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Review: Bluegrass Breakdown

Richie 23 Nov 02 - 09:47 PM
Oaklet 24 Nov 02 - 10:35 AM
Rick Fielding 24 Nov 02 - 01:10 PM
Richie 24 Nov 02 - 01:51 PM
Rick Fielding 24 Nov 02 - 02:32 PM
ballpienhammer 24 Nov 02 - 06:51 PM
dick greenhaus 24 Nov 02 - 07:00 PM
Richie 24 Nov 02 - 08:46 PM
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Subject: Review: Bluegrass Breakdown
From: Richie
Date: 23 Nov 02 - 09:47 PM

Bluegrass Breakdown "The Making of the Old Southern Sound"
by Robert A Cantwell 1984 (A Short Review)Recommended by Mark Clark, a Mudcat member.

This is not an easy book, nor one that can be taken lightly. Bluegrass Breakdown "The Making of the Old Southern Sound" is an insightful tour de force of the world of bluegrass music.

The writing style is deep and probing with terse metaphors and an intellectual grasp of Bluegrass and its leader, Bill Monroe. It begins with Monroe and works back to the minstrel roots and origins using florid images to carry the reader along the journey.

The problem and strength of "Bluegrass Breakdown" is Cantwell's writing style. For the average bluegrasser, you may wade Cripple Creek but "Cripple Creek is muddy and Cripple Creek is deep-" be forewarned, if this analogy to Cantwell puzzles you, then reading the book will leave you, well puzzled…if you can manage to finish it.

Even though Cantwell knows his bluegrass, it ain't easy to figure the man. His tangents and sweeping forays into other realms of the arts (Benton's artwork or Cooleridge or Beethoven) or areas leave me astonished. There are some great glimpses and brilliant lines but there are just as many flights of fantasy which must be read two or three times with bewilderment.

"There ain't no notes on a banjo, you just pick it," is something I understand. Now here's a typical line from Cantwell:

"In a traditional culture, and in other finds of communities such as the family in which beliefs, values, ideas, attitudes, practices, and experiences are conscientiously preserved and shared, in which the individual, perhaps, has neither the opportunity, the necessity, nor the means to formulate his own private and independent sense of life, the artist expresses, in a sense, the imagination of the community as a whole, its sense of life: a condition to which the modern individual artist can only aspire."

Get what I mean, Vern. After reading stuff like this a few times you just have to move on and look at the pictures!

It's not like the whole book is esoteric, just about one third of it. The guy is a genius but his writing style can get heavy. For those who want to delve into the deep- you're not going to find a better or more insightful book on bluegrass, for those who like it easy- all I can say is, "the only song that I can sing is bile dem cabbage down."


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Subject: RE: Review: Bluegrass Breakdown
From: Oaklet
Date: 24 Nov 02 - 10:35 AM

This thread need a little oxygen

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Subject: RE: Review: Bluegrass Breakdown
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 24 Nov 02 - 01:10 PM

Hi Richie. Thanks for reviewing Cantwell's fascinating book. I think you've nailed it pretty good, but if I may, I'd like to disagree on a point. You say that "Cantwell knows his Bluegrass" and I'm really in a quandry about that. I certainly think that Cantwell READ everything he could get his hands on that was available at the time, and I have no doubt that he listened to many an old record, talked to quite a few players, and visited some historic sites.

Shouldn't that be enough (combined with his obvious writing skills) to 'tell the story'?

Not in my opinion. I think Cantwell's book certainly takes an honoured place on the Bluegrass bookshelf, along with quite a few other (albeitly less literarily 'hip') volumes.

I seem to recall from another thread that you're a 'player', and so you know the value of 'first hand experience' and 'first hand reporting'

Musicians are NOT the most articulate spokespeople for their art, but by golly they're the only ones who truly know what's happening behind the mikes. I suspect gettin' them to talk about it in a way that a 'civilian' would understand is quite an art in itself.

Since I gather that the only folks interested in this thread will be people who've invested heavily in Bluegrass, I won't go through the list of 'picker/journalists' who've tried to tell the 'bluegrass story' over the years....we all know 'em.

Heck, two of the most profound, statements on the music come from non-journalist Marty Stuart (yup the still-young long time musician) who said:

"Those old guys must have just burned with a fire for the music to do all that bad travellin' on THOSE roads". I'm paraphrasing, 'cause it's been a while since I read his quotes.

He also said: (when talking about the Monroe/Flatt&Scruggs etc. feuds)
"These were 'Mountain Men' and they could hold a grudge or a slight for generations". Marty grew up on tour (from about age 7) and knew what he was talkin about.

Anyway, I'm getting as long-winded (but with far less skill) as Cantwell can. All I really wanted to do was suggest another book from the 'Bluegrass Library'. I've learned far more from it than from biographies of Monroe, Stanley etc.

It's called: AMERICA'S MUSIC...BLUEGRASS. A history of bluegrass music in the words of it's pioneers.

It's by a man named Captain Barry R Willis.......and cost me one hell of a lot of money ('bout seventy bucks American....I'm Canadian and live in Toronto) but has been worth it ten fold. I simply love the music deeply, both to play it and listen.....but especially to listen.

Many of the articles and books on this distinct musical form have been written by Academic liberals (who were often superb pickers and singers) and no matter how much they loved the music (and the musicians) often the core beliefs between interviewer and interviewee could not have been farther apart, resulting in a bit of caution from both sides.

