Thursday, February 27, 2020

Bluegrass Music - the Next Generations

Bluegrass bands and singers, many of them cross over from Country and Folk music have proliferated to the point where there are likely thousands of them across North America and elsewhere. They got their boost in the 1960s and with the popularity of Bluegrass Festivals never looked back. I know a few of the second generation like Ricky Scaggs, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill who are also country singers and bands like the Del McCoury Band or the Osbourne Brothers. Third generation from the 1990s includes Alison Kraus and Union Station, the Cox Family, mainly from the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou along with eg The Charlie Daniels Band and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I have not been keeping up obviously. This post will feature bands from the 21st century (whom I had to Google, embarrassingly enough).

Here is a site that lists a few hundred bands and singers.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Bluegrass Music - the Instruments

A traditional five-piece bluegrass band consisted of guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and upright bass. A dobro guitar might be added to bring the band to six instruments. Flatt and Scruggs added a dobro guitar and dropped the mandolin. This post will attempt to explain the history and use of these instruments in bluegrass music.

The flat-top acoustic guitar appeared in the 1920s as a backup instrument providing the rhythm behind the lead instruments or an accompaniment for country singers. There are many records available of these early country musicians in which the simple boom-chicka boom-chicka rhythm and strong bass runs can be clearly heard. The style is simple and direct, but perfectly suited to the straight-forward music it accompanies. The Carter Family’s Maybelle Carter was an early example of guitar playing lead or melody. For the most part, the bluegrass guitarists were the indispensable mainstay of the bluegrass band, punching out the rhythm and interspersing bass runs with a few licks, to back up the other lead instruments, especially fiddle, mandolin, and banjo.

Banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs did play lead guitar on several occasions, adapting his three-finger banjo style to the guitar. However, it was not until the sixties that the guitar really came into its own as a lead instrument worthy of a solo in a bluegrass instrumental or song. The most dynamic guitarist to emerge from the country music scene was not a bluegrass musician at all, but a mountain singer and flat-picker from North Carolina named Doc Watson. His influence was immediate, and the youngsters all over America started learning to play lead acoustic guitar with a flatpick.

The Banjo is of African origin and became a popular instrument in Appalachia. It'sAfrican-derived rhythms were incorporated into popular songs by Stephen Foster and other songwriters. Early forms of the instrument were fashioned by Afro-Americans in the United States, adapted from African instruments of similar design. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African American traditional music and the folk culture of rural whites before entering the mainstream via the minstrel shows of the 19th century. Along with the fiddle, the banjo is a mainstay of old-time and bluegrass music.

The five-string resonator banjo, played in several common styles, is used almost exclusively in bluegrass music. These include Scruggs style, named after Earl Scruggs; melodic, or Keith style, named for Bill Keith; and three-finger style with single-string work, also called Reno style after Don Reno. For the most part, Scruggs style banjo is played in bluegrass music. Earl Scrugg's Foggy Mountain Breakdown is considered the National Anthem of Bluegrass Music. This 1949 original recording below was used as the theme song in the movie Bonnie and Clyde. In old-time music, the banjo is played in what is called “clawhammer style.” This is a rhythmic style with the right hand striking or brushing down on the strings.

The mandolin has been a core instrument in bluegrass music from the beginning, along with guitar, fiddle, banjo, upright bass, and sometimes dobro. There are two styles of bluegrass mandolin. Both have flat or nearly flat backs and arched tops. The so-called a-style mandolin has a teardrop-shaped body; the f-style mandolin, played by Bill Monroe and many others, is more stylized, with a spiraled wooden cone on the upper side and a couple of points on the lower side. There are also two types of sound holes, the classic round or oval hole, and the more modern pair of f-holes similar to those found on a violin. Both the shape of the instrument and the shape of the holes affect the tone of the instrument; the f-style, f-hole mandolins have the brightest, most penetrating sound, while the a-style, round holed mandolins generally have a fuller, sweeter tone.

In the performance of bluegrass music, each instrument has a specific part to play. The mandolin fills three roles at different times during a tune. It's used to play a backup rhythm, mostly on the 'off beat' & in playing a break or solo during a song/instrumental or a 'dedicated' mandolin instrumental, where the other bluegrass instruments will take their own solo (break). Bluegrass music is characterized by songs with simple, straightforward verses and choruses, interspersed with showy instrumental improvisations called "breaks", provided by the melody instruments, including the mandolin. A good mandolin break may stick fairly closely to the melody of the tune, or it may be almost all improvisation around the chord progression.

