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.