Much of (Captain) Willis' information here comes from long phone calls with his informants (including MANY now in their mid-eighties) and at no point do I get the feeling that these old-timers are anything but 'on the same page' as the author, as far as politics, religion, and THE IMPORTANCE of THEIR music. It makes a difference, believe me.

Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley may have become deified, but just listen to Carl Sauceman, Charlie Cline, Curley Seckler, Melvin Goins, Vern and Ray, Wade Mainer, Wiley Morris and a hundred other "First and second generation" Bluegrassers (and near bluegrassers) talk freely and openly about what it was like to sing and play from the heart for VERY little money. It is so close to the stories of real Jazz players that it's almost scary.

I've had a ball for four years on Mudcat, talkin' about life as a professional musician....all the amazing, silly, weird, rewarding, and frustrating things that can happen over thirty plus years...but one area of personal stuff that I generally stay away from is "Bluegrass", even though I'm a fanatic about the music, and have played a lot of it over the story is a common one 'City person first hears the records, learns the songs and has fun with the music' (even makes some money at it)....the REAL story comes from the folks in "America's Music" Bluegrass. Oh....there are TONS of typos, and a lot of 'rural grammar' so if that bothers you, stay away....but along with Cantwell's interesting book, Captain Barry Willis' one should also be read.

Cheers, and thanks for startin' the thread Richie.


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Subject: RE: Review: Bluegrass Breakdown
From: Richie
Date: 24 Nov 02 - 01:51 PM

Thanks for your insight and contributions Rick, because of you and others I'm starting to get a handle on it. If anyone has any other books they could recommend it would be helpful. I am a member of the High Lonesome Strings Bluegrass Association in NC and try and get out to as many festivals as I can.

Rick, I think you're right- although Cantwell did his research it's hard to feel he is directly involved with the bluegrass musician. Cantwell seems so far removed form the pickers and it's hard to empathize with his articulate insights and positions.

The reason I read and subsequently reviewed the book, "Bluegrass Breakdown" is to try and get some insight into what "bluegrass" really is. There have been several recent threads including:

Review: Is Appalachian Folk Music= Bluegrass?
Genealogy of Bluegrass
Celtic Roots of Bluegrass sought
Why Bluegrass?

It seems in some regard that many people don't seem to know what "bluegrass" is, or the difference between, "old-time" and "bluegrass." Although Cantwell writes about both, he doesn't offer up concise definitions. He does go into what bluegrass is and where it came from including the important blues, Appalachian folk, and minstrel roots.

The questions I'd like feedback on are:

What is bluegrass? (a defintion) (How many people, what instruments etc.)

Where did it come from? (roots and influences)

Is the banjo an American instrument? (even if it originated from "bania" in Western Africa)

What is the difference between, "old-time" and "bluegrass?"

If rock or any kind of music is played by a bluegrass band, is it "bluegrass" music?


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Subject: RE: Review: Bluegrass Breakdown
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 24 Nov 02 - 02:32 PM

I've given my own opinions on those questions lots of times here, BUT I've just gone downstairs and gotten Barry Willis' book.

The general consensus (if there IS one) appears to be that when Earl Scruggs added his PARTICULAR style of 3 finger pickin (as opposed to what most of the other North Carolinans were doing) to Monroe's string band....ya got BLUEGRASS.

....but only about three of the veterans actually agreed with that. (it's good enough for me though)

As long as there are some who argue that the ONLY instrumentation that's authentic is: Fiddle, Mandolin, Banjo, guitar and bass......and that Dobro, harmonica, and anything else are "johnny come lately" instruments, then we'll have something to discuss and argue about for years.

If ya wanna shake up some folks who THINK they know all about Bluegrass.....remind them about all the times that Monroe used ELECTRIC instruments, AFTER Scruggs was in the band. (yes he did)

Great fun isn't it?


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Subject: RE: Review: Bluegrass Breakdown
From: ballpienhammer
Date: 24 Nov 02 - 06:51 PM

as a newcomer to bluegrass and very infatuated with it, thanks for
the opinions and bibliography. I began the "Appalachian folk music= bluegrass" thread as a sincere question. I am happy with the many kind folks who offered remarks and insight. I am not a purist, merely one who loves MOST folk music styles. Best of all,I like the pickin' and can imagine the grinnin' by the artists. I only wish I had the genius many of you possess to be so musically creative and artistic. In the mean time I will listen...and read...and enjoy. Listening to three 9 yr olds play Wildwood Flower last week, in the back of a little country music store gave me goosebumps. This website and forum has opened up musical enjoyment to me(an old jug band player), I had hard- headedly refused to hear: bluegrass. Now I weigh carefully what I hear, not being crical, merely looking for the "perfect sound". I'm certain I will find many! thanks, Tim

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Subject: RE: Review: Bluegrass Breakdown
From: dick greenhaus
Date: 24 Nov 02 - 07:00 PM

"Old Southern Sound?" Aw c'mon. there really was southern music a bit before the 1940s.

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Subject: RE: Review: Bluegrass Breakdown
From: Richie
Date: 24 Nov 02 - 08:46 PM

In this case, the "old southern sound" is the term Bill Monroe used to describe his music. Even though his music is now considered innovative and created a music genre, I believe he felt that it was based on the old sounds that echoed through the Appalachians, the same sounds he grew up with and shaped his musical identity.

The old southern sounds were the ones that he was trying to capture, the old ballad, an old minstrel song or blues song that fertilized the hills of his youth. Monroe probably though of himself as a preserver not an innovator. I don't think he was really aware of his destiny but he was stubborn and stuck to his music. And for that he should be admired.


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