Any Bill Monroe video will give a good example of Bluegrass mandolin but the next video does double duty. The bluegrass band California, playing Goldrush with Bill Monroe, is a great example of bluegrass fiddle playing and at 1:28 Bill comes in with the mandolin.

The Bluegrass Fiddle is an integral part of almost all bluegrass bands. The difference between a fiddle and a violin is the type of music that is played on it. Generally, fiddles play folk/traditional genres and violins play composition-based genres. The original Appalachia fiddle tunes were old-time instrumentals designed for dancing. "Old-time fiddle tunes" derived from European folk dance tunes such as Jig, Reel, Breakdown, Schottische, Waltz, Two Step, and Polka. The fiddle may be accompanied by banjo or other instruments but are nevertheless called "fiddle tunes". It is separate and distinct from traditions which it has influenced, or have evolved from it, such as bluegrass, country blues, western swing and country rock.

In contrast to the happy, danceable sounds of an old-time string band, bluegrass music is often sad music based on themes of hard times. Bluegrass music is mainly a vocal style, where the instruments support the voices and no single instrument dominates. Bluegrass fiddling is a distinctive style of fiddle playing characterized by bold, bluesy improvisation, off-beat "chopping", and sophisticated use of both double-stops and old-time bowing patterns. (I don’t have a clue what any of that means). Bluegrass fiddle style was developed by Kenny Baker and Bill Monroe beginning in 1957. Bluegrass fiddlers combine from many genres and tend to be highly skilled with strong roots in fiddle rather than violin traditions. As such, they can be seen to disregard the rules that violinists follow; they hold the fiddle the "wrong" way and don't necessarily use the chin or shoulder rests.

The dobro guitar is the generic name for any wood-bodied single cone resonator guitar while Dobro is the registered trademark of the Gibson product line. A resonator guitar is an acoustic guitar that produces sound by conducting string vibrations through the bridge to one or more spun metal cones (resonators). The Dobro Manufacturing Company was founded by the Dopyera brothers in 1929. The dobro was developed in the 1920s by Slovak immigrant and instrument repairman/inventor John Dopyera. Dobro is both a contraction of "Dopyera brothers" and 'good' in their native Slovak.

The dobro was first introduced to country music by Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys in 1938 when dobro player Beecher (Pete) Kirby joined the group. The dobro guitar was introduced into bluegrass music by Josh Graves who joined Flatt and Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys in 1955. Graves got together with Earl Scruggs to develop a new style of dobro-picking based on Earl's three-finger banjo style. and it soon became a defining feature of the bluegrass sound.

The four-string upright bass, sometimes referred to as a double bass or doghouse bass, is the most commonly used bass instrument in traditional bluegrass music and is almost always plucked. The bluegrass bassist is part of the rhythm section, and is responsible for keeping a steady beat, whether fast, slow. Most bluegrass bassists use the full-size or three-quarter size bass. Modern bluegrass ensembles have taken to using an electric bass as it is easier to transport but lacks the rich sound of the upright bass. The base player is sort of the odd person out, almost always placed at the back and rarely plays a break or gets close enough to the mic for harmony.

For those who like bluegrass music without the singing here is a 2-hour compilation for your listening enjoyment. InstrumentalBluegrass

Again, a great deal of information came from Wikipedia, supplemented with the following websites:

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Les Henry: Weather, climate and actual data

The following article is reprinted from Grainews with the author's permission

Les Henry: Weather, climate and actual data
A look at changes in the 30-year average annual temperatures in Swift Current

Stock photo from Getty Images
In recent months there has been much press anxiety about the “Climate Crisis.” The general gist is that planet Earth is warming to the point where we will be scorching to death. Crops will be unable to survive the heat and drought. Climate Change (warming) is the top priority in the minds of many, but not all. The arguments are in two basic camps.

The “Global Warmers” have mathematical models that claim to predict that we are soon over the cliff and all doomed. The solution is to quickly kill coal and petroleum and we will all be saved.

The “Deniers” believe that the climate may be changing, but forces of nature are in charge and mankind have little to do with it.

To deny that climate is changing is to deny that we live on planet Earth. The planet we share is about 1.4 billion years old and climate has gone through many dramatic changes in that time. In more “recent” times of about one million years, we have seen glaciers come and go several times from almost all of the area we farm in Western Canada and as far south as northeast Kansas.

