215.542.7871 Donate

Director's Commentary

The Roots of Bluegrass

In the early 1940’s, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys exploded onto the American music scene with a “new” sound … bluegrass music.  But as often is the case, there is a huge backstory which informed and helped Monroe create the unmistakable bluegrass sound.  Before Bill Monroe there was “string band music” and before that “reels”, “jigs” and ballads from Scotland, Ireland and England.  Let’s set the background.

Reels, jigs and ballads are folk dances with an accompanying tune type which date to the 1500s.  Reels are indigenous to Scotland.  When they were introduced to Ireland in the late 1700s, they thrived.  Jigs and ballads also developed in England.  All three spread throughout the British Isles and Europe.

The first five works in this concert are old English folk tunes/ballads discovered and set to the choral format by four different British arrangers: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Sir David Willcocks and Peter Warlock.  The choir calls these pieces our “British set.”

In the late 1700 and early 1800s, immigrants brought these forms of music into the isolated region of southern Appalachia.  Dancing reels and jigs, accompanied by a banjo, fiddle or guitar (and any combination thereof) became the primary form of entertainment, particularly at Saturday night community social functions.  This grouping of instruments became known as “string bands.”

Women became the singers of ballads as they were not permitted to play the instruments used for reels and jigs.  Women sang these ballads around the home while performing chores or prepared food.  These songs became an ever-present and key element of daily life.  In tonight’s concert, this heritage is exemplified by a soprano soloist singing an unaccompanied ballad at the beginning and the end of the Bluegrass Mass.

Of important note is the impact of African Americans on this genre.  The banjo is a form of an instrument from Western Africa that was essentially a split gourd with animal hide stretched over it.  The banjo we know now was still far off, but the makings of the instrument were in place.

Also, string bands adopted elements of African American “blues.”  The blues originated on Southern plantations in the 19th Century.  Its inventors were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves—African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields.  Without getting too technical, most blues music is comprised of 12 bars (or measures) with a specific series of notes or scale. The individual parts of this scale are known as “the blue notes.”

Because of the profound regional isolation of southern Appalachia, which was not broken until the post-Civil War railroads, this region’s folk music was maintained generation after generation largely without change.  For example, in the late 1800s – early 1900s, British musicologist Cecil Sharp had dedicated his life to collecting English folk songs.  He was sufficiently impressed with the integrity of the oral tradition in Appalachia that he spent two months in that region resulting in his book English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians.  Peter, Paul & Mary later arranged and performed many of those songs.

Eventually, in the late 1800s the more talented and enterprising string bands began to tour across rural America giving concerts largely in one-house school houses.  While the crowds enjoyed secular music, it was when the string bands played religious music that attendees would get quiet and listen with more focus.

The religious music the string bands performed included arrangements of hymns, largely from the Midwest, where the constant poverty, harsh living conditions, and hope in heaven were reminiscent of Appalachia.  Tonight, The Choristers will perform arrangements of three such hymns: Unclouded Day, Angel Band and Hallelujah by arranged by Shawn Kirchne.  Aaron Copland’s The Promise of Living gives voice to authentic American values of self-reliance combined with loving one’s neighbors.

There are many other influences on “country music” as it was known by the 1920’s and 1930’s: shape-note singing, minstrel shows, the birth of jazz and its tradition of improvisation, German accordion rhythms, fiddler John Carson, and the Carter family … the list goes on and on.

It was with this wealth of background that Kentucky native Bill Monroe fused together different elements to create the distinct genre that he termed “bluegrass.”  The rest is history.  Tonight, you will hear the DePue Brothers perform a bluegrass standard ~ Orange Blossom Special.

The popularity of bluegrass has somewhat waxed and waned over the last eight decades.  The latest revival can be traced to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou where bluegrass was given the Hollywood treatment.  Set in 1937 rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, the film’s story is a modern satire loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey.  The film’s soundtrack is a collaboration of many string band greats, including vocal soloist Alison Krauss.  The movie incorporated her rendering of an old hymn Down In The River To Pray.  Tonight, The Choristers and the DePue Brothers will perform an arrangement of that hymn.

About Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass

In The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, composer Carol Barnett brings, in her words, “the solemnity of the classical choir-based mass together with the down-home sparkle of bluegrass.”  The 2007 work is scored for choir and soloists paired with a traditional bluegrass instrumentation of fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, and string bass.  The work is a joyful affirmation of life expressed in sophisticated choral sound and jubilant bluegrass harmonies.  Chamberlain writes:

“Bluegrass is more than a sound. The lyrics of so many bluegrass songs display an unpretentious, earthy philosophy that is easy to sing and easy to understand: Adam lives just up the street and Eve’s the girl next door.  Love is the major theme — frustrated yearning love, secret, satisfied love, or boldly proclaimed love.  And although romantic love between two people is huge in bluegrass, so is love of God, the Gospel tradition. 'In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us,' says John in the Gospel, which launches our Bluegrass Mass as an immediate story of love between Creator and creation.”

Structurally, the piece alternates between “ballads” (in which the story of God’s love reads like a country song) and the traditional elements of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Credo, and Agnus Dei.  Some of these traditional movements remain in the original Latin and Greek: Kyrie, Sanctus and the Agnus Dei.  The Gloria and the Credo are recast with new words, and a theology which is more inclusive, by lyricist Marisha Chamberlain.

In the spirit of that inclusiveness, the choir hopes you will join in singing This Land Is Your Land at the end of the concert.