, providing a completeness that broader exposition can never match. A little rosewood coffin speaks volumes about the child inside, and a 9-pound hammer knocks home a definite portrait of the man swinging it. The juxtaposition of thematic grandiosity and frequent close-ups suggests something fundamental about storytelling, about the way we anchor our fictions in the recognizable even while launching them into the fantastic.

Bluegrass is a genre too often scorned. Frequently cast as hillbilly-ish, antiquated and lacking mad beats, it is easy to ignore, and the price of doing so is small. But to the seeking ear, bluegrass offers esoteric delights. One can learn as much about structure and order, myth and reality, sound and sense from a banjo as from any history book or postmodernist manifesto. Bluegrass teaches a lesson that can be applied to much of what we do here at Yale: If one listens between the lines, there’s more music than the ear can hear.

Ilan Ben-Meir is a sophomore in Trumbull College.


  • Luna

    Yashar koach to Ben-Meir on Bluegrass! I (midwesterner, not from or at Yale) have been a bluegrass devotee forever. It’s a brilliant, inspired music and even among local, not widely known bands, its players are in virtuoso range — you just about have to be to play bluegrass. Carl Story, Ricky Skaggs, the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, Seldom Scene, Doyle Lawson… music that will lift you up, no lie. Saying this as a Ramones / Shostakovich / Bach /Mozart devotee. Don’t be provincial ya’ll, listen up to some bluegrass.

  • Old and in the Way

    If only the average Yale student wrote as well and had as good taste in matters musical as does Ilan…Alas. Alas.

  • Goldie ’08

    I am all for more folk, bluegrass and other “americana” genres (modern country is filth) but I argue that Yale is already well ahead of its peers in this arena: Perhaps you’ve heard of our Bass playing provost and the “Professors of Bluegrass.” Definitely a unique aspect of Yale that I loved while I was there. Salovey can really “slappa de bass”

  • CC’09

    Thanks for a fine piece; music journalism could benefit a lot from more writing like yours.

    Two criticisms, however:

    1) “While the sublimity of Beethoven or Handel makes it easy to forget that all music comes from an individual impulse to create or communicate” strikes me as an unfortunate choice of example. Did you really choose Beethoven because you actually think that his music is about something other than intense, direct personal expression… or did you choose Beethoven because he’s a recognizable name?
    More importantly, though, are you sure that ALL music comes from an impulse to create/communicate? I’m not sure I agree: it’s an important aspect of much music, but music is a heterogeneous body of sounds and behaviors… I wouldn’t be so quick to make (aesthetically charged) generalizations about “all music”.

    2) My main comment, though: ok, you’ve convinced us that we ought to listen to more bluegrass. But where do we start? Presumably when you write from an appreciation of a style, you have particular artists of that style in mind… why not point us in the right direction by telling us who they are?

  • anonymouse

    yale needs more KENTUCKIANS

  • Charles

    Ricky Skaggs and his Kentucky frikking Thunder

  • Sage Snider

    I totally agree! Bluegrass is way under-appreciated! Thanks for giving me such a great explanation of why it is so powerful and interesting. I’ll be sending this to my incredibly skeptical family!

  • LM

    Well said! Even I, somewhat of a classical music snob, love bluegrass and string band music. I was introduced to sting band music by my brother, now an American Lit prof at Texas A&M, when I was a teen. For many years, he played 5-string banjo and 12-string guitar in a string band with other profs called, fittingly, The King’s English.

    The songs and stories may be simple, but the improvisations and interaction among musicians are complex and require a high level of technical skill and musicianship.

  • Luna

    Yeah! Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder!

    Yeah! More Kentuckians at Yale!

    Kentuckians are mighty smart and mighty good at poker face wit that may well go right by you. There’s a live folk culture there. Distinctive.

    (p.s. I’m not tooting my own horn, because I’m not from Kentucky, but I’m in a border state and I’m just sayin’)

  • dzazvze

    TOMORROW NIGHT.. Virtuoso bluegrass mandolinist and legendary American roots musician ANDY STATMAN is playing a free concert in the Davenport Common Room! It’s true!!

    Thursday 1 November, Yale University (free and open to the public):
    4 PM: A Conversation with Andy Statman
    Pierson College Master’s House
    231 Park Street
    New Haven CT 06511

    7 PM: A Concert by Andy Statman and Larry Eagle
    Davenport College Common Room
    248 York Street
    New Haven CT 06511

    (followed by Union Street Preservation Society at 8:15)