Weather and climate
One thing that all camps agree on is that weather is the day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year conditions that we experience. Climate is the 30-year average. Therefore, if we are talking about climate change, we must trace how the 30-year average is changing.

Climate data for Swift Current, Sask.
As a scientist, it is data that carries the day, not opinion. For the past decade, I have been attempting to assemble historic records long enough to allow temperature to be studied as climate, not weather. Accessible data from Environment Canada is very limited.
Thanks to a long line of dedicated scientists at the Swift Current Agricultural Research Station we now have a complete monthly record of temperature and precipitation from 1886 to present. The first scientists must have assembled existing information because the Swift Current Experimental Farm began in 1920. The data from 1886 on is accessible on the current Environment Canada website.

The three groups of graphs below show how the climate has changed. The 1915 data is the average of data from 1886 to 1915. The 2018 data is the average of 1989 to 2018 inclusive. The Y axis has a 5 C temperature range for all months except January which required 6 C. That allows easy visual comparison of the temperature range of different months.

Readers can study annual average temperature and temperatures for individual months and draw your own conclusions. Here are some observations I have made:

1. Winter months: The range of 30-year average temperature is large for January, February, and March. Those months show warming from 1915 to 1940, cooling from 1940-1980 and warming of several degrees from about 1980 to 2000. The latest episode of warming ended about the turn of the century. There is some indication of cooling in recent 30-year records but the time is too short to be sure.

The big range in January to March will drive the annual average as most other months have a much lower range of temperature.

2. April, May, June, and August: In April, May, June, and August, 30-year averages are little different now than they were in 1915.

3. July: July is actually cooling.

4. September: September has a sharp warming period near the end of the record. (see at bottom)
5. October, November, and December: October, November, and December show no clear long-term trend. December was warmer in 1886 to 1915 than the most recent 30-year average.

With this data and a few observations, I leave my readers to draw their own conclusions about what this all mean in terms of our ability to grow crops in a time of Climate Change.

Bad news and good news
Whenever I share this data with Climate Crisis folks they dismiss it as only one record and say it should be based on the whole Earth. But no one will say what thermometers they average to come up with the global temperature.
The bad news is that our current Environment Canada records make it very difficult to do similar analysis for many other sites.
The good news is I have recently learned how to access the huge U.S. long-term weather records to prepare graphs to compare with the Swift Current data.
Fargo, North Dakota also has data back to 1886. The parallels between the Swift Current and Fargo data are remarkable. We have data for Dodge City, Kansas, right back to the days of Wyatt Earp (1875). Readers long enough in the tooth will remember the Wyatt Earp black-and-white TV programs of the 1960s-70s. Young folk can Google Wyatt Earp, Dodge City to get the story.
In coming issues, I’ll report on many other sites in the Great Plains of the U.S.

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer, and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

This article below
from The Western Producer has some interesting charts of temperature changes in the Saskatoon Saskatchewan area: 

Data from Sask. tells compelling climate story:

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Bluegrass Music - The Beginning

The roots of bluegrass music began with the Irish, Scots and English who settled in the hills and mountains of North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia from the 17th through 19th centuries. They brought with them their basic styles of music and wrote songs about day-to-day life in the new land. Since most of these people lived in remote areas, the songs reflected life on the farm or in the hills.  This music was referred to as country music or mountain music.  The invention of the phonograph and the onset of radio in the early 1900s brought this music out of the mountains and into the homes of people all over the United States.

The first country singers to achieve national recognition were Jimmy Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, from Mississippi, and The Carter Family, the First Family of Country Music, from the Clinch Mountain area of Southwest Virginia, who began recording in 1927. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars and were among the first groups to record commercially produced country music. Their recordings of songs such as "Wabash Cannonball", "Can the Circle Be Unbroken", "Wildwood Flower", "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" made these songs country standards. A.P. collected hundreds of songs from Appalachia saving them for future generations of country, bluegrass and folk singers.

The original Carter Family consisted of A.P. Carter singing harmony and background, his wife Sara on rhythm guitar or autoharp and A.P.’s sister-in-law Maybelle (Sara’s cousin) on lead guitar. Maybelle played in the distinctive Carter Scratch (melody on the low strings, rhythm on the high strings) which influenced generations of guitar pickers. They disbanded in 1944. Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters Anita, June, and Helen as "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters". They began using the name "the Carter Family" after the death of A.P. Carter in 1960 for their act during the 1960s and 1970s.

Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music, from Rosine, Kentucky, is credited with inventing the high energy, fast tempo, hard-edged style of country music known as bluegrass. The genre takes its name from Monroe's band, The Blue Grass Boys. From the 1940s, Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys defined the sound and style of classic bluegrass--a five-piece acoustic string band consisting of fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and bass, playing precisely and rapidly, switching solos improvised around the melody and singing in a high-pitched, gospel-tinged voice, often with two to four-part harmonies. Monroe described it as Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's traditional (African-American) blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."

Bill Monroe grew up playing and singing at home in a musical family. Because his older brothers Birch and Charlie already played the fiddle and guitar, Bill Monroe was resigned to playing the mandolin. His parents died when he was still a boy so he lived with his fiddle playing uncle, Pen Vandiver. In 1939 Bill formed the Bluegrass Boys named after his home state and auditioned for a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry. In 1945, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined the Bluegrass Boys and the sound we know today as Bluegrass came into its own. Monroe was at his peak in the early 1950s and came into his own again with the revival of folk music in the 1960s, establishing the Bean Blossom Indiana Bluegrass Festival, celebrating 54 years in 2020. It was during the 60s that the music became generally known as “Bluegrass Music” after Bill Monroe’s band.

Monroe's significance as an artist cannot be underrated: he created and continued a distinct vocal tradition known as his "high, lonesome sound" that blended Appalachian ballad and church traditions and became standard bluegrass vocal style; he developed innovative techniques on the mandolin, establishing it as a virtuoso string band instrument; and by eschewing electrification he created a space for an acoustic string band tradition to continue to grow and develop within the field of country music. Throughout his career, Monroe composed a diverse repertoire of sacred and secular songs and virtuoso instrumental tunes which have become standard fare amongst bluegrass, country, and pop musicians. He continued to tour and perform through the 1990s until his death after a stroke in 1996.

The Stanley Brothers, Carter (1925–1966) and Ralph (1927–2016) were born in Dickenson County Virginia. Ralph Stanley learned to play the banjo, clawhammer style, from his mother: “I tried to play it like she did. But I think I developed my own style of the banjo”. Ralph on banjo and Carter on guitar performed as The Stanley Brothers with their band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, from 1946 to 1966, drawing heavily on the musical traditions of the area, which included the unique singing style of the Primitive Baptist Universalist church and the sweet down-home family harmonies of the Carter Family. Carter was the lead vocalist while Ralph’s high tenor and mandolin and lead guitar player Darrel “Pee Wee” Lambert’s high baritone provided the harmony. Ralph kept the band name when he continued as a solo act after Carter's death in 1966, until his death in 2016.

Lester Flatt, born in Tennessee, and Earl Scruggs, born in North Carolina, met when they joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1945. They left Bill Monroe in 1948 and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys, with Lester Flatt singing lead, still viewed as one of the premier bluegrass bands of all time. Flatt's thumb-and-index finger rhythm guitar style and Scruggs three-finger banjo-picking style gave them their distinctive sound. In the early 50’s they dropped the mandolin and added the Dobro guitar, departing significantly from Bill Monroe’s sound.

Flatt and Scruggs had a daily early morning radio show over WSM-Nashville and in 1955 they became members of the Grand Ole Opry. During the late fifties and early sixties, their syndicated television shows were seen by millions of viewers in the American Southeast. The Ballad of Jed Clampett reached Number 1 on the Country Charts. Music and business differences brought the act to an end early in 1969. Following the breakup, Lester Flatt founded the Nashville Grass and Scruggs led the Earl Scruggs Revue. Both continued in the music industry until their deaths. Flatt died in 1979, at the age of 64. Scruggs died in 2012 at the age of 88.

Lost Highway, Episode I, linked below, is a 50-minute documentary that takes you from the beginnings of country music in the Appalachian Mountains to bluegrass music from Bill Monroe to O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Material for the blog post has been borrowed, lifted, edited, and compiled from Wikipedia and the following websites:

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Bluegrass Gospel Sunday

Gospel music is one of the foundations of Bluegrass. Here are a few selections for your enjoyment, traditional and modern. I didn't know Alison Krause was ever